Experiencing marital struggles is normal. Every couple does. What makes you and your spouse different is that you sought help—and that takes courage.
You’re reading this article because you signed up for a Hope Restored Marriage Intensive. We applaud your choice to make such an important investment in your marriage. Most couples wait an average of six years before they reach out for help, according to marriage researcher, John Gottman. That is plenty of time for hurt and pain to fester.
We don’t know how long you waited, but you finally did it!
But now you must wait—again. And it’s difficult. Your relationship has been under a lot of strain and stress. Perhaps it’s been hanging by a thread for quite some time, and now you’re having to navigate being quarantined at home—perhaps with kids and even extended family.
Even though you’re spending more time together, you may find yourself in a negative place towards your spouse. It is not uncommon to stop caring because it hurts too much. Maybe it’s challenging enough to care for your own personal well-being right now, let alone try to care about someone who is a source of pain, and who you’re not even sure cares back.
Caring about a spouse doesn’t always come easy, even in the best of circumstances. But please keep reading. There are new possibilities, even while you wait.
Try an experiment.
Would you be open to “try on” a different posture with your spouse? Think of it as an experiment. Try it out. If you don’t like how it goes, you can stop, and go back to the same way of relating and communicating that you’re used to.
For one week, will you suspend JUDGMENT, and replace it with CURIOSITY?
Suspending judgment means letting go of any preconceived notions you hold about what your spouse says or does and why they say or do those things. Rather than assume you “know” with great certainty where your mate is coming from, remain curious and open to see them in a different light.
Judgment gets in the way of caring and makes others feel unsafe. Curiosity, on the other hand, enhances safety and openness.
Be open to explore what might be going on under the surface—in your spouse’s heart? What could your mate be fearing or wanting that is motivating words and reactions that seem all too familiar?
Is it possible a fear of failure, or feeling rejected or not good enough, or a host of other feelings could be driving their reactions? Could they have desires, hopes and dreams of which you are not aware?
Some of you may remember the 80’s detective television series “Columbo?” Take on the attitude of a curious detective? Don’t jump to conclusions? Wonder and ask questions.
By all means, don’t pressure your spouse to share. People feel unsafe when forced to talk. Even if your spouse isn’t ready to tell you what’s going on from their perspective, remaining curious can soften your heart towards them. If, however, your spouse is willing to share, here’s another layer to add to the experiment:
For one week, will you open your heart to LISTEN to your spouse?
Be prepared. Your spouse will likely frame what’s going on in their heart around surface details like when something happened or what was or wasn’t said. Don’t get lost in all the situational details that your spouse is likely include. Rather, tune into whatever feelings, fears, or wants they hold around a certain issue or scenario.
Get out of your head and listen with your heart. As best as you can, empathize with what they fear or want? Before you respond, take a moment to let what you’re hearing land on you.
At some point, look to give them evidence that you’re listening and tracking with their perspective. Summarize back to them what you’ve heard, zeroing in on any of their feelings, fears, and wants you picked up on. Check in and ask if there’s more they would like to share about their heart around a topic or situation?
Once you’ve heard them out, thank them for sharing. And tell them it matters to you because it matters to them.
Look to acknowledge your spouse’s perspective as valid and valuable. This is not to say that you hold the same perspective or that you agree with your spouse in any way. It simply acknowledges them as a person of value whose perspective counts just as much as yours.
Acknowledging your spouse’s perspective does not mean you accept their behavior or that you are agreeing to do something or not do something. It is not to imply your spouse is perfect, without flaws. This is about listening, listening, listening. It’s about looking to understand, seeking to curiously discern what is going on in the heart and mind of another, in this case, your spouse.
Be a safe listener.
If at any point it becomes too difficult to listen, maybe you’re noticing yourself getting defensive or shutting down, push the pause button and take a break. Tell your spouse that you want to keep listening, but your struggling and unable to offer your best self. Give voice to your own heart by expressing the need for some space and time to settle and regroup. Once you’re in a better place to listen, check back and see if they want to share more.
A few words of clarification.
Listening is not trying to “fix” your spouse. You are not responsible for your spouse’s emotional state. Not is it your responsibility to make their feelings or fears go away. In fact, you won’t be able to listen well if your distracted by the pressure to fix your spouse.
The goal of listening is “being with” whatever is going on for your mate. It is a great way to show care.
If you take this challenge, please try without expecting something in return. To the extent that you expect something in return, you will give up. Prepare your heart to be non-judgmental and curious, and let your actions flow from that posture. If you don’t receive anything in return, that is sad and disappointing, but continue to take care of yourself.
Too big of an ask?
Perhaps it is asking a lot to consider caring about your spouse, but we do know that if you want anything different relationally, it is something worth trying.
If a week feels too long, then consider “trying on” a curious, non-judgmental view of your spouse for a day. You won’t do it perfectly. No one does. Still, small, consistent changes can make a big difference in the long run.