As a couples’ therapist, I am often asked by new clients, “How do we fix our marriage?”
I can understand the need for a quick fix, but there never is one. Working on a relationship takes time.
That said, there are definitely some secrets to a successful marriage that seem to apply universally. These are 3 that I keep coming back to.
Go To Bed Angry
You’ve probably heard advice to the contrary.
According to many, one of the secrets to a successful marriage is to “never go to bed angry”, meaning all disagreements must be resolved before you retire for the night.
Taking a break during a heated argument, even if this break is overnight while sleeping, has been proven to promote calm, which in turn allows for better communication, more rational responses and more respectful exchanges.
Trying to effectively sort through a disagreement while you are tired may do more harm than good. Not to mention the pressure of having everything resolved by an external time deadline! Especially when missing the deadline means losing sleep.
There’s nothing wrong with sleeping on it and addressing the issue in the morning if it feels appropriate for you and your partner. Usually the best indicator that it’s time to hit the sheets is the third time around the circular argument on that train to nowhere.
Put The Breaks On Criticism
To criticise your partner is to attack his or her very essence.
In heated moments it may be tempting to spit a comment to your partner about their character. But this is a highly destructive habit with a strong correlation with divorce.
Try to distinguish between criticism and complaints. Where there is a need to express disapproval, keep your complaint specific to the moment in question.
An example of a complaint (specific):
“It’s not ok that you refused to attend my family Christmas. Sometimes you need to show up, even if you don’t feel like it. I thought we agreed that our families are important to one another.”
An example of a criticism (general):
“You are so antisocial. You have no consideration for me or my family. You have no respect for my wishes or this relationship.”
As you can see, example 2 is deeply cutting, and a huge generalisation.
Defensiveness is often an instinctive reaction to criticism. It’s a knee-jerk response to guard us against being hurt by accusations.
A defensive response to your partner may look like:
- Blame reversal: “You want to blame me for not turning up for Christmas? I didn’t see you anywhere nearby when it was my Dad’s birthday!”
- Denial of responsibility: “How am I supposed to go to your family Christmas when you lump all these last-minute things on me?”
- Counter-criticism: “Oh, I’m antisocial am I? And I suppose you being on Facebook all day is your idea of being a good friend to many?”
In the micro-moment, any of these reactions may seem justified, and may bring about the very short-term triumph of self-righteousness.
But are they helpful?
Instead of a defensive response, you can reduce the impact of harm on your relationship by encouraging open expression and active listening, rather than defensiveness. Even if your partner is being critical.
A non-defensive response that is truly in the best interests of your marriage is one that accepts responsibility (even if you are not “at fault”), understands your partner’s perspective, and even contains an admission of fault if appropriate.
An example of a non-defensive response:
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise how important your family Christmas was to you. You’re right – family is important and I should have made time for it. I’ll make sure I come to the next family event.”
One of the Best-Kept Secrets to a Successful Marriage – Seek Couples’ Counselling
As a professional marriage therapist, I can’t claim to be the biggest fan of the Dr Phil formula. The man turns heartache into spectacle. 60 minutes is all you need to solve a problem.
But I do agree with one thing he is fond of saying:
“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”
Being right for the sake of being right often results in criticism, defensiveness, and long nights of battles and tears.
Sometimes we have to put winning the argument aside and prioritise resolution, the health of the marriage and the happiness of our partner. Even if we are right.
But there are times when we must stand our ground too.
The trick is knowing when an issue is trivial enough to let go, and when an issue is butting heads with your values. If your values are compromised, just letting it slide may not be the best idea.
How do you navigate this difference?
One option is marriage counselling!