You may already be the perfect spouse. You exude empathy and love and role model all the best practices for growing a marriage that will last a lifetime. For you, it’s simple. You just happen to possess the very qualities that draw others to you and inspire them to evolve toward their highest potential.
For me, on the other hand, it was on-the-job training that felt like a roller coaster ride. Amidst the excitement of new beginnings came increasing chasms in communication and understanding. Where was the person we married, and who was this unreasonable roommate and co-parent? Anger, hurt and frustration prevailed. And then, it was suddenly easier. What changed?
One simple thing. On one singular day. When our eldest child was about three years old. By that time, my inner voice regularly worked on overdrive. As litigators, we were both skilled at connecting facts to form a narrative about our own innocence and our spouse’s guilt. Case closed. I sat on the bathroom floor that day, feeling helpless and stuck, when I heard a voice ask: “If he’s so bad, are you going to get a divorce?”. As a new mother, and the child of a bad divorce, the answer was NO. Again, the voice (my inner voice is sarcastic): “Well then, maybe you should rethink your strategy?”. Suddenly, it hit me. For the first time I deeply understood the cliché́: The only person I could change was me.
No matter how compelling my narrative, how obvious his flaws, there would be no reckoning. My decision was not about staying or leaving. It was about acceptance. It was about choosing to do the hard work of reconstructing my mindset about myself, my husband and my marriage. So that’s what I did. And it’s what you can do, on one condition. You have to go ALL IN. If you think divorce is an option, you won’t do everything necessary to make your marriage work—because it might mean you have to change. And that might be really hard. But if you are ALL IN, here’s how you begin to make a lasting marriage.
Step One. Recreate Your Virtual Spouse.
Remember the dreamy, idealistic version of your spouse that existed in your imagination when you decided to marry? Didn’t think so. But you can. Start by writing down every positive thing you remember thinking about your spouse—when you first met, when you were dating, when you said yes (or she said yes). Every quality that attracted (and/or attracts) you to your mate. Every special moment, look, connection between you. Maybe you can only think of a few good things today. That’s okay. It’s a start.
Step Two. Discipline Your Thoughts.
You’ve allowed your thoughts to rule the roost, and how is that working out? It’s time to exercise a bit of supervision. Notice your thoughts when you are talking to or thinking about your spouse. Are the thoughts kind? Empathetic? Are you trying to understand the other point of view? Or, instead, do your thoughts dwell on qualities you knew were there but managed to overlook during the courting phase? Be gentle with yourself. It’s hard to change our minds. Just notice whether your thoughts are moving you toward the goal in Step One. If not, then try harder. Ask yourself: why would a reasonable, kind person think or behave that way? This will move you toward empathy.
A barometer for your progress is what I call the phone test. Notice what happens when your iPhone rings, and your spouse’s name flashes on the screen. What physical sensation do you feel? What is your emotional response? If it’s dread or contempt, you are not on track. More work to do. One little trick may be assigning a shared song to your spouse’s ring tone.
Step Three. All About You.
A wise person once told me that the infinity symbol represents our relationships. For every action there is a corresponding reaction. This means we have tremendous power to change the cycle of our relationships all by ourselves—even in marriage. Starting now, no more focusing on what your spouse should change. What can YOU do strengthen the bond or reduce conflict? If you listen without defensiveness, what does your spouse need that you are refusing or passively ignoring? What if you took one small step toward your spouse?
That day, on my bathroom floor, I realized that I was refusing to take that step. I knew what my spouse wanted, but I was afraid that by giving too much, I would lose myself. By awakening to my own withholding from my spouse, I saw that I had not truly given myself to our marriage. And now that I knew, the universe was calling me to be vulnerable and courageous. I had to trust enough to go first, and to risk the possibility that he would not respond in kind. Over two decades later, here we are, still growing together.
Step Four. Emotionally Intelligent Communication.
If you follow Steps 1-3 and commit to a lifelong marriage, the rest is about Step 4. By humbling yourself, you’ve allowed space for the marriage itself to grow. As the marriage deepens, you and your spouse can evolve both individually and together, enriching your marriage as well.
More to come next time on EQ Communication. You’ve got plenty to keep you busy until then!
This blog was originally posted on Calabresebudner.com