So, you don’t know where to start. All of the things that have felt wrong in your marriage now feels overwhelming. The fighting has got worse and worse over time. You do not talk anymore because you just want to avoid the next fight. And eventually, you end up only interacting when you fight. How would you even start to change things in your marriage? As a marriage counselor in Thornton, Colorado who has been practicing for over 7 years, I have found that there are usually two things that have to change in order to make positive impact on your relationship: Behavior and Instinct.
Changing Your Behavior
There is not really a good way around it. If you want your relationship to change, there are just some behaviors that do not work in a healthy relationship – and you’re probably doing at least a few of them. Basketball is the only sport that I ever played consistently growing up, and I have a soft spot for it because my Grandpa and I bonded over it. And I had awful form when I started. My elbow on my shooting hand would fly out to the side when I would take shots. My Grandpa taught me to keep my elbow in a straight line with my body and the basket. Behavior changes are all about repetition, just like changing how you shoot.
I talk a lot with my couples about increasing the amount of time that they spend together. This means that intentional time needs to be set aside for you and your partner to spend time together. This is time dedicated to your relationship needs to be for the purpose of being together separate from the logistical aspects of having a life together, i.e. kids, household stuff, etc.
You will also want to change how you behave during conflict. Research shows that there is a “Magic Relationship Ratio” for successful conflict. The ratio is 5 positive interactions for each negative interaction. You want to decrease the amount of times that you criticize your partner and increase the ways you voice appreciation. You want to minimize raised voices, cursing, or any physically aggressive gestures.
Changing Your Instincts
I recently played basketball for the first time in years. And I noticed that my elbow was flying out to the right just like it used to. That is because I quit playing regularly when I quit growing taller around age 15. I had not changed my instincts, so I reverted back to my old ways – the ones that were just natural for me.
Research shows that there are a lot of things necessary for a healthy relationship that are just not natural for most people. For example, becoming more responsive to your emotions and also your partner’s emotions. Now, at the beginning oof your relationship with your partner this was something that was natural for you. You dated, found yourselves to be “compatible” and decided that you two naturally got along in all the important ways – at least most of the time. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have married each other. But over time, you and your partner have changed. At least I hope you did. You’ve both grown older, wiser, and developed new skills -just like I did in basketball. But your instincts are still the same. And those instincts don’t match the requirements of a newer, more advanced relationship.
Changing your instinct is the part of change that is difficult to do without a marriage counselors’ help. It is hard because it requires a lot of self-reflection and slowing down. I also want to mention here that you are trying to respond to emotions, not react to them. And this takes practice, not instinct. A marriage counselor is necessary here because they have an objective view of you and your spouse and can see from the outside how you are both behaving that needs to change – just like my grandpa was able to show me what I was doing with my elbow. Often, they’re able to show you parts of yourself that you don’t see and don’t know how it’s affecting the relationship.
Changing your instinct is also difficult because not all instinctual emotions are equally useful. Most couples do not have trouble communicating anger or frustration. Communicating the vulnerable emotion behind the protective, defensive emotions is the hard part. You will need to share these more vulnerable emotions without blame – again, another skill that is not natural for most people. Explore how emotions impact you and your partner before picking up whatever issue you were fighting over to start with.
If you are looking to make these changes in your relationship, give me a call at The Marriage & Family Clinic.