Couples often come into my office telling me that they’ve had a terrible week. The story usually has a similar theme: a bruising argument occurred several days earlier that left the couple feeling hurt and angry ever since. They frequently tell me they’re not sure their relationship can be salvaged.
When I inquire about the horrible event that has driven them to such a catastrophic conclusion, silence typically ensues. The couple looks at each other quizzically and one of them tentatively asks if the other can recall what brought them to the brink of breaking up. Usually they don’t remember what set off the hostilities. The only thing they’re absolutely sure of is that the other person started it.
On those occasions when one partner does recollect what triggered their descent into despair, it’s usually something like “he promised to clean up the garage and he didn’t.” I ask if this infraction is so unforgivable that the couple should seriously be considering separation. Well no, they say. The real problem, the woman tells me, is that he never listens to her. No, the man replies, the real problem is that she’s so critical that he never gets a chance to explain what happened.
I reflect back what they’re saying about each other: “Sounds like you believe that because you weren’t able to work out an agreeable way to get your garage cleaned, you’ve each concluded that your partner has such terrible character flaws that staying with them is intolerable.” That’s when they realize the issue is learning to resolve conflicts, not being married to a bad person.
Couples can get so caught up in their conflicts that they escalate the issues to an irrational level. Rather than soothing their negative emotions, they fan the flames of anger by intensifying their attack on their partner. What starts out as a legitimate complaint about a troublesome situation quickly turns into personal accusations about their partner’s personality defects.
Instead of staying focused on resolving the immediate issue, the couple ratchets up the conflict by casting aspersions on their partner’s character. Not only does that make the other person mad, it creates an unsolvable problem. It’s possible to change a situation, but not someone’s personality.
Telling your partner that there’s something wrong with them causes everyone’s emotions to go from bad to worse. Defending and counterattacking are likely to ensue, followed by resentment and withdrawal.
Blaming your partner for causing a problem results in both of you feeling unloved. Each person becomes focused on what’s wrong with the other. When people get married they’re undoubtedly hoping for a partner who’ll be on their side and will see what’s good about them. So it’s especially painful when the person who’s supposed to love you develops the habit of escalating conversations about bad situations into discussions of what makes you a bad person.
When you focus on what’s wrong with your partner, you’re acting in the opposite manner from how you want to be treated. Since you usually get what you give, you’re creating conditions that are likely to bring blame back to you from your partner. Neither of you looks at how you’re contributing to the problem. Even if you’re right about what you partner’s done wrong, you’ll never be happy because how you’re dealing with the problem is making it worse.
Partners need to decide whether they want to be right or happy – because they can’t be both. All any of us can do is make our marriages right. When problems arise with our partners, we simply need to solve them as quickly as possible.
No one can be perfect. So when your partner makes a mistake, ask, “Why would someone who loves me do something so hurtful? And what do I want them to do to make things right?” Focusing your mind on finding a solution will soothe the hurt.
Accept that problems will occur and remember that your partner is still that great person you married many years ago. To restore happiness, you need to solve the problem so it goes away. Then you can get back to making good things happen. Problems have a way of finding us, but happiness is something you must constantly create.
To be happy you must be committed to working out mutually agreeable resolutions with the person you’ve chosen to be your mate. And then you’ll be able to refocus on all of the good qualities that enable your partner to bring joy to your life.