I have a friend whose parents recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. The family had a huge party to celebrate. However, my friend also told me that her mother will “keep it real” when people ask her how long they’ve been married, replying “47 happy years!” (Get it?) They love each other dearly, but like most couples, they’ve had their ups and downs.
There’s no denying it…sometimes marriage can be really hard. At times, it can feel like we’ve lost our way. Anger and resentment bubble up, blame comes to the surface, and one or both partners may feel like a victim or stockpile negative feelings. We may avoid each other, constantly snap at each other, or find ourselves treating each other like distant “roommates.”
When things get really bad, we may find ourselves trapped in an unproductive cycle of frustration, sadness, and pain. If left unchecked, this can spiral out of control, potentially leading to destructive behaviors like emotional or physical affairs, drug and alcohol abuse, or separation and divorce.
How can we take control of the situation and find our way back to a happy and healthy relationship? If your marriage is damaged and you’re hurting, here is some advice on breaking out of negative cycles and moving towards healing.
The Negative Conflict Cycle
Does anything about this scenario sound familiar?
- Allie: “You’re always late for dinner! Can’t you think about me for a change?”
- Jake: “I have a lot of stuff I had to do! You don’t even realize everything that’s on my plate!”
- Allie: (sarcastically) “Oh, right, I forgot. You’re so busy…going and getting a beer with your work buddies.”
- Jake: “You know what? I’m not having this conversation with you.” (walks away)
- Allie: “Oh yeah? Well, you can forget about Friday night! I’ve had it with you! You’re such a selfish jerk!” (…etc)
- Jake: (Later) “I’m sorry about what happened earlier. Let’s just forget about it, okay?”
This fictional argument is exactly the type of fight (over nothing too important—it would seem) that can slowly destroy a marriage. It represents a cycle of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, “the silent treatment,” destructive fighting, and ineffective attempts to “make up” that don’t address or solve much in the end.
Here’s a short list of guidelines for constructive conflict that can help you resolve issues like these more productively:
- Use I-messages and introduce your complaint gently
- Know how to keep yourself and your partner calm
- Avoid being defensive—listen!
- Validate your partner’s feelings
- Avoid negative behavior like sarcasm, namecalling, eyerolling, and stonewalling
So, let’s try out this conflict again.
- Allie: I wish you hadn’t been late for dinner again. I feel really frustrated that I made this food and it’s cold. I was looking forward to eating with you, but I got so hungry I had to eat.
- Jake: I’m sorry. That must have been annoying.
- Allie: Why did you need to go to Malley’s?
- Jake: John expected me to take those clients out for a drink. I really didn’t want to be there. I’d rather have been home with you.
- Allie: I know you don’t like it when he asks you to do that.
- Jake: No, I really don’t. At least I’m home now. It looks delicious. Will you sit with me while I eat?
This conversation went a lot better when these partners used I-messages, validated each others’ feelings, and avoided defensiveness, negative arguing behavior and jumping to conclusions.
When we get out of these patterns, we can begin to move towards healing.
Building Positivity and Closeness
You and your partner will also want to spend time focusing on the good things about your relationship. Incorporating shared couple rituals, like dedicated nightly check-ins or routine weekend “dates” (even doing something cost-free and simple, like going for a run together) can help the two of you rebuild closeness. Don’t forget about the importance of small acts of love and affection, like leaving each other “love notes,” texting to check in, giving small gifts, or doing favors for each other. Nurture your marital friendship—the reason why you chose to spend your lives together in the first place.
Getting to Forgiveness
Even when things have begun to improve after a difficult time, we still may nurture pain and resentment from troubles in the marriage. This can be very difficult to let go of…but to move forward, we need to forgive. Even when one person appears to be more “at fault” than the other for issues (for instance, if someone has had problems with overspending or alcohol), it is likely that both members of the couple contributed in their own way to issues within the marriage.
In order to move towards true healing in your marriage, you will need to forgive your spouse, he or she will need to forgive you-- and both of you will need to forgive yourselves.
Healing a struggling marriage takes time and true commitment, and it’s not easy. It can, at times, be quite painful. However, it is certainly worth it. And as we make strides toward successfully healing our marriages, we often become happier, more giving people, more able to help others around us and within our families.
While there is much that you can do to improve your marriage, at times, many couples need assistance getting through the rough patches. To find a marriage counselor near you, visit Therapist Locator.
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
Harris, V. W. (2010). Marriage Tips and Traps: 10 Secrets for Nurturing Your Marital Friendship. Plymouth, MI: Hayden McNeil.