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Couples often come to see me wanting to know what they can do to improve or save their marriage. Breakdowns in communication may predominate for these couples. They’ve gotten stuck in cycles of negativity and the pain of continuously not seeing eye-to-eye.
They are ready for a change. They want to add to their relationship toolbox. And a big part of expanding your toolbox is understanding what can be harmful to your relationship (so that you can attempt to avoid it).
Let’s now turn our attention to five ways you might be undermining your marriage.
5 ways you might be hurting your marriage
1) Keeping it on cruise control for the whole ride
Too many couples hold the unspoken assumption that being in love is enough to keep their marriage/relationship healthy. This assumption breeds complacency; it leads us to believe that we must not be “truly in love” or “with the right person” if some intentional effort and planning are necessary.
At different times in your relationship, different levels of work will be needed. That doesn’t mean that your relationship should be a laborious, never-ending building process; but all relationships require some work, so taking yours off of cruise control and applying conscious, deliberate effort from time-to-time can help you arrive at the desired relationship destination.
2) Resisting change
Within each of us exists opposites that seek expression. One such polarity involves the need for growth (to evolve as a person), a need that paradoxically exists alongside the need to keep things the same (the comfort of inertia). We want to grow and we want to keep aspects of our lives exactly as they are.
Couples can hit a rough patch when one spouse/partner is embracing the need for change (either individually or wanting to change as a couple) while the other is fighting to hold onto the status quo. For the individual who prefers to keep things as they are, change might feel threatening; and to the change-seeker, the status quo might feel stifling. These are potentially choppy waters that couples need to navigate with clear and ongoing communication.
3) Harmony at all costs
When couples are effectively communicating and working well together (in spite of the typical ups and downs that might be occurring), there is a sense of peace, a security that enfolds the marriage. We feel connected, less alone, understood, supported, and the like.
But sometimes harmony (more accurately, pseudo-harmony) comes at a cost to the marriage/relationship. This occurs when important issues are shoved underground because you do not want to stir up tensions. There is a backlash to staying in this type of avoidance mode — resentments can build, indirect communication and passive-aggressive behaviors can increase. Remember, harmony should be built on a foundation of openness and truth, not avoidance and denial of what you are feeling.
4) Not “seeing” each other
Feeling deeply seen and known by your spouse is a powerful experience. Couples feel anchored in this mutual knowledge. But it’s easy to lose sight of one another. As our relationship unfolds and competing priorities mount, our capacity to receive each other may be compromised. The biggest loss is when we stop noticing our spouse’s attempts to emotionally connect with us.
When our bids for connection go unmet, insecurities arise. As this occurs, our attempts to be seen and accepted intensify. Unfortunately, these attempts may intensify in ways that lead our partner to feel attacked and become defensive. Research by John Gottman, PhD and Sue Johnson, PhD show that these defensive patterns (that were initially designed to re-establish connection) can turn into entrenched negative interactions that erode the foundation of our relationships.
5) Failing to play together
Imagine the following scenario for a moment:
You have a friendship that involves varied and rich interactions. You and this friend have serious discussions, you support and challenge each other when appropriate, you share interesting news, and you laugh and play together. This “play” might involve something as simple as being silly together. At times you both go out of your way to make each other laugh, focusing on the absurdities of life (while not denying that life can be a real struggle at times).
Now imagine a relationship with another friend. The time spent with her/him involves mainly serious, there’s-a-lot-of-business-we-have-to-get-done discussions. Complaints about what isn’t working predominate; you feel constantly pulled on for support and this leaves little room for anything else; unfinished to-do-lists take center stage in this relationship.
Which friend would you rather spend time with?
Couples have to deal with serious issues—there’s no doubt about that. And the practicalities of life do need to be taken care of, often in a timely manner. But when most of our interactions lack light-heartedness, when laughter and play have become totally relegated to the past, then the relationship can make us feel emotionally heavy. The relationship itself is experienced as a source of stress under these circumstances.
We are all students of relationships. And of each other. This mindset creates ongoing opportunities for continued learning about yourself and your partner. While not always easy to achieve, this mindset can also help foster an openness that will allow your marriage to move toward the direction of growth and healing.
And as you plan to build a stronger marriage, remember to give your relationship the time and attention it deserves. Try to remain open to change (as individuals and as a couple), have the difficult conversations that need to be addressed, and don’t forget to have fun and play together.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best,
Dr. Richard Nicastro
(Top featured image courtesy of Number1411 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)