OK, show of hands.
How many of you worry that your marriage may be a bit on a downward slide?
It’s not like it’s on a deathbed. But you fight a little too much. You share tender intimacies a lot less. Everything, and I mean everything, is brisk and business-like.
You lay awake at night wondering what happened. How did you get to this point?
And how on earth do you get back?
We found ourselves in that exact spot a couple of years back. I desperately wanted to change things but had no clue where to start. So I just let things be — sliding slowly down into the dreaded unknown that I didn’t want to face.
Until one day, a family medical emergency jerked me out of it. It was the kind that shakes you up and shifts the way you look at life. A lot of things in my life changed after that incident. Our marriage was one of the big ones.
Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way. I hope it will nudge some of you to stop fighting and start loving again.
#1 Stop trying to fix your marriage 🙂
I know that sounds a little contradictory, but here’s the thing — when most people try to “fix” their marriage, they are actually trying to fix their husband/wife. I was no different.
I’ll spare you the suspense – it doesn’t work.
In any marriage, any relationship for that matter, after a while, you fall into patterns. Some patterns are nice – they help you move closer to each other. Other patterns are nasty – they grate on your nerves, drive you up a wall and are the reason for most of the fights.
Chances are, you can see these patterns clearly. The problem however is, you don’t usually see your own role in it, but can clearly see the role your partner plays. It’s like dancing with someone – you can see every move they make and every one of their missed steps. But when it comes to your own moves, you can only sense them – never really see them the way others see them.
You can’t change a pattern by trying to change the other person’s role in it. If you want to really stop fighting, then look for one of the most common patterns and try to figure out your role in it and find a way to break it.
#2 Reframe it as a quest for personal growth
One of the worst patterns we were stuck in was the tit-for-tat trap.
If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you. If you don’t do something I expect, I won’t do something you expect.
And on and on…
The problem with this is, thanks to a million different cognitive biases, we would each appraise what we were bringing to the relationship far more than what the other person brought.
I didn’t realize that my initial change effort also sadly fell in this category!
I would try to change something in myself and then expect a magical reciprocal change in my husband. And when I didn’t see an immediate change, I’d get more annoyed/irritated.
What made the shift for me was reframing the challenge.
Instead of looking for results of my actions, I started to challenge myself to see how long I can go without playing my role in the tit-for-tat. Or what I could do that was radically different (kinder, gentler, nicer) that would upset the tit-for-tat pattern.
Now it didn’t matter how my husband reacted, or if he even noticed — I just kept pushing myself to keep at it. Ever so slowly, things started to look a little different and when I least expected it, my husband started to change his role in the pattern.
Sounds like a fine little feel-good story, but I won’t be doing any justice to this if I make you think this was in any way easy, rosy or pain-free. It wasn’t. As a matter of fact –
#3 Expect to feel extremely uncertain and vulnerable
Here is a picture I put together to capture the different phases I think are part of the journey back to a harmonious relationship.
Phase 2, where you have decided that you will change yourself and “do what it takes to turn this around” is a really, really tough phase.
Basically, what you are trying to do here is tearing down all the little props your ego set in place to feel mighty, powerful and invincible.
So far, you’ve mostly approached the relationship from some variant of the perspective — “I’m right, you’re wrong and that’s why we are in this mess.”
At this point you are trying to say, “You’re not perfect, but neither am I. I am sorry for my role in perpetrating this mess. I will stop my role in this and own up my imperfectness and will learn to be OK with yours. I do hope you’ll choose to do the same. Take your time, I’ll wait for as long as I have to. Let’s just be who we are and make a good life with where we’re at”.
It’s a very simple statement, but a very difficult one. You have no idea where it will land you. Will you make a fool of yourself? What if your feelings are not reciprocated? What if it is too late? How long would you have to wait? There are more questions and uncertainty than answers. The only way to get through this phase is to —
#4 Embrace your vulnerability and turn it from weakness to strength
I don’t think there’s a better way to do this than to watch this TED talk by Brene Brown, a research expert on the topic of vulnerability. And then go back and watch it over and over again, every single time you are ready to throw up your hands and retrace your steps back.
The key is to hang in there and believe deep within that you’ll get through — together. There was something in the two of you that brought you together… it is still there. It is just buried in layers upon layers of the ego’s little games. You need to peel through these layers and find that basic connection again.
And the person that comes out the other side will be far more stronger. You don’t need your ego to define your self-worth. You are who you are. When you own your imperfection, and are enough just the way you are, you don’t need to play games and hide behind masks. The world and all your relationships, are so much more beautiful!
Atleast, that’s the way it worked out for us.
If you’ve read this far, chances are you are a tad bit worried about your relationship and want to go back to the good old days when you could just be with each other and know everything would be OK. If you really want to, you can get back there. It’s a tad bit challenging, but you’re not someone to shy from a challenge, are you?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Alright, time to take stock. Answer these questions honestly –
- Do you find yourself worrying that your marriage may be on the downhill slope?
- Do you seriously think it is one person’s fault?
- What are some of the common patterns that lead to the fights (all out shelling or the cold war)?
- What is your role in that pattern?
- How can you break the pattern by reframing your role as a personal growth challenge?
These are some very personal questions. If you feel comfortable with your vulnerability, I invite you to share your answers. If you don’t feel like you’re there yet, then leave your comments anonymous. Worst case, write your answers on a piece paper and then after you’ve read it over, crumple it up and throw it away. The key is to write the answers… so you can get the thoughts out of your head and make them real. And you can start turning things around.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Make this week your challenge week. Can you for just one week do what it takes to stop fighting and start loving again?