All relationships are different. But I can tell you one thing for certain about yours: Both you and your husband have messed up at one time or another. And both of you will again.
That doesn’t mean your marriage is bad. It just means that you are two human beings in a relationship. The important thing is what happens after you’ve messed up.
Choose the Right Tools
You might remember that we’ve talked before about the work of the Gottman Institute. From his studies of married couples, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that separate the Masters of Marriage (couples who have been married for a long time and still like each other) and the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce).
Gottman discovered that one of the most important qualities of a strong couple is the ability to address and recover from conflicts, hurts and mistakes. Gottman calls this process repair. And a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
A meaningful apology is one of the most valuable tools in your relationship repair kit. But it’s not the only one. Other examples of repair attempts include:
- Asking to start a conversation over if it seems like the two of you aren’t hearing each other.
- Suggesting taking a break so you can both get to a calmer place.
- Being physically affectionate or reassuring.
- Using humor or trying to lighten things up.
The best repair attempt to use with your partner — or for him to use with you — depends on your individual needs. Maybe, for example, physical affection instantly starts repairing a conflict for you, but it feels too emotionally intense for him until you both get a calmer place. The Gottman Institute has a repair checklist that I recommend talking about together before the next time the two of you need to practice relationship repair. The list will help each of you understand which repair attempts the other responds to.
Maintenance Is Important Too
Making effective repair attempts is only part of the equation, though. The real measure of how well you can navigate trouble spots in your relationship is how receptive you are to connecting with each other on a regular basis. Gottman has found that the Masters are responsive to their partner’s attempts to communicate or connect about 86% of the time, while the Disasters group only responds about 33% of the time! If the door to connecting is closed most of the time, it’s even harder to open when you are having trouble.
It is critical to pay attention to the overall emotional climate of the marriage. I’ve written before about why regular maintenance is essential for your marriage, and this is one more reason. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, it makes sense that you’ll be more open to repairing your relationship when things go awry.
To sum it all up, here’s a quick “maintenance and repair guide” for your marriage.
- Establish a strong foundation by having positive interactions with each other daily.
- Understand the repair attempts that you and your husband respond to.
- Be generous in making repair attempts when you hit a trouble spot.
- And be generous in accepting your husband’s repair attempts.
In my next blog article, we’ll continue to build your skills in healing both small and large rifts in your marriage. I’ll go into more depth on making, and accepting, apologies. In the meantime, you can get more strategies for building a marriage that can withstand conflicts in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
You and your husband may have discussed (or argued about) how you divvy up household chores and responsibilities. But have you ever talked about how the two of you divide the emotional labor that’s necessary to keep your relationship and your family functioning?
The term “emotional labor” has gotten a lot of buzz in the past few years, but it’s not new. Academics have been looking at the concept for decades. Inequity in who performs emotional labor is an issue in the workplace, in social situations and at home. But, since this is a blog about marriage, today I’m going to focus on emotional labor as it affects our domestic relationships.
Defining Emotional Labor
So what does emotional labor encompass? Writer Suzannah Weiss defines it this way:
Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources.
Of course, we all perform emotional labor in our relationships. The reason it’s such a hot-button topic, though, is that emotional labor at home disproportionately falls on women.
Emotional labor looks different in different households. But here are a few examples that might feel familiar to you:
- Your husband may be happy to go to parent-teacher conferences and other school events with you. But you’re the one who is primarily responsible for nurturing and meeting the emotional needs of your kids on a daily basis. You talk to them about conflicts with friends. It falls on you to make sure their birthday celebrations special. When you can, you volunteer at school so you will be seen as a good mother.
- Somehow it’s fallen on you to remember and send birthday/sympathy/graduation cards and gifts — even for his side of the family.
- You habitually monitor and manage your husband’s emotions, doing what you can to keep the peace.
- When you have guests, you’re anticipating their needs so they have a good visit. He simply enjoys himself.
- While your husband does chip in at home, you’re the one who’s constantly thinking ahead: We need to go ahead and book our vacation to get the best rates … If we want to host dinner on Saturday, we have to pick up groceries and clean up before then … If we want to sell the house next summer, we should start fixing it up now … Your mom is having trouble getting around. Let’s find someone to help her with chores.
Again, no one is saying that you shouldn’t perform tasks like these — or even enjoy performing them. The problem is that if you’re doing all of this type of work in your marriage, you’re going to end up depleted. That isn’t good for your health or the health of your relationship. When you’re exhausted and stressed, you’re likely to become resentful with your husband. And he may have no idea why.
Sharing the Emotional Load
Every couple could benefit from thinking and talking more about emotional labor. Try these ideas and insights to get started:
- First, realize that the emotional labor you do really is work. If you’re feeling tired and frazzled, it could be the constant emotional pressure you feel as you try to tend to everyone’s needs. Don’t wait until you explode. Ask for what you need from your partner.
- You may undervalue emotional labor because you’ve always prioritized other people’s emotional needs before your own. It’s important to acknowledge that constantly trying to keep others happy can be burdensome. It’s okay to put your needs first at times.
- Just because you’re better at emotional labor than your husband, doesn’t mean it should always fall on you. As writer Rose Hackman points out in The Guardian, we’d never accept this line of reasoning when it comes to, say, cleaning.
- If your husband isn’t taking on the emotional labor in your relationship, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad or incompetent person. Family therapist, speaker and author Terry Real reminds us of a disappointing truth: Almost universally, men don’t grow up learning how to be intimate partners. But that doesn’t mean they can’t become more skilled at emotional labor. Your marriage will certainly be stronger if you and your husband can learn how to share the job of nurturing and tending to the emotional needs of your loved ones and each other.
If this article has resonated with you, you and your husband may want to read my book Strong Women, Strong Love together. It’s a practical guide to maintaining a strong marriage amid our busy lives.
Here’s a common dynamic I see in marriages: The husband is in the habit of telling fibs – about whether he completed a task his wife asked him to, about what time he’ll be home, stuff like that. He doesn’t see this as a big deal in his marriage.
The wife feels differently. She believes that any kind of lie undermines trust in the relationship.
So what’s going on here? And how can you address this pattern before it becomes a real sticking point in your marriage?
(First, though, my usual disclaimer: This article is not about major betrayals in marriage, like hiding an addiction or another romantic relationship. If you’re going through a situation like this, please seek the help of a qualified professional in your area.)
If you’ve been wondering why your husband lies about seemingly minor things, a good starting point is considering the beliefs and patterns he may have picked up from his family. As we’ve talked about before, in some households, little white lies are simply a routine way to keep the peace. The highest priority in such homes is avoiding conflict. If that’s true of your husband’s family, he may think this is just how relationships operate.
No matter what the patterns were in his family, and in yours, it’s important to talk openly about where you both are coming from. If you were shaped by a family that communicated more directly, even if it created conflict, you may be just as baffling to him as he is to you! When you understand each other’s backgrounds more, both of you will also better understand that you aren’t trying to be malicious to each other when your communication styles differ. And you can more calmly and compassionately work together on a style that fits both of your needs.
Your husband may also be in the habit of little lies because he’s learned that telling the truth gets him “in trouble” or upsets you. If you’re extremely critical when he tells you truth, he may decide that a little white lie is a preferable alternative to feeling shamed. The same may be true if he’s seen that speaking his truth usually provokes a strong emotional reaction from you.
Little lies don’t have to be a deal-breaker, but neither are they something you should tolerate if they leave you feeling hurt and betrayed. You can’t control your husband’s behavior, but you can work to create a space where both of you feel safe telling the truth. Talk about the difficult things, even if that leads to some short-term conflict. When these discussions are handled with respect and compassion, greater openness should naturally follow.
We all bring positive and negative qualities to our marriages. But sometimes it might seem easier to make a list of your husband’s faults and mistakes instead of all the good things about him.
So what’s going on here? The answer has to do with a bias in your brain that you’ll have to work around in order to keep your marriage thriving.
Our Brains Like to ‘Go Negative’
Your brain isn’t exactly an unbiased observer and recorder of your husband’s behavior — or, for that matter, of anything else. Instead, it has a negativity bias, according to psychologist and author Rick Hanson. Hanson says our brains are Velcro for negative things and Teflon for positive ones. We tend to overestimate threats and underestimate resources and opportunities.
There’s a good reason we’re wired this way. Being able to learn quickly from threats helped us survive as a species. But now that most of us aren’t fighting for our lives everyday, our brains’ negativity bias can cause problems. In your marriage, it can make you vividly remember the times your husband messed up or did something hurtful, even if the general pattern of your marriage is more positive.
How to Fight Your Brain Bias
So how can you maintain positive feelings in your marriage, even though your brain is conspiring against you?
- First, simply being aware of the negativity bias can help you bring a new attitude to your relationship. Now that you know your brain is better at noticing negative things, make an extra effort to savor all the positives in your marriage. “Talk back” to your negativity bias. One idea: Set a reminder for yourself to note the best moment in your relationship each day.
- Take time to regularly reflect on all the things your husband brings to your life that you’re grateful for. If you’re having trouble thinking of any right now, look back on all the reasons you first fell in love with him. Chances are those good qualities are still there.
- Make a collection of items that inspire positive feelings about your marriage — wedding photos, love notes, souvenirs of happy times. Use these to help remind you why you’re still with him.
- Beyond noticing the positives that are already present in your marriage, you can also create some new positives. For example, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, try some new, fun activities together.
- Understand “relationship math.” One positive interaction doesn’t cancel out a negative interaction. That’s according to researcher John Gottman, who studies the differences between the Masters of Marriage (long-married couples who still like each other) vs. the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce). The Masters of Marriage have 20 positive interactions for every negative one. Twenty! Even when they’re in conflict, their ratio is still five positives for every negative. What about the Disasters group? Their typical ratio is 0.8 positives for every negative.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I hope that you’ll try some of these ideas to cultivate gratitude and positivity in your relationship. My book Strong Women, Strong Love has additional strategies that you can explore.
Your husband is great. Really. Well, except for a few little things.
But, now that you think about it, these “little” things are actually weighing on you. They might be habits like these:
- He seems oblivious to housework, and you’re tired and stressed from trying to take care of it all.
- He overspends, and while you’re not headed for bankruptcy, it’s slowing your progress toward the financial goals you both agreed upon.
- He habitually runs late, which frustrates you and embarrasses you when you’re going somewhere together.
We can describe these kinds of issues in a marriage as tolerations. They’re somewhere between the minor quirks or annoyances you can easily shrug off and major problems like infidelity or addiction. Because they’re not deal-breakers, sometimes we hesitate to discuss them. Airing your concerns might seem like making a big deal out of a relatively minor issue. In the rest of this article, I’ll explain why the opposite is true, and I’ll tell you the most effective way to approach your tolerations.
Why Do We Tolerate?
First, though, let’s look some of the other reasons we often avoid talking about our tolerations. Which of the following are true for you?
- You’re a perfectionist. You think should be able to push through or put up with anything. But all of us have physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual limits.
- You have low self-worth. And you think you must make constant sacrifices to keep your relationship.
- You’re conflict-averse. You fear conflict, or you think that it doesn’t happen in “good” marriages. Many people cope with difficult, or even merely uncomfortable, situations by avoiding them.
- You’re tired of trying. In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson describes a common pattern in marriage. You criticize and demand connection; he gets defensive and withdraws. Eventually, you give up and withdraw, too, leaving both of you distant and resentful.
The Cost of Toleration
If you’re tolerating in the name of being a “good wife,” know that this mindset isn’t actually helping your marriage. A toleration is like a stone in your shoe. It will annoy you, adding to your stress and depleting your energy – energy that could be going toward making your relationship more alive and authentic.
You may also think that you’re helping your marriage by not making mountains out of molehills. But that’s not what happens. Instead, unaddressed tolerations can spiral into major issues. The scope of the problem might grow. For example, the overspending might worsen so that you’re now missing house payments. Or the feelings you’ve held in might explode, and you end up having the very thing you tried to avoid: a hurtful, relationship-damaging confrontation.
Stop Tolerating and Start Communicating
It’s a lot healthier to address small tolerations before they become big problems. But I know this can feel like a big, scary step if you’re not used to communicating openly and directly. Here are few things to remember that will help make things easier.
- Conflict is normal. All couples have points of disagreement or annoyance. Despite what it might seem like from your social media feeds, no one has a perfect relationship or is in synch with her partner 100 percent of the time.
- Conflict is healthy. The amount of conflict in a marriage isn’t an indicator of how healthy it is. It’s all in how the couple handles that conflict. Respectfully working together on addressing tolerations is a way to make your bond stronger.
- Directness is loving. Believe it or not, many men are unclear on how to please their wives. Your own husband almost certainly wants you to be happy, but he can’t read your mind. You’re helping him by telling him what’s important to you.
- Timing is key. It’s kinder and more effective to bring up your tolerations when you aren’t irritated, tired or stressed. This is one reason why it’s best to have these discussions before your emotions get unmanageable.
- Openness doesn’t have to be hurtful. Are you hesitant to talk about your tolerations because you don’t want to hurt your husband’s feelings? Remember to focus on the behavior rather than the person. There’s a big difference between “I’m feeling stressed because you regularly exceed the personal shopping budgets we agreed on for ourselves” and “I can’t believe you went shopping again! You’re so irresponsible!”
This week, think about what you’re ready to stop tolerating and how you can work together with your husband to address what’s bothering you. My book Strong Women, Strong Love can give you some additional strategies on communication and healthy conflict.