By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Disagreements are a part of every long-term relationship. So, they are not what ruin a marriage. Rather, it’s how couples disagree that can lead to its demise. And, unfortunately, some couples are living examples of this. They view each other as adversaries when conflicts arise. As if they were playing an important game, they each look for ways to win points for their side and artfully dodge points scored against them. The problem with this approach is that winning the game means losing the relationship – or, at least, the emotional closeness that it can provide.
If this describes your marriage, you have an extremely important decision to make. You can choose to stay in “the game,” or you can choose to nurture a mutually supportive and loving relationship. Couples who are at actively at odds (in big and small ways) tend to get caught in an emotional spiral – their negative emotions become increasingly intense and destructive. This can happen quickly in explosive arguments or be drawn out over time in a pattern of subtle, hostile interchanges. To alter the trajectory of your relationship, you must change your rules of engagement.
Some ways to turn your spouse from an adversary into a true partner are:
Prioritize your relationship: Everyday life can wear us all down, leaving us with just enough energy to deal with our own struggles and issues. We can become self-centered in our thinking and fail to care enough about our partner. To counter this, remind yourself regularly that your spouse and your marriage are a priority in your life, and make decisions accordingly.
Frequently remind yourself what you love about your partner: Let yourself really feel your love for your spouse, and make note of all the things they do that you appreciate. You might even want to share these observations with them!
During disagreements, try to genuinely understand your spouse’s position: Doing this involves intellectually understanding their position and having empathy for their emotional experience. It can be difficult to put your own experience temporarily aside to “get” your partner, but it will likely pay off in more productive conversations.
When your anger flares, take a break: Science tells us that the thinking part of your brain turns off when the emotional part of it explodes with activity. So, it is often best to walk away when your anger gets the better of you. Take time to cool off and then return to the discussion when you are calmer.
When you mess up, take responsibility: It is usually best to take responsibility for your mistakes or your part of the problem. That frees your partner from having to prove this to you and opens them up to being able to express appreciation and forgiveness.
Forgive: Just as you want to be forgiven for your mistakes, find it in your heart to understand and forgive your partner when they express true regret.
Though these suggestions are simple, they are far from easy to do. However, they can be highly effective in nurturing a happy marriage. Of course, there are times when the differences between spouses are too great for such simple advice. In these situations, couples will need to work harder at reaching out to each other. They might even need some couple therapy to help them get back on track. If this is the case for you, again, you have a choice. You can let your relationship slip away (or explode), or you can acknowledge the problem and make a conscious decision together to save your marriage.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.