Marriage counsellor's Best Advice Ever!

09/25/2016 09:00 pm ET

The Best Marriage Advice Ever - Keep it Simple!

Just because you’re struggling in your marriage doesn’t mean you give up on it. Phoebe Hutchison tells you how you can bring back the spark in your relationship, in three simple steps.

Are you starting to lose hope in your relationship? Maybe the sparks have died, you are feeling lonely or struggling to find reasons to stay together. As a marriage and crisis counsellor, my role is to help unhappy couples become happy again using the following process:

1. Identify the issues

2. Set goals

3. Implement strategies

Relationship issues can quickly become complicated, causing frustration through lack of insight. Many couples try, but feel as though they can’t ‘fix’ the relationship so they emotionally disconnect or, in some cases, separate. This crisis time, however, is ideal for a thorough assessment. If you need help, here’s how to put your relationship under the spotlight.

1 Identify the issues in your marriage:

Think about your life, work hours, weekly activities, children and your stressors. When did things become challenging? How do you treat each other? How do you argue, and how often? Who avoids arguments, who becomes silent and who yells or intimidates? Do you notice any patterns such as: mother puts children first versus emotionally withdrawn father, spontaneous partner versus predictable partner, cat and dog couple [high conflict] or the highly competitive couple? Have you had an affair, or face excessive control or abuse? What is your sex life like? Delve into your childhood challenges, and also think about the communication styles you witnessed in your parent’s relationship? Is additional therapy needed for addiction, workaholism, parenting problems, grief, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] or mental health issues like depression? By ‘going deep’, you can discover the contributing factors in your relationship issues and equip yourself with specific strategies.

2 Set goals:

In solution-focused therapy, counsellors use the ‘Miracle Questions’ to establish a client’s goals. Ask yourself: If a magic wand was waved over this relationship, and it became exactly as I want it when I wake tomorrow, how would it differ from today? When asked, many say, “I would be happy.” Some want ‘fireworks’, and others say, “I would have romance, dating and be in love with my partner again.” Many clients say, “I would have peace. We would all get along well.” Clear goals are vital to success. What are your relationship goals?

3 Implement strategies:

Irrespective of how complex your issues might be, simple strategies, when used daily, are the basis of fast change.

The 30 minute rule

Spend at least 30 minutes together per day—quality time—with no distractions such as computers, phones, children or work; enjoy being focused entirely on each other. Often couples new to therapy have said, “We don’t have time for each other.” One client, when asked to write his life’s priorities down, put his wife 7th on his list! It was no wonder his marriage was in turmoil. If your spouse and family are your highest priorities, then spend time every day enjoying them. This will keep you united, fulfilled, improve your sex life, reduce your chances of an affair and contribute to your happiness. It doesn’t have to be a chunk of time spent in one go. Spend 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there—spend time first thing in the morning with the family. You can spend time with your spouse when your children are in bed, and have your family time during meals—without the television. In short, become connected again.

Treat your partner like a lover—not a spouse

This step is magical! If you treat your partner like a prince, he will treat you like a princess—eventually. Every word, voice tone, facial expression and every gesture, impacts your relationship profoundly. This step is the fastest way I know to transform a relationship, so naturally I made this step No 1. In my relationship book, Honeymooners Forever, Twelve Step Marriage Survival Guide. Become your own editor. Listen, and actively change the way you interact with your spouse. Are your words loving, kind, attentive, compassionate and respectful? For inspiration, observe new couples.

Stop finding fault and start praising

Many couples that first sit on my couch are filled with complaints. They have become in the habit of complaining about their partner to friends and family, and are viewing their relationship as a glass that is half empty. If you keep looking at your partner through these ‘negative glasses’, you’ll poison the relationship with negativity. Sure, in struggling relationships it’s only human to over-focus on the negative aspects. But this is not helpful because the negative simply flourishes. Make a list of your partner’s strengths and then focus on these. Based on the law of attraction, when we change our energy to positive, we attract more positive experiences—and our relationship is no different. It is astounding how fast a relationship can improve when couples ‘Stop Criticising and Start Praising’. (Step 5. In Honeymooners Forever, Twelve Step Marriage Survival Guide). I have seen couples who were separated rekindle their love and move back in together using this skill.

Manage conflict better

Some couples feel uncomfortable when I explain that arguing is good for marriage. If you don’t have good conflict management skills, and don’t stand up for yourself, you can easily develop resentment from unspoken words, unmet needs and anger that is not discussed. Couples who are not arguing often state they feel caged in, controlled or oppressed. Do you argue well? If not, follow these steps:

Calm Down: Don’t have discussions when you are feeling infuriated and your blood is boiling. Wait until you cool down and schedule a meeting.

Before Sleep: Have this meeting before you go to sleep [as sleeping with inflamed emotions will only aggravate the situation].

No Distractions: Conduct this meeting in a quiet place with no distractions. You may use a writing pad as you both take turns in speaking and listening.

Compliment at Start /End: Use the ‘Positive Sandwich Technique’, first, before you start. Ie. Open and end the conversation, with a nice compliment. This is usually conducted by the person who initiates the conversation / ‘mini meeting’.

Use ‘I’ statements: Discuss the issues in a direct manner. Use assertiveness techniques, by stating needs, wants and feelings from the “I” stance, such as: “I need…” “I want…” or “I feel…” Do not blame your spouse. For example, instead of saying: “You make me feel lonely” or “You’re always working,” you could say, “I feel lonely” or “I need quality time with you.” In family therapy, direct communication is the most effective… so become direct.

Take Turns: Use a business card, tea coaster, or small token to indicate that ONE person talks at a time, then take turns holding this, passing to your partner, to ensure listening skills are at your best. The person with the ‘token’ has the opportunity to speak, while the other listens.

Remain Calm: Keep the feeling neutral. Do not yell, swear, storm out or become aggressive. Only argue when calm, to avoid nasty words / aggression you may later regret.

The Aim: To have a win/win, but you may settle for compromise. Not all these ‘mini meetings’ will end with a win/win. This is your chance for collaboration. First points are mentioned, then either party discusses their opinion, then a new goal is achieved after much brainstorming.

You may need a little extra help assessing and transforming your relationship from either a self-help book or a relationship counsellor, to help you identify areas for improvement, set your goals and learn new relationship strategies. Using simple strategies works best to keep your marriage thriving. Transforming a relationship from unhappy to blissful is achieved one day at a time, one positive thought at a time, with one interaction at a time! Don’t give up on love. Relationships are hard work, but when you know what to work on, this ‘work’ can be a lot of fun! This was first published, in a shorter version, in the March 2015 issue of Complete Well-being Mumbai, India.

Phoebe Hutchison is a relationship and crisis counsellor, public speaker, and the author of Honeymooners Forever: Twelve Step Marriage Survival Guide and Are You Listening? Life Is Talking to You. She has worked extensively with couples and clients in crisis. Reach her at www.honeymoonersforever.com.au or https://www.facebook.com/phoebe.hutchison/.

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