Are you tired of the fighting that constantly goes on in your marriage? Fed up with the unending criticism, the arguments, the yelling? You may have read some marriage and self-help books with little improvement; maybe you’ve even been to counseling and found it unhelpful. If so, here’s a different way of looking at a solution that just might turn things around.
Reconcilable and irreconcilable differences
Sometimes there are problems in a marriage that simply won’t go away in the short term. Childhood trauma, infertility, and financial hardship are all issues that are not likely to disappear quickly. As I always tell my clients, the problem you’re here for didn’t come up overnight, and it’s not going away overnight either. Marital conflict is typically brewing for years before couples seek out professional help. Consequently, it can be important to find ways to improve your marriage even as you struggle with an issue that may ultimately be unresolvable. (Note: unresolvable issues do not necessarily spell the end of a marriage. But that’s for another article.)
What to do instead
The idea that we need to find the weaknesses in the relationship and hammer away at those first is sometimes counterproductive. Although our first instinct is usually to fix the problem, there is a different approach that in many situations works better – and that is to focus on the good, rather than the bad. (When you say it like that, of course, it almost sounds obvious!) Rather than trying to eliminate behaviors and attitudes that you don’t want, try increasing those that you do want.
For example, if you have been unsuccessful at reducing criticism in your marriage, try instead increasing praise. Even in the most troubled marriages there is usually something that can be appreciated. Maybe your husband works hard to support the family or is generally neat (even if he leaves his socks on the floor); maybe your wife is good at staying on top of the family finances or is a good cook (even if she doesn’t always have dinner ready on time). Or, if the problem is that things have been less than perfect in the bedroom, spend a little extra effort on fun non-sexual activities you can do together, or pick up a new hobby together.
Good and bad coexist
This is not an attempt to shove problems under the rug. If your spouse has a sharp tongue, being a good cleaner does not make that go away, and if your sex life is unsatisfying, playing Scrabble isn’t going to replace that. Nor am I suggesting that these problems should not be dealt with – eventually. Rather, the approach here is to infuse the relationship with positivity even as the problems linger. No relationship is devoid of problems. The renowned marriage researcher John Gottman notes that a good marriage has a ratio of 5 positive comments to 1 negative one – which means that there are still going to be negative comments, but that the marriage can thrive nonetheless. This also means that if there are lots of negative comments flying back and forth in your home, you’d better get cracking on raising the number of positive ones as well!
Many couples find that when they start hearing compliments and appreciation from their spouse, they can’t help feel good about it despite other problems that exist. Similarly, putting additional effort into having fun together or doing extra work around the house is a meaningful contribution to the relationship. Putting positive energy into the relationship provides fuel for couples to keep at it – to keep striving for the fulfilling marriage they had “back at the beginning.” Even when difficult issues persist and threaten to sink things, these positive interactions can help keep things afloat.