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Say This, Not That

Date: November 1, 2014      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source:  Laurie Puhn, JD      Print:

A Few Word Changes Can Transform Your Marriage

Just a few simple changes in what you say to your spouse can turn an unhappy marriage into a happy one. That’s because most marital discontent actually isn’t caused by serious differences between spouses, but by small breakdowns in communications—and these communication problems can be corrected, often quite quickly. Five ways to do it…

  • Compliment your spouse’s character, not just his/her actions. Commend his kindness, honesty, dependability or thoughtfulness, for example. Our studies have found that 84% of married people value compliments about their character more than other types of spousal praise (though virtually any compliment is likely to be well-received to some degree). Character compliments make spouses feel validated and appreciated on a deep level. They aren’t just about something that the spouse has done or how he looks, but who he truly is at his core.

Strategy: When you compliment a deed by your spouse, link it to a positive character trait. Offer these character compliments even when you are not the direct beneficiary of his/her actions. This encourages your spouse to consider you the one person in the world who sees and appreciates who he is.

Example: “It was nice of you to make coffee for me this morning. You’re a very thoughtful person.”

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  • Ask yourself, “Does this affect me?” before making a critical comment. Sometimes the secret to healthy marital communication is understanding that you don’t need to say anything.

Strategy: If your partner’s action does not directly involve you, do not get involved. Ask yourself, Does this affect me? before offering your input.

Example: Your spouse shares a story with you about a disagreement he had with a coworker—and you think the coworker was right. Saying this will make your spouse feel like you’re not his teammate. Instead, just express sympathy for the unpleasant interaction your spouse endured and let the moment pass. If you are desperate to share your opinion, ask permission first. Show respect with, “Would you like my thoughts on this?” If you get a no, then move on. However, showing respect by seeking permission first will make you more likely to get a yes and actually be heard.

  • Provide truly meaningful apologies when you are wrong—don’t just say, “I’m sorry.” You made a mistake, but you said, “I’m sorry”—so why is your spouse still upset? As most married people already know, spouses often are not quick to forgive even when they receive a quick apology.

Strategy: A detailed apology can greatly reduce the odds of lingering anger. Say, “I’m sorry for…” then describe what you’ve done and why your spouse has a right to be mad about it. This establishes that you understand that you have caused pain and are not just saying “sorry” to end the conversation. Also say, “In the future, I will…” and describe how you will handle things better the next time the situation arises. If you are unsure of how to prevent the problem from recurring, seek your mate’s input—”I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Can you help me think of a way to prevent it?” This helps rebuild your spouse’s shaken trust in you. If there’s something you can do to set the current situation right, say that you will do this as well.

Example: “I’m sorry for mentioning your health condition to my sister. That was something personal that you had a right to keep private. I’m going to call my sister and ask her not to share it with anyone else. And in the future, I will never discuss your medical condition with anyone without getting your permission first.”

  • P 12 494337063 coupleFigure out why the mildly annoying things your spouse does trigger more than mild annoyance in you. We all do things that are potentially annoying to our partners. It might be leaving clothes on the bedroom floor or turning up the TV volume too loud or any of a million other missteps. But think back to early in the relationship when you felt enamored with your partner. Chances are he did annoying things then, too—only back then you probably didn’t get excessively annoyed by them.

Excessive anger at a spouse’s minor foibles and faux pas usually stem from feeling alone in the relationship. Your mind is making a big deal out of a small matter because it now views this small annoyance as a sign that your spouse is not truly your teammate.

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Strategy: Stop pestering your partner about minor mistakes—that’s only deepening the sense of distance between you. Instead, if you and/or your spouse are making a big deal about small stuff, consider it a sign that the two of you need to become teammates again. First, refocus your radar on noticing and praising the positive things your mate does, such as emptying the dishwasher. Then look for the times when your mate doesn’t do the thing that annoys you and praise that, as in, “It was great to come home today and see the clean floor in our bedroom. Thank you for putting away your laundry. It made me smile.” What you praise is reinforced and will be repeated more often.

Also, find time to do things that you both enjoy. Communicate with each other in positive ways, as described in this article. Feeling like teammates won’t get your spouse’s socks into the hamper, but it should make those socks seem like the minor matter that they really are.

  • Stop saying, “Whatever you want.” Some people imagine that letting a spouse have his way will avoid marital conflict, whether it’s what to have for dinner or buying a new car. In reality, your spouse could grow resentful about always having to take full responsibility for the decision making…while you are likely to grow resentful about rarely getting what you want. And if your spouse senses your resentment, he is likely to be angry that he’s getting blamed for not doing what you want when you never told him what it is you wanted.

Strategy: Both partners should offer their opinions when a decision must be made. When you don’t have a strong opinion or truly wish to let your spouse choose, say that you’re happy to do whatever he wants to do, then add, “But let me know if you would like my input.” Do this only if you truly can accept your spouse’s choice without second-guessing it later.

If you disagree on a decision, then be a detective and ask your mate neutral questions such as, “Why do you think that?” “What are your reasons for that choice?” Listen first, then share your thoughts. By seeking to learn new information from your mate, rather than assuming that you know his thoughts, you show respect. Once you’ve both aired your perspectives, follow up with additional questions and then brainstorm solutions together.

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Source: Laurie Puhn, JD, a couples' mediator in private practice in New York City. She previously served on the board of the Harvard Mediation Program. She is author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In, which is the basis for the virtual online Fight Less, Love More course for couples that you can take from your home. LauriePuhn.com