Bridget and I have been together for more than five years. We don’t have heated arguments all that often, but we are in the middle of a doozy. Mind you, it’s nothing terribly serious. Our getaways tend to go very well, but the last-minute preparations ahead of a road trip can sometimes be a little hairy.
Today, for instance, I’m taking heat for being behind schedule. It is criticism that I feel is pretty undeserved. I feel I need to get some work done before we leave, but she wants me to finish it up once we arrive at our destination.
I feel that we both have valid perspectives, but the usual travel jitters have both of us a little on edge. Before long, the recriminations are getting a little too personal. Different points of view are starting to seem like character flaws. “You are always holding us up” and “couldn’t you have done your work earlier” sound like accusations to me.
I’m starting to feel a little wounded. I feel like saying, “I had to clean up the mail you left lying around.” Instead, I decide to acknowledge some shortcomings on my end. Then, I suggest a couple of constructive ways we can avoid these kinds of problems in the future.
Later, I offer a knowing glance, leavened with a little gentle humor, and it seems like we are back on the same page again. Call them strategies (or what have you) but there are some secrets to getting out of a vicious cycle and keeping your relationship on an even keel. It takes both parties, but there are things you can do to help ensure that your marriage is more happy than not.
Marriage is a contact sport
Marriage is like a contact sport. You are going to get roughed up a bit, but it can be exhilarating, exhausting, exasperating, nail bitingly tense and amazingly glorious all at the same time.
Of course, you and your spouse are supposed to be on the same team. Nevertheless, there are going to be days when you fumble things, are both running in the opposite direction, and seem to be squaring off from opposites sides of the field.
Partners in happy marriages, however, tend to take the inevitable snafus in stride. What is the secret to a happy relationship? It may be impossibly presumptuous to suggest a recipe that will work for every couple. However, I do believe I have some hard-won wisdom that’s worth sharing. Indeed, I hope some of these lessons — which includes a countdown to my top recommendation for a happy union — will help both you and your spouse build a stronger and more satisfying marriage.
5. Don’t ever go to bed angry with your spouse
This habit of mind is very personal and I’ve applied it for years. I picked up this piece of advice leafing through a book about relationships and it’s never let me down. I try and use it every time my significant other and I are at our wits end with each other.
Let’s face it, some arguments with your spouse are going to be grueling, but they don’t have to be death matches. When disagreements get really heated, I try to remind myself of one simple idea: I want to put my arms around the person I love at the end of the day.
I want to be humble enough to listen, but I’m determined to stand up for myself too. Hashing things out is important because conflicts that are not brought out in the open tend to fester. No matter how ticked off we are with each other, I always look for small openings to convey a little empathy and understanding. This can help break the logjam and get our interpersonal dynamics spinning in a positive direction. It may seem like a simple tactic, but being determined to go to bed on a good note with your partner can really make a difference to your relationship.
4. Acknowledging your partner’s perspective
Four simple words — how are you feeling? — can help defuse tense disagreements. It’s a question that encourages you to focus on the present moment (instead of past transgressions). Also, it’s a query that acknowledges your partner’s point of view.
I find it a very helpful opening to both better understanding my loved one while validating her as a person. If you can follow it up with genuine expressions of empathy, you can go a long way to making your partner feel loved and respected.
3. Don’t escalate with ultimatums
All too often, couples try to change one another by issuing ultimatums. Okay, sometimes one partner needs to draw a line in the sand. Some behaviors are intolerable.
But in most instances, ultimatums are not the wisest of ways to be negotiating with your spouse. Instead, look for good ways to reinforce positive behaviors and try and find opportunities where you can create win-wins. For instance, “I’ll make an effort to change behavior X if you’ll work on trying to improve Y.”
2. Avoid criticizing your partner in highly personal terms
It’s one thing to say “please don’t be messy” but it’s quite another to say “you are the messiest person I have ever met.” The first way of phrasing things makes the behavior the problem, the second makes the person the issue.
Understandably, criticism that puts the blame squarely on your spouse — rather than on the habit you want them to change — can reinforce a pattern of defensiveness, which can aggravate your differences. Instead, try and find ways to reinforce your spouse’s self-esteem while calling attention to the behavior that bothers you. For example, “You make me feel so good when you keep the house tidy” is an approach that is sure to go over better.
1. Make your partner feel loved
The most important thing you can do for your partner is to make them feel loved. You can do that with a caring glance, a soft touch or a kind word.
So many marital spats arise because one partner feels they are not getting the TLC they deserve (or secretly crave). Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes. What can you do to make them feel better when they feel neglected or are boiling over with rage?
You may feel hard pressed to extend empathy and understanding when you are in the line of fire. But offering love when you feel most vulnerable can heal your spouse’s wounds. If you can both learn to reciprocate in kind, then I believe you’ll be on the path to a happier and more enduring marriage.
— Scott O’Reilly