Click here to read 10 Things Never to Do in a Marriage, Part 1
6. Don't Use Silence As A Weapon
Silence is a deadly weapon. It's far better for a couple to engage in a non-violent, verbal fight where at least they can express what's bothering them than to resort to an icy silence where all they can do is imagine how many different ways they're angry with one other.
Silence is a form of emotional banishment. We punish our partners by cutting them off and refusing to acknowledge their existence. An angry silence communicates the message that my partner is the guilty party and if she wishes any further contact with me, then she will have to apologize and ask for my forgiveness. It is a powerful form of control and manipulation and has no place in a marriage.
Therefore, in order to resolve conflicts effectively, you need to learn how to express resentments in a way that can be heard, acknowledged and resolved. That skill is of utmost importance in a marriage; without it, small problems become major catastrophes.
So, how do you learn to say all those things that are so hard to say? And, how do you say them to a partner who may be reactive? There are no simple answers and like with the previous injunction of "Don't Say Yes, When You Mean No," you may need to seek professional help to learn how to resolve your marital difficulties. However, before you make that decision try the following exercise to help you to express your anger.
- Write a list of your resentments in the following way: "I resent you for x."
- Write a letter to your partner about what's bothering you. Try to start from a positive, loving place. Be careful not to blame or accuse. If you are aware of what your part is in creating problems, tell him. Your partner will be much more open to looking at his part if he feels you're doing the same. Here is a small sample of a potential letter:
I feel a real need to talk about us. I love you and want our marriage to work. What I'm about to tell you might hurt you. It's not my intention. What I want to do is for us to be close. But there are things I want to get off my chest. Please think about what I'm writing and try hard not to react with anger.
This is hard for me but here goes. I am upset with you for...
We all know that anger is a powerful emotion that can destroy a relationship. Thus, learning how to master your negative feelings is an essential skill for creating a wonderful relationship. The first step to controlling your anger, rather than having your anger control you, is to recognize your resentments and to express them before they reach a toxic level. When you give yourself permission to let go of these three obstacles to good communication, you will have made a giant leap toward creating a loving marriage.
7. Don't Act Out
Acting out is indirectly expressing feelings and emotions through behavior. For example, a teenage girl might act out by failing in school or using drugs or alcohol as a way of expressing her anger towards her parents. She's afraid to express her true feelings so she resorts to attention-getting behaviors that alarm and infuriate her parents. Acting out behavior, as provocative as it can be, is really an unconscious and awkward attempt at establishing a relationship.
There is no end to the ways that we have of saying, "I'm really angry at you."
In marriage, couples act out by making messes, by withdrawing, by being emotionally and physically abusive, by becoming depressed, by being irresponsible with money and even by attempting suicide. There is no end to the ways that we have of saying, "I'm really angry at you."
One of the most common forms of acting out behavior is by being passive aggressive. Some typical examples of passive aggressive behavior are promising to do something and then failing to do it, leaving your clothes strewn around the room, being irresponsible with money, playing helpless and being uninterested in marital relations.
So, what is the solution for acting out behavior? The answer, not surprisingly, is direct communication -- learning how to say to your partner what's really on your mind. Acting out behavior masks the real problem and instead focuses the couple on the behavior itself.
To practice your skill at direct communication, try the following exercise:
- Find a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be disturbed for 30 minutes.
- Close your eyes and breathe easily and effortlessly. Stay focused on your breathing. In a relaxed manner, observe your breath as you inhale and exhale.
- After a few minutes ask yourself the following question: "What is it that I do that bothers my partner?" For example, it might be the mess you leave; the way you spend money, or your lateness. Be honest with yourself.
- After you've become aware of these behaviors, write them down. Ask yourself if you wish to continue to use these methods to express your feelings. If the answer is "No," then ask yourself, "What purpose do these behaviors serve and what would be a more effective way of communicating the feelings that these behaviors are expressing?
- Be aware that this process might uncover some deep hurts and resentments. Remember that dealing with the truth is ultimately the only way to heal your relationship. Be careful not to dump all of your negative feelings on your partner at once.
8. Don't Discount
A discount is a remark designed to reduce your partner's self worth. Some examples of discounting statements are: "You're so lazy." "You're irresponsible and untrustworthy." "You're a terrible father and an awful husband." It's amazing how creative we can be when it comes to identifying our partner's blemishes. Most likely, each one of us can compile a detailed list of our partners' bad habits, unacceptable character traits and generally difficult behaviors. In the midst of an argument, the temptation to use this information can be overwhelmingly powerful.
Try to resist. If not, you can be sure your partner will react in one of two ways: he or she will either respond in kind or deny. Neither reaction solves problems or creates intimacy.
Instead of making angry statements that begin with "You," try making "I" statements. Examples of "I" statements are: "I feel angry when..." "I resent it when you do such and such a thing..." Not "You are such an idiot! "You are such a slob!" "You always leave messes!" "You're just like your mother. Both of you are disorganized incompetents." Her behavior won't change because of that piece of feedback.
However, it might, if you were to say, "You know, Greg, it bothers me when the house is not clean. I know you're busy and I know it's hard for you but I would appreciate it if you could clean it up." Now, I'm not promising that he won't be defensive, but I do believe he'll be less reactive than if you were to criticize him for his sloppy behavior.
- Make a list of all the angry "you" statements that you can think of.
- Change the "you" statements into "I" statements by writing "I feel x (your feeling) when you do y (your partner's behavior).
- Practice making "I" statements with your partner.
9. Don't Threaten
The creative and destructive potentials of a marital relationship are enormous. Even the most loving relationship can degenerate into a vicious struggle between bitter enemies. In this dangerous marital game, nothing is sweeter than getting even and the only thing that counts is winning. Verbal and physical threats and abuse become the weapons of marital discord.
Under no circumstances whatsoever will I at any time make a verbal or physical threat toward my spouse.
The only advice you can give to a couple that is engaged in such a struggle is: Seek professional help or, in the case of physical abuse, find immediate protection. Fortunately, most of us are not contestants in such a fierce and destructive battle. More than that, I'm assuming that each of you wants to learn how to create a peaceful and loving relationship. If so, let me be bold enough to offer a stern warning. Never threaten your partner or act in any way that frightens, intimidates or abuses her.
No matter how angry you are, make the following pledge to yourself: Under no circumstances whatsoever will I at any time make a verbal or physical threat toward my spouse. If it's not clear to you what a threat is, let me define it as any statement, gesture or act that is designed to create physical or emotional pain in your partner. A partner who threatens is a partner who feels deeply hurt and wounded by his spouse. The only way she knows to relieve her suffering is by making her spouse feel as miserable as she. If getting even seems more important than being heard, then you're one small step from a dangerous crisis.
If I were to ask most couples in an abusive relationship if they really want to hurt each other, they would invariably respond with the following answers: "No, I just get so frustrated when she doesn't hear me that I just lose it." Or, "I hate what's happening to us, but I've tried so hard to get him to understand me and he just refuses to listen. So, now all I want to do is hurt him." Out of pain and frustration, some couples resort to emotional and physical violence, believing it to be the only way they can protect themselves.
If you find yourself filled with anger toward your spouse, then do the following rage reduction exercise. However, before proceeding I want to offer a word of caution. It may be necessary for you and your partner to receive professional help in order to learn how to manage your deep resentments. Additionally, in the case of physical abuse, the only solution is to seek immediate help and shelter.
- Go into a room where you won't be disturbed and with either your hands or with a tennis racket beat a pillow until you feel your rage dissipating. It might be helpful to yell or scream as you're beating the pillow. I would only recommend you do that if no one will hear you.
- Next, list all the ways you resent your partner. Start each sentence with "I resent you for..."
- Write a letter to your partner and tell him or her what's bothering you. Try not to blame but write about your hurt and loneliness and about what's missing in the relationship.
10. Don't Triangulate
In some ways a couple in conflict instinctively behaves like two nations preparing for war. In each case, the warring parties create alliances in order to strengthen their respective positions. Where they differ is that a couple in conflict sometimes develops those alliances unconsciously.
In a relationship, the partner that feels the most discomfort eventually withdraws from the other and finds a third person who functions as a supportive ally. In the lingo of marital psychology, this is called triangulation. For example, a wife who is feeling lonely and cut off from her husband might increase her involvement with one or more of the children as a way of decreasing her unhappiness. A child who is especially sensitive to the suffering of one of the parents might decide to become that parent's "caregiver". A child in that role usually feels torn apart and on some level resentful about having to parent the parent.
As long as there are triangles, it's impossible for a couple to deal directly with the source of their problem.
Sometimes a teenager who is acting out will unconsciously stabilize the relationship between the parents. It is as if the teen has super radar that picks up on the parents' marital distress and responds by drawing each of them away from their marital problems toward his drug abuse or her school failure. There is no end to the creative ways children can act out in order to divert their parents from dealing with the uncomfortable truth about their marriage.
As long as there are triangles, it's impossible for a couple to deal directly with the source of their problem. It is an obstacle to intimacy and real marital love. However, it's difficult for the partner and the third person to withdraw from their involvement with one another.
The cure for triangulation is trust and intimacy. The question is: How does a couple whose relationship is marked by conflict, rejection and mistrust turn it around? If there's no trust, how do you develop a trusting relationship? I am going to propose the following steps to help you move in that direction:
- Identify with whom you are triangulated and make an effort to reduce the level of emotional involvement with that individual.
- Be straight about what's missing in your marriage. Write down what you would like to change in your relationship. For example, if you hardly spend any time with one another, you might write, "I would like to spend one evening a week alone with you."
- Write a letter to your partner and tell him or her what's bothering you about the relationship. Avoid blaming and write about how you would like to improve the marriage.
- After a few days, approach your partner and try to talk about what you've written. If the response is positive, then begin the work on improving your relationship. You may need professional help to succeed. If your partner is willing, look for a competent marital therapist.
There is a consistent, underlying assumption that forms the basis for the Ten Things: there are specific principles and skills in marriage and that everyone is capable of learning them. A beautiful marriage is within the reach of most couples who choose to make their relationship a priority and who are willing to commit themselves to a lifelong training program on how to create love and happiness in their lives.