What would I ever do without you?
As we all know, not all marriages last the test of time. Based on the National Health and Statistics Report from 2006-2010, about 50% of first marriages fail. The odds are even higher for subsequent marriages. So, the reality is you may have to face divorce sometime in your life. I help people try to do what it takes to have a good solid marriage, but that isn’t always possible. So, when it isn’t, I change gears. I also help people navigate through the process of divorce.
Do you ever find yourself thinking, “What would I ever do without you?” about your spouse? I hear this often in my office when a couple is really struggling or one spouse has already decided the marriage is over. Each time I often want to say, well let’s think about that… WHAT WOULD YOU ACTUALLY DO? Let’s play it out, so…. You get divorced, and then what? And then what? And then what? So often people don’t want to think about the reality of it, they just end with the unknown and that causes people such a state of depression, anxiety and fear. I often help individuals figure out how they can make their life joyful with or without the relationship they are in.
It is really important to not base our sense of self or our sense of happiness on something we don’t have total control over. We never know when a spouse could cheat and leave, or die or the relationship ends for whatever reason. We don’t have control over that. All we have control over is how we manage ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviors. I have seen so many people who are surviving a horrible marriage that doesn’t meet hardly any of their needs and hasn’t for years, cry about potentially losing it. They have no idea what they will do without this person or without this ‘life’. I help people try to tease out what will they actually miss? What are they holding on to? What are they fighting for? Who are they in this marriage that they fear they won’t be without it?
If your marriage has ended already, you are afraid it will end in the near future, or you are in the middle of frantically trying to save it from collapse, you may want to think about what you will actually do if and when it is over.
Instead of just asking yourself the question, "What would I ever do without you?” You may want to start answering the question, just in case. I am not suggesting that you plan for your divorce, because 50% of the time, marriages do last. What I am suggesting, is that you think about making yourself a whole person while you are in it. What do I mean by a whole person? I mean that you have same gender friendships, you have hobbies, you take part in enjoyable activities with and without your spouse. You fill your life with things you enjoy. One of them hopefully is spending time with spouse! But I am suggesting having things in addition to that. So, if you ever find yourself in a lawyer’s office, you will not be asking yourself the question, “What will I ever do without them?” You will be able to answer the question and know that you can still have a joy filled life.
Once in a while, I find a person in a marriage that is willing to compromise on everything. They are willing to compromise on too much. Sometimes people need to have things that they aren’t willing to compromise on, things that make them who they are and/or things that were really important to them before meeting their spouse. Some examples may include: family of origin, friends, hobbies, morals, religion or faith, or maybe time by yourself. When you are willing to compromise on just about everything, you begin to lose who you are and that tends to cause resentment toward your spouse. That is just as unhealthy as not being willing to compromise at all. Marriage is a give and take and many times we might not get all of what we want or need. But we should get enough that makes us feel good and whole.
We need to compromise on about 90% of marital issues. On the 90% we need to ask ourselves, “What is best for this marriage?” and then make the better decision. However, we need to know the components of our life that we aren’t willing to compromise on. These are the ones that you would be willing to fight for if someone tried to take these away from you… your 10%.
If you are unsure what your 10% is, ask yourself these questions below to try to figure them out.
Insert a Filter
There are many different ways to make the choice to do what is best for your marriage. If you are upset about something, another aspect of marriage is to ask yourself, “Do I need to talk about this? Does this issue need to be discussed at all?” I have counseled many couples who feel that they must discuss each and every issue or it will lead to bigger issues. They also feel many times that they were put into their spouses life to make them a better person, so that means to point out the flaws of their spouses personality or quirks that are annoying because they are trying to help them. This isn’t usually very helpful. I try to help them by having them sit with negative emotions for a while. I call this Emotional Maturity. The ability to sit and keep your mouth closed when it comes to feeling annoyed, frustrated or angry at times. This is very hard for some people to do. They feel that they aren’t being honest or they can’t just keep quiet, something annoyed them again! I help them see that by sitting with emotion until they can begin to think about what it is they are really upset about, is really important in marriage. If we just emotionally react each and every time something annoys us in marriage, there would be more divorces than there already are! My rule of thumb is this: If something annoys you and you sit with it for a good 4 hours and you are still thinking about it after that time frame, then it is a bigger deeper issue that needs to be discussed. By 4 hours, if you feel a little better about it or have forgotten about it, then it is an issue that needs to be left in the past and moved on from. This 4 hour time frame allows you to filter through annoyances vs. deeper issues, it allows your emotions to simmer down and allows your brain to process what it is that you are really upset about.
A personal example from a few years ago:
I felt that my 4 year old son was over tired and needed a nap. I told him that he was going to need to lie down. Of course, he didn’t want to take a nap. My husband was mowing the grass and hadn’t witnessed any of his ‘overtired’ behavior. My son went outside to tell Daddy that mean Mommy was making him take a nap. My husband’s response was something like “You don’t need to, I will come inside and we can watch TV together for some quiet time” I was furious! I left my son and husband standing in the garage and went into my bedroom and closed and locked the door. I was fuming mad. I was the one who had been dealing with his tantrums for the last 2 hours. All I wanted my husband to say was this, “Mommy thinks you need a nap, so you are going to have to lie down.” That is not what happened. I felt dismissed as a mother and not supported by my spouse. I sat in my bedroom, took out a journal that I hadn’t written in for years and began writing. I wrote all the nasty things that I would like to say to my husband. I spewed my anger onto the page. I knew that if I talked to my husband we were going to have a very bad argument because I knew that I couldn’t control my emotions. That was not going to be best for my marriage! I waited and waited and wrote and wrote. My husband at one point knocked on the door and I told him as nicely as I could, I was not ready to speak to him about this yet. I wasn’t really ready until about 3 hours later. Over the hours, my writing changed from anger into what I was ‘really’ upset about and what I needed from my husband. I wrote it out in the softened startup way (Gottman approach). I feel ____________ when (this happens) ___________________ and I need _____________ from you. Finally I was ready to talk to my husband once I simmered down, engaged my brain and could communicate in a way that was going to be helpful for my marriage and more importantly, that my husband was going to be able to hear me. I needed him to really hear me. Not just hear my anger. He was obviously very surprised on how upset this made me. He listened to me and tried to understand how that made me feel and what I needed from him in the future. I resisted the urge to do the example thing… “how would you like it if I did that you”… scenario… remember that doesn’t work! He did listen to me and understood how angry and discounted I felt. We came up with a plan of discussing these scenarios with each other away from the children first and then agreeing to what was going to happen. I felt both our needs were being honored with this plan.
Research showed that how a partner brings up an issue is critically important. The softened startup approach is what the research says works. We can’t just emotionally react and say whatever we feel. We need to filter ourselves and process the situation and really THINK about it. Don’t just react. When my clients struggle with this concept, I try to help them think about it this way… what if their boss did something that was unfair and upsetting at work and they were going to talk to them about it. Would they just go into their office, slam the door and tell them all the nasty things they think about them and call them names and tell her/him what a horrible boss they are? Most of the time the answer is no. They would vent to a friend or coworker to calm down and think about what they are going to say. They would ask themselves, “Does this need to be said at all or am I just angry and I need to get over it?” If it does need to be said, when is a good time to talk to them, what tone of voice should be used, what words should I use, what am I really wanting and should I have a solution to the problem that I am presenting. We would THINK about it, not just react. This is the same concept that needs to happen in marriages. We can be ‘fired’ from our marriages too! All couples fight and argue, how we do it is the key. This filter can help let the little things go and discuss the big issues that need to be dealt with.
The Golden Rule Doesn’t Work in Marriage
We have always been taught the golden rule since we could understand words and concepts. For those of you who aren’t quite sure what I am talking about it is this: Treat others the way you would want them to treat you. This is a great value to have growing up because it teaches us empathy. It helps us try to put ourselves into someone else’s ‘shoes’ and we should try to imagine what the other person may be feeling in any given situation. I teach my own children this as well. It helps them see how others may feel in many different scenarios. The world could use more empathy. However, this doesn’t seem to work in marriages. I have heard and seen so many times a spouse trying to get their partner to understand how they feel by giving examples, such as: “For example, this may help you get how I feel… say you were trying to tell me about your day and I just looked at the TV and didn’t pay close attention, wouldn’t that make you angry?” The other person’s response is usually something like “but I don’t that and when you are telling me something I can also have the TV on and still listen to you.” This is not what the person wanted to hear. They want their spouse to say back something like, “It makes total sense to me why you would be angry with me, I would hate if you did that to me, so I won’t do that to you anymore.” Ahhhh… the angels sing and life and love go back to being perfect…. Oh, wait, that isn’t how marriage goes!
So, when we don’t get the most amazing, understanding and empathetic response we want, what do we do? We have to do something different in the first place. The fact is we can’t expect the other person to WANT or NEED to be treated the way WE DO. Time and time again, I have witnessed couples try so hard to help their spouse ‘get it’ by explaining to them the golden rule. Time and time again, they are disappointed and feel more frustrated than they did in the beginning. When I see this frustration cycle starting to build, I try to stop the partner that is giving the golden rule examples and help the spouse that isn’t “getting it” to just hear the person’s feelings. Don’t try to do the Golden Rule example scenario. Your spouse may not want to be treated the same way you do.
We have to learn about how our spouse needs to be treated and then treat them like that. Not try to treat them how WE would like to be treated.
For example: I saw a couple in their early thirties that had been married for 5 years. She wanted him to clean up his area of the den because as she described it was a ‘disaster’. She asked him nicely and gave hints, told him she would help him, tried to buy him a new desk that had more drawers and shelves to hold all of his things. None of her efforts worked. She was so frustrated and so was he. He had his own complaints of her as well. When he had a complaint about something she was doing, he would just say, “Hey, you need to clean up the kitchen it’s a mess.” She would be hurt and said he was insensitive to her and rude. We finally realized that she was treating him how she wanted to be treated and he was treating her like he wanted to be treated. We all had an Aha! Moment. They both needed to start treating each other the way the other person wanted/needed to be treated and spoken to. They realized this to. She needed to be a little more blunt and to the point with him and he needed to say things so that she wasn’t offended. They started treating each other the way the other person needed to be treated and their marriage and communication was much smoother.
What your spouse needs may be different than what you need. That is OK, it doesn’t make it wrong or bad, it is just different. The sooner you can figure this out and begin treating your spouse in that way, the better things will be. You need to become an expert on your spouse. No one else should know them better than you. You have to use this knowledge of your spouse to the relationship’s advantage not detriment. It is much easier for the couple in my example to just keep doing what they were doing, no one has to change then. Sometimes couples think, ‘over time they will get used to it, or this is just how I am- I’m blunt. Or my all-time favorite that I will get to later in another article is: “They are just being too sensitive!’ What usually happens over time is that both partners get so frustrated, offended, and emotionally distant that a negative perspective starts to spin in the marriage. This can cause either frequent arguing about minor infractions or one or both partner’s quit saying things that upset them and this leads them farther away emotionally from their spouse.
So, to avoid all the unnecessary arguing and to create more connection, we have to start treating our spouse the way they need to be treated. The same goes for how we show our love for each other. Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages. He describes in the book that people used to come up to him once they found out he was a Marriage and Family Therapist and ask him, “What happens to love after you get married?” Relationships seem to be going well in the beginning, but a couple years into it, things sometimes start to go downhill, why is that? He describes in the book how on our wedding way we feel ‘filled up’ with love. The person has been meeting our love language, treating us the way we want to be treated and filling us up with love. The Five Love Languages that are described in the book are Physical Touch, Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts and Quality Time. These are the different ways we show people we love them. Quite often, we try to speak our language of love to the other person. They don’t speak the same language, so they aren’t able to understand and be ‘filled-up’ by the way we are trying to love them. As you can see, all the languages are good and positive, but we feel loved at different levels by each one of them.
When we don’t know what our spouses love language is, we start speaking our language to them. For example: If one spouses love language is Words of Affirmation, they will be the one that writes little notes to their spouse and put them in their lunch or suitcase before a trip. They are trying to give their spouse a hint… pssst… I would like you to do that for me. We are not that smart. We don’t get these hints. The spouse that gets the note might think, ‘that was nice, but man I sure wish she/he would have helped me with the laundry last night’… (their love language might be Acts of Service). When we know what our spouses love language is, then we need to go out of our way and by choice choose to meet their need in the way they will feel loved.
To find out what your love language is, go to 5lovelanguages.com or you can buy the book and a questionnaire is in the back of the book. Once you know what you and your spouse’s love languages’ are, you can then try to start loving each other the way each other need to be loved. Making this one improvement can change the culture of your marriage very quickly.
One of the findings of John Gottman’s research was that 69% of all marital problems are perpetual and only 31% are actually solvable. The perpetual problems will keep coming up over and over and over again throughout the course of the marriage. So, when choosing a mate, you should know that every relationship comes with 69% of perpetual problems. The challenge in finding your ‘perfect’ mate, is finding the set of problems that you can you deal with, compromise on and accommodate for. That makes marriage seem a little less than wonderful, doesn’t it? But it is the truth. Marriage can and should still bring you much more joy and benefit than trouble. But problems are a part of every marriage.
John Gottman discovered in the study of long-term happy marriages that when people stay married for a long time, they learn to become mellower about one another’s faults. They become more accepting of one another, and they communicate this acceptance. A big part of marital gridlock is that both people feel criticized and unaccepted by their partner, not more accepted for who they are. (Gottman 2000-2008). In unhappy marriages, both people may grow more angry and annoyed by their set of problems and unwilling to accommodate for them.
So what do you do with the problems that you have chosen?! You have options, you can say, “I shouldn’t have to deal with these”, or, you can say, “Well, since I know what my spouse is sensitive about I have a choice to either try to meet their needs and do what is best for this marriage or choose not to.” That is within your power. You can’t always change the problem set, but what you can change is your response to them. Using the Gottman Approach, I try to help people deal with their perpetual problems by moving from their gridlocked positions to a better understanding of why your spouse feels the way they do about a certain topic or issue. The more you can understand each other’s position and feelings, the more room may open up for a piece of the issue to be compromised on. Allowing for your spouse to influence you and your ideas is essentially important in a marriage. Stereotypically, this is harder for men to do than woman. Women do this more naturally and were raised to accept influence from outside sources. When influence is working, both spouses are able to say to each other something like, “It makes some sense to me how you are thinking about (this issue) given your experience and I better understand why this is so important to you.” At that point, the couple can then move into seeing if a piece of the issue can be compromised on. The entire issue will not be resolved remember, because it is a perpetual issue, but a sliver of the issue that may come up daily can be dealt with.