You have been married and under the same roof for 27 years. For most of that time things have been good, but the last few years have been punctuated with verbal attacks, blaming, criticizing and justifying on both sides. How do you go about rebuilding your marriage?
You now have separate bedrooms and sometimes go for days without interacting. The underlying atmosphere is so thick with resentment you could cut it with a knife.
Neither of you wants the marriage to end, but when you interact, the sparks fly. Your friends say divorce is the only answer.
What should you do to rebuild your marriage?
1. Drop the rightness.
Make a conscious choice to have a relationship rather than to be right–terminal rightness kills marriages.
2. Call a time-out.
Rate the negative emotion you are feeling at the moment on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is no emotion and ten is “over the top.” Then in a moment of calm make an agreement with your partner that either can call a time-out if their emotion rises above a three.
At first you may not have much conversation and the time-outs may last for days. However, if you stick with it, the conversations will last longer and be more frequent.
3. Say how you feel.
The subtler emotions often get shut down in conflict, so you may have to learn how to feel again. If you say, for example, “I feel lonely” or “I’m scared,” that’s a statement of fact about you. It is data. It is not criticism. All that is required of your partner is acceptance and a simple acknowledgment.
In contrast, saying “You are scaring me,” always incites. Besides, it’s not true. The truth is that you are using the other to be scared.
The bottom line is this: if you want to change the way you feel, each of you must take responsibility for your own feelings.
4. Leave the past in the past.
Whatever your parents did to you, whatever happened earlier in your marriage relationship and whatever blow-up you had yesterday are in the past. Never refer to them in a way that justifies or blames. All that matters is the present and the future you are attempting to build.
Letting the past be the past includes not thinking “I know what he’s going to say” and not using expressions like “you always.” These are expressions of your interpretation of another’s past behaviour. So again, take responsibility.
Feeling resentment is in the present, so it’s ok, but the events that led to your resentment are in the past. Leave them there.
5. Get to know your partner.
This is an extension of leaving the past in the past. Everyone grows and changes over time. If you have been in conflict for any length of time, the chances are each of you is reacting to how the other was, not is. You will be totally out of touch with who your partner is today.
Take little steps like holding hands while watching a television program together or going for a 15 minute walk. Be curious about who you are with. The periods of connection will grow and become more frequent.
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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com