The Best Resource for Making Your Marriage Sweet
“What resources can you recommend that will help us with our marriage?” As a marriage counselor, I hear this question a lot, especially from couples I see for the first time. Like so many married partners, these couples quite understandably want to know what they can do to make their marriage better. Of course, a number of books, articles, blogs, and podcasts come to the top of my mind in response, but when couples ask about resources to improve their relationship, my first answer is always the same: you. You are the best resource available for making your marriage sweet.
Even the Best Resources Can’t Help with Reactive Relationship Conflict
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not poo-pooing the fantastic blogs, books, podcasts, and other resources out there. They’re really good; in fact, I’ll list a few of my favorites at the end of this post. They rock at helping couples do the work they need to do to make their good marriage great. When couples can use these resources to help them foster curiosity about each other and themselves, create safe emotional space to risk vulnerability, and attune to each other’s feelings, the relationship wins.
Not all couples who need or want such resources are healthy enough to use such resources effectively, though. They desire these resources as a way out of vicious cycles of conflict, which happens when partners “miss” each other: They can’t attune to each other’s feelings and needs because each partner’s feelings trigger painful, dreaded feelings in the other.
These cycles of misattunement can look very different, but in my experience, most of the time couples who seek out resources to improve their relationship are angrily blaming and dismissing each other. Even if they could use the advice from their favorite marriage podcast, they’d do it for two seconds before going back to fighting.
Remember that show Everybody Loves Raymond? The above clip from the show humorously illustrates an imaginary argument between Raymond and his daughter during which Raymond tries (and hilariously fails) to use active listening, a key relationship skill. His daughter doesn’t want to go to her grandma’s house and Raymond is trying to talk her into going. As she continues to refuse, he becomes mildly reactive . . . and the dialogue does not go well.
The point here is that even though Raymond is taking a class on active listening and cognitively knows what he should do, his emotional reactivity prevents him from doing so. The amygdala, a part of the limbic system brain that processes emotion, especially negative feelings, takes over and overrides other cognitive functions. That’s why people say things “without thinking” when they’re really angry, for example.
The Way Out of Conflict: Empathically Attuning to Your Partner
The way out of these cycles, then, isn’t a technique from a book on its own. It’s using these techniques to help you learn how to really tune into your partner’s emotions, even if it’s painful to you. The video below, which I’ve shared before, demonstrates how deeply each of us need emotional attunement, this sort of “being with-ness,” in our closest relationships.
Only you can be the attuned, empathic listener that your partner needs. Don’t try to fix. Don’t dismiss. Don’t blame. Don’t disengage or withdraw. It may be painful for you at first as you grapple with your own reactivity, but it only takes one partner to change the dance in a marriage. Don’t hesitate to reach out for helpful relationship resources, but remember that you are the best resource you have to make your relationship as sweet as your wedding cake.
So how do you be attuned to your partner? This is worth several posts, but let’s draw from a previous post that is especially written for those who argue with their partners a lot:
1. Stop arguing in any way possible. Take a time out if you need to. That is, recognize what you, not your partner, do when you fight and do something else.
2. Accept that your perspective is just that—a perspective. Your partner has a different one, and that’s a good thing. Note: This is the toughest step.
3. Show up emotionally. What I mean is that this won’t work if your mind is elsewhere or if you’re not authentically engaged with your partner. Note: This is also tough.
4. Communicate nonverbally that you’re really interested in what your partner has to say. Pay attention to your eye contact, facial expressions, and body language.
5. While your partner is speaking, offer occasional the “mmhm” and “yeah” to track with them verbally.
6. When they’re done speaking, simply tell them what you heard them say in a way that feels natural to you. It’s important not to do any of this robotically. “Oh okay, so you’re saying that really concerned about our finances? If we were to buy this now, you’re worried that we’d have to dip into our savings later and that scares you?”
Some of My Favorite Relationship Resources: