In order to save a relationship, you must first realize that there is something that needs saving. That requires at least one member of the couple stepping back and saying that the status quo is not ok.
Ideally, both members of the couple will realize that they need to do something about their relationship. Hopefully, both will want to do something, but all you need is one to get things started.
So you realize that your relationship is in danger. Now what? Start by focusing on you. It’s common to blame your partner and see him as the root of all evils in the relationship, but it takes two to tango. It always takes two. Blaming simply doesn’t help. It won’t help you or your relationship.
Time for self-reflection. Sit down by yourself with a piece of paper. Without thinking too much, just allow yourself to write. Start with the following:
- What is working for you right now in your relationship?
- What is not working for you right now in your relationship?
Remember, do not focus on your partner. Instead of saying “he isn’t romantic with me”, say “there is not enough romance in our relationship”. You have to be willing to own your part if you want things to change. Blaming only serves to maintain the status quo. Ok, keep going…
- For each thing you listed that isn’t working for you, write down at least 3 things that youcan do to create change.
Now we’re going to take it a step further. This will be challenging if you have been invested in blaming your partner for everything. I want you, when you think about his negative behavior, to think about it as resulting from the dynamic that you are both stuck in, rather than as a character defect. The more you have been stuck, the more it has fed this behavior.
Think about a typical disagreement you have with your partner. Now, imagine you are a neutral observer and describe step by step what happens.
- He comes home and hugs the kids and barely greets me.
- I ignore him or ask him if he brought the mail in.
- He rolls his eyes, mutters under his breath something about me being a nag.
- I respond with a sarcastic comment in return.
And on and on it goes...
You have a play by play of a typical disagreement. For each action or behavior, write down what you think might have been going on that made you both say what you said/did.
- He comes home and hugs the kids and barely greets me = Maybe he does that because he is expecting I’ll reject him if he tries to hug me, or he’s expecting some sort of demand or criticism so he avoids me.
- I ignore him or ask him if he brought the mail in = I’m feeling hurt and angry that he never pays attention to me unless I go after him in some way.
- He rolls his eyes, mutters under his breath something about me being a nag = He feels like the only time I talk to him is to nag him or criticise him.
- I respond with a sarcastic comment in return = I’m sick and tired of either being invisible or being the nag.
And on and on it goes... Hopefully, this exercise helped you see that the behavior that defines the cycle or series of interactions does not serve to let the feelings underneath be seen and attended to. The behavior is defensive, aggressive and protective. It is based on the I’ll hurt you before you hurt me model.
A key in how to save a relationship is for both of you to see the behavior that is representative of this cycle as the mutual enemy, as opposed to seeing each other as the enemies. Then you can team up to watch out for the triggers of the cycle and back off when it kicks in. This is really hard to do. The more entrenched you are in these patterns, the more automatic they are and the harder they will be to break. Don’t expect that now that you have more awareness that it should suddenly be easy to change the behavior. Think of the stubborn patterns and repetitive behavior as war veterans with PTSD. Even though the war is over, they are still acting like threats are lurking behind every bush. They are trying to protect you, but in doing so, they are inadvertently maintaining a hostile environment. It will take time and effort and patience to convince these soldiers that it is safe to relax their defenses and lay down their arms. In the beginning, the littlest thing will most likely make them grab their weapons and dive back into the trenches. That’s to be expected. Don’t let that stop you. Now go back to your piece of paper. For each step in the interaction, come up with an alternative response that would be possible if the soldiers would agree to a cease-fire. For example:
- He comes home and hugs me, or, if he comes home and greets the kids and doesn’t hug me, I can go and hug him.
- He gives me a kiss. I ask him how his day was.
- He tells me a bit about his day and asks me the same thing.
- We sit down together and have a glass of wine before dealing with dinner and the kids.
One thing that is really striking here is that with just a tweak in the first interaction, everything else takes on a completely different tone. Just like negativity feeds on itself and creates more negativity, the same goes for positivity. The more you practice different ways of relating and reacting to each other, the more you are reinforcing new habits and connections.
Persistent patterns reinforce brain chemistry. Creating new and different patterns will change brain chemistry. No one is immune from change. Try the exercises included here. Feel free to adapt it any way that works best for you. Let me know how it goes. For more posts like this, please sign up for the Love After Kids newsletter.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 11 year-old son, 2 year-old daughter and 4 year-old toy poodle.
*This post was originally published on 5/17/16 on the Love After Kids blog.