We feel comfortable with people who are like us, but we fall in love based on our differences. There's something about someone we love that fills us up in a way we can’t fill ourselves. We breathlessly tell our closest friends that we found that special someone who clicks with us. They're vivacious to our gentle. They're brave to our reticent. They're rock solid to our unpredictability. They're great with numbers, and we're great with words. We are a perfect team.
Then time passes...Those differences are no longer cute or beautiful. Some of them are annoying.
This is partly why we grow cynical when we see newly engaged couples in the “love bubble.” We may try to share our wisdom (because we know that time--the great revealer of truth--will prove us right). Of course, our Yoda like wisdom goes over their heads. Why should they listen? They will be the exception! Don’t worry.
Let's end the cynicism about marriage as a battleground over differences with an Adam and Eve story:
A very verbal Eve is upset that Adam doesn’t share his feelings for her.
One day she says, “Adam, I tell you all the time how much I love you. Tell me: do you love me?”
Adam replies, “Who else?”
Can’t stand some of your spouse’s traits? Are the differences destroying your marriage or maybe just your daily sanity?
The antidote is learning a three stage attitude shift and unlearning at least one harmful mindset keeping you cemented in place right now.
If you find yourself “yeah, but...”ing our first three attitude shifts, please patiently read and get to the Mindset section. Then reread this whole post as often as you need to. This is hard work that can take many sessions in a counselors office to internalize.
We believe in you and want to give you the best chance at making improvements now, whether or not you ever go to a professional.
THE FIRST STAGE
Stop trying to change your spouse.
But they need to improve, you are saying to us right now! This is intolerable behavior. Rest assured we are not talking about accepting what we call the “hard problems” in marriage: abuse, addictions, and affairs. We’re talking about the “soft problems” that research shows drive more marriages into the ground than the hard problems. And we’re making a distinction between personality traits (which are often not changeable) and specific behaviors (which often are).
If the idea of "giving up" trying to change your spouse feels hard...
(after all, who doesn't want the “perfect” partner?), think about it from your partner's point of view with this little exercise.
The stubborn truth is that not a single person in the history of humanity has ever changed a deeply rooted part of themselves unless they felt inspired to do so.
If you’re unhappy and your spouse isn’t going to change, why not just trade this one in for another spouse? Someone you are compatible with?
An inescapable, brutal truth moment here: we are all difficult spouses in our own special way. Even if our spouse doesn't share, we are difficult. You can dump this spouse and find another who is difficult in a different way. You can do this over and over again if you wish but it's just an unavoidable reality of being partnered.
Stay with us and we'll set you free of a big myth when you finish this article by sharing a little known secret of long term married couples.
Giving up trying to change your mate will help shift your marriage. And don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you be a doormat; there are plenty of ways to push back on what bothers you without trying to remold your spouse’s character.
THE SECOND STAGE
Accept your spouse exactly as they are.
Seems impossible? Keep reading.
Another truism for you: you are almost assuredly creating more negative energy than the behavior that annoys you by harping, correcting, nagging, complaining, or whatever word you'd prefer to use.
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Here's how to come to that realization: Try imagining your beloved is no longer with you. Really get into this thought.
Now imagine how much you wish you could see those dirty socks on the floor one more time and all you can replay is the complaining and how that negative energy feels so tiny compared to the loss you feel... or how your timeliness to get to the movies feels empty because they aren't with you.Widows (of all ages) often say those most naggable moments are the most painful reminders of energy wasted and love not appreciated. Perspective often comes after it's too late. Why let that be you?
Remind yourself that nothing you’ve tried has worked before, at least not for long.
You can stop the hose of negativity because you stop expecting a miracle.
But you can't just stop there. You've probably heard some of this advice before and are shaking your head, saying yeah, that sounds great, but he's LATE picking up our kid from daycare and this gets us in trouble with the center and worries our kid. It's intolerable behavior!
Remembering to pick the kids up after day care is a specific behavior that someone can be accountable for. But being distractible (and thus at risk to forget) can be a hard-wired personality that may not be changeable. So you can accept that your spouse is distractible and work out a mutually agreed plan to make sure he doesn’t forget to pick up your kid—but without useless and toxic questions about why he doesn’t care enough to remember.
Okay, after you’ve worked on not putting your spouse in a personality-transformation-machine by way of nagging, criticism, and negativity, and after you start to accept that you are creating an enormous pile of negativity that you don't need - do this...
THE THIRD STAGE
Appreciate the differences and sometimes even celebrate them.
We're back to memories of the newlywed days AND this brings us to where the research on long term marital satisfaction lies:
Stop trying to reform your spouse and find grace within differences. Old, long term married couples are usually happier because they intentionally give up trying to reform their spouse.
Doesn't that sound more peaceful than 40 more years of fighting? If you're still snorting at this advice, let's parse out what may be going on for you. Yes, we're therapists and can be obnoxious this way!You may be coming from one of the following mindsets that lead to negativity. A good marriage counselor will also sniff out what's going on for you or your spouse. We'll give the top possibilities but it may be something different holding you back that is worth exploring more deeply with a professional.
The Taking It Personally Mindset
When your spouse doesn’t live up to your standards, he or she must be doing it to annoy you or to get back at you.
- Your spouse (once again!) leaves the dirty dishes uncleaned.
- You decide he did this on purpose to annoy you.
- You snip at him.
- He snips back at you, not liking your tone or how you're treating him like he's your child. There may be a number of reasons he didn’t do the dishes, but chances are that deliberately annoying you was not among them.
- Your tone has invited a war: you are defending the promised agreement and he is defending his dignity.
- His reaction – resentment and debating you - just proves he did it on purpose because how dare he defend not doing what he promised to do!
- You can't hear your tone or the deeper emotional dance going on, because you have justified your behavior as rational and necessary to get him to stop ignoring the dirty dishes.
- And off to the races you go!
If dirty dishes or inattentiveness feel personal to you, your life will be harder than it needs to be and you will feel justified in being negative. The alternative is to see these things as two people trying to live together with their differences. Annoyed, frustrated sometimes - sure. But truly, it doesn’t have to be personal, and you can set yourself free quickly with this realization!
Example of how to do this instead:
“Honey, I thought you were going to do the dishes. Did something come up?” This allows for the full story of your child acting out, drama that lasted two hours, and he just sat down to catch a break when you got home and is intending on doing them soon. Can you see how if this were the case, he wouldn't do well with your tone of disapproval that he's on the couch when you had no idea what the backstory was?
The "Isn't It Obvious?" Mindset
This is probably one of the biggest mindsets marriage counselors deal with in their offices.
The problem is you are the only person who knows the rules and they seem almost unspeakably obvious to you. We all have this around at least one area of life and we often don't know we have such “this is so obvious” feelings until someone doesn't act the way we expect.You may have described to your spouse at great length what is rational and natural about how to run a household. Your spouse may not have disagreed but also may not actually have bought into these standards, which, after all, are yours. Or they may have said “sure” because they have no way to disagree with you and feel that you can hear them.Our spouses may be quiet because they don't have another standard to suggest, or at least not one you won't instantly shut down. Sometimes there is no defense for not doing the dishes promptly other than they would rather spend their evening relaxing and take care of it in the morning. You disagree, they are conflict avoiders, so they stick to their evening fatigue and sometimes try to wait, and see if you'll notice or not...while wishing you could just let it go.
As marriage counselors who have spent endless hours living inside the private lives of marriages, we can tell you, for sure:
There is no such thing as The Standard for anything.
Aside from things that are legally reportable, standards are individual beliefs. The best way to keep arguing the rest of your life away is to try to convince your mate that your way is The Standard that only an idiot would disagree with. It keeps us profitable as marriage counselors... but the reality is as soon as you see is your standard is really about your emotional reaction and need to not feel anxious about the thing you find so obviously proper.
What couples learn to do in marriage counseling, and hopefully by reading this, is to negotiate. This may mean you release your spouse to doing the best they can and you agree to give up nagging.
Or you both agree it's easier if they never do that task again, and you agree to never use tit for tat as a weapon for a new fight, as in “I totally nailed Task 1 (to 'My Standards'). The least you can do is a halfway job with Task 2!”
Trust us, your spouse, if reading this, is probably asking how we got into his or her head knowing this is their exact fear! There is an IT term for it: scope creep. One thing leads to another, to another and all the sudden your wife agrees to always do the dishes and now your misplaced shoes become a bigger war because she took over your chore and now can feel extra entitled to the shoes being “in their correct place.” Sounds familiar?
Of course none of us hears ourselves talking this way, which is why this stuff is so hard.
The "I Really Understand Our Situation" Mindset
A little secret shared. As marriage counselors, whenever we hear a spouse say that, all our red flags go up immediately.
No one is an expert on his or her marriage. Not even marriage counselors inside their own marriage. Not even if they're both marriage counselors, as was once the case for Elizabeth and Mike.
In fact, thinking you have figured out the sources of the problems in your marriage is sure fire proof that you haven’t. Not only don’t we understand our spouse as well as we sometimes think, we don’t know ourselves that well either.
A marriage is only as strong as your ability to repeat what your spouse feels and thinks in a way your spouse can completely agree with. And your spouse can do the same thing for your thoughts and feelings about the marriage. And neither of you get defensive because you see you're stuck but see your partner “gets you.” This is very hard to do!
What happens in normal marriages is when we feel strongly about a problem, we try to figure it out. We come up with all sorts of impressions, assumptions and theories to backtrack into why the problem exists.
When we think we’ve nailed it, we lose touch with our blind spots. Falsely believing we have truth, we start ignoring our spouse's narrow or incomplete point of view.If you are too confident in your understanding, your spouse may have given up sharing another perspective because you stopped listening.
Here is their paradoxical dilemma: they can't even tell you they've given up because you'd just get mad, likely feeling even less heard or appreciated!
It's a double bind that happens in many marriages and there's a good chance you're in at least one of those binds right now. For your spouse, silence may feel like the least bad option. Your lack of curiosity of what's going on for them, or your ability to hold their view with honest, open curiosity, becomes a problem greater than “the problem” that you think you've figured out!
Of course you may be dead-right about one part of the picture (your spouse tries to get out of things in the hope you will do them) but you are likely missing another part of the picture, an area of your life together where you don’t measure up and try to slink out of things (or perhaps dig in stubbornly instead). Sometimes it takes a counselor to help us see our part of the negativity.
There we have it.
A three step process to getting through differences and a look at the top mindset shifts you'll need to make to endure and embrace the 3 steps.
Where to go next? Reread this a few times if you need to. We packed what can be months of therapy in this single article.
You'll make positive strides in your marriage if you can even hear 10% of what we're sharing.
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