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wedding-ringsMy wife and I have been marriage mentors for over 25 years meddling, prodding, and encouraging couples as best as we could – all the while, being amateurs – trying to understand ourselves and our own marriage.

Talk about life-long learning!  Talk about stubbornness! Talk about grace!

There’s no doubt that over all this time we have been learning right along with couples – sometimes we were just a step ahead, sometimes just behind.  Along the way, we were convinced that couples need encouragement – just like we do.

Sometimes the encouragement is simply to be honest about how incredibly much work it takes to attain “normal” good communication.  Often before people get married, there is an ease to talking about everything and anything.  Without couples knowing, there are topics avoided in order to keep a kind of “cold peace” in the relationship.

Eventually though, couples run into these topics – or it might be more accurate to say “reality chased them down and overcame them.” Couples who have been practicing assertive and active listening (without being as annoying as I can be when I exercise the text book application) often have some skills to stick-handle the puck topic as if they are on the same team.

The truth is: we can know all the skills in the world, but if we are just plain selfish, or have different motives than our spouse, we sabotage our own ability to resolve conflict. Sometimes we don’t even know what’s going on inside of us; sometimes we don’t know our motives or what we’re after, until we’ve run into the threat of being exposed.

Then, when our spouse exposes the dark underbelly of our motives, we tend to get very defensive.  So far, this is all “normal.”  But when couples get tired of that, they want a new normal.

What can Couples Do?

Become a student of yourself, your spouse and your marriage.

Get to know what makes you tick, what motivates you, what reasoning you use to think and act and feel the way you do.  Do the same for your spouse.  Get curious; get your PhD in your relationship. How does your marriage work?  How do the two of you get it right?  When is that, and why is that?

Give yourself permission to get it wrong – with the additional permission to let you & your relationship recover.

Often we need time to recognize what’s going on in our relationship, what’s happening to us, and to the person we claim we love.  We need time to admit to ourselves when we’ve been the author of our own misfortune.  We need time to forgive ourselves, and to be forgiven.  We need time to compose ourselves so we don’t make a bad thing worse.  This permission begins with you – even if your spouse doesn’t give it to you, or gives it grudgingly because he/she is wounded.

Practice giving each other permission to walk away, to not try to fix something right now.  Remind your spouse that you need some space – especially if you feel like you are being rejected, blamed, or the object of retaliation.

Promise to come back to the issue.  Permission for a time-out is not permission to never face hard conversations.  Chances are, your avoidance has gotten you into this space in the first place.  Because it takes courage to have hard conversations, it takes encouragement from both of you to have them.

Resist the temptation to make things worse by mirroring/retaliating with the same “bad behaviour” that triggered a conflict.

Ask yourself: “what do I really want from my spouse and my relationship when a conflict has started?”  Here are a few things you might want:

  • I want my spouse to calm down
  • I want my spouse to respect me
  • I want peace in our relationship
  • I want my spouse to see things my way
  • I want to be heard and understood
  • I want my spouse to see me the way I see me
  • I want the ability to see things the way my spouse sees it, so at least I can understand him/her, and not bite on every hook thrown at me
  • I want the ability to peacefully/calmly talk through whatever we’re talking about

You will eventually get what you want (and really desire) if you could initiate a few very costly things:

  • Patient listening: you will not be able to bite on any sarcastic hooks if you can keep your mouth shut – to a point – as you will see with the next point.
  • Active listening: letting your spouse know you are actually listening despite the “way” things are being said (often, after we’ve calmed down, we regret the “way” we’ve said something when in the heat of debate). While you are actively listening, you are not actually trying to formulate a counter-argument, or a zinger.  You are “paying attention.”
  • Try to act on any simple request without grudgingly serving your spouse (in other words – you are not actually “losing” – when you help your spouse “win.”)

I say this is costly – because it means you put the first down payment on the relationship into which eventually you will both pay equally.

This is the dirty little secret of successful marriages: it doesn’t just cost you a lot…it costs you everything.

Marriage isn’t just a 50-50 proposition. It’s all the way in, or else you feel strangely cheated of experiencing the 100% to which you feel entitled.  It is odd to think we can give some and get it all.  And couples do want it all: our lives, our careers, our interest, and our spouse as a decorative addition to what we thought would keep me in the centre of my own galaxy.

Sorry: no short cuts; no lotto wins. The real deal is costly – AND worth it.

You might say, “I’m afraid I will be taken advantage of if I feel like I’m giving 100% (or any % more than my spouse) – and my spouse is giving less; I’m afraid my spouse will take advantage of me.”

That might be true… in the beginning.  But over time relationships tend to go toward “homeostasis” – where each person roughly gives into the relationship equally. Think to yourself: “how do I like the level I am giving and receiving?”

If you are unhappy with the amount you are giving and receiving – the solution is NOT to give less… it is to give more!

It has not been soft, romantic love that has brought my wife and I through 31+ years of our fiery marriage – it has been the sacrificial, keep on learning, keep on picking ourselves up, taking I Corinthians 13 off the page and translating that into our lives – kind of love.  I would not want to give any illusions that we are exemplary, but we remain students of ourselves, each other, and our marriage.

Now go and put in that first down payment!

 

(Thanks to Naomi Aberra for editing)

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