We live in challenging and uncertain times. Couples cooped up at home with each other more than they are accustomed too can experience strained and stressful interactions, even in the best of relationships. As you struggle to hold your marriage together and have a prolonged wait to attend a Hope Restored program, it might be helpful to think about damage control.
In other words, what can you do to avoid making your relationship more stressful?
Four unhelpful questions to avoid when talking to each other.
Couples who spin out into conflict tend to find themselves arguing about the following questions:
- “What really happened?”
- “Who is right and who is wrong?”
- “Whose fault is it?”
- “What needs to be done?”
You might not pose the above questions directly, but rather imply them within statements like:
“No that’s not the way it was. What you really said or did was this” or “How long you really spent doing that thing was…”
“That’s not the way I remember it! What happened first was…” or “What you really said was…”
“If you would only do this rather than that, everything would be okay”.
“I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t done or said…. !”
These questions, especially the first three, are laced with judgment and blame. The last question (“What needs to be done?”), is important, but couples often ask it too soon. It’s a question that easily gets twisted into a quarrel over who gets their own way, that is, until couples are willing to look beneath the surface of their conflict.
The issue is not what it seems.
Couples get mired into conflict, but not for the reasons they think. Most think it’s about the surface details of what was said, or who did what first, or how much (or how little) time was spent, or whose turn is it to do the dishes then take out the trash, and on and on it goes.
In most cases, there are
deeper matters of the heart at play that are easy to miss when couples focus on
these questions; deeper matters for both individuals.
Talking around these kinds of questions too much, too soon is like focusing only on the tip of an iceberg sticking up above the waterline. Experts tell us that about 10% of an iceberg hovers above the water’s surface while 90% of the iceberg floats below. Like the SS Titanic disaster, a couple’s boat sinks when they ignore, yet still bump into deeper feelings, fears, and wants that make up the mountain of ice beneath the waterline.
A helpful question to ask.
One helpful question for couples to keep before them is, “Are we having an ‘above’ the waterline conversation, or are we in a ‘below’ the waterline conversation?” Are we getting mired in minute details or pointing fingers of blame, or are we taking the time to safely discuss each other’s feelings, fears, and wants around an issue or situation?
If you notice you’re in an “above” the waterline conversation, hit the “pause” button. Take what could be called a “time-out.” Maybe offer to shift the conversation to a safer topic, go to another room, or take a walk. Do something that gives yourself the space to calm and become curious about what is taking place beneath the waterline for you and your spouse.
One thing is for certain: Continuing to engage in “above” the waterline arguments will poke gaping holes in your relationship and turn it into a sinking ship. The best you can hope for is to keep bailing water as fast as possible from your leaky marriage. On the other hand, taking the time to engage in “below” the waterline conversations that center around matters of each other’s heart helps to repair holes in your relationship and build a more resilient ship.
Paying attention to what’s going on in each other’s hearts first puts couples in a better position to navigate perilous waters. It also sets the conditions for them to relate to each other more as allies rather than enemies. It helps them work together as a team to find answers to the question, “What are we going to do?” that feels like a win-win for both.
Even if your spouse is currently unwilling to focus beneath the waterline, your willingness to explore what’s going on in your heart as well as care about your spouse, is still healthy for you. Research by the Gottman Institute has shown that those who attempt repair and receive repair when there has been a rupture in the relationship, have an 85% more chance of sustaining well- being in a relationship. Put your focus where it matters most. Help is on the way.