The hill above a forest trail of our beach resort was quiet. I left the room while my husband was still asleep to think over the argument from the night before. Still upset, I decided to sulk all morning by myself. That’s when I started getting text messages on my phone: “where are you?", "come back, let’s talk", "we will make up anyway".
My resolve to ignore them quickly dwindled down, and I texted back. We reconciled an hour later and enjoyed the rest of the day together.
After more than fifteen years as a couple, we still have disagreements, but they happen rarely and end quickly.
This was not the case when we just got married. A lot of time was spent in the stormy waters, and, even after years of sailing together, we almost shipwrecked once or twice.
But the more we got to know each other, the craftier we became at navigating out of the danger zones and into the peaceful waters.
Our relationship today is better than it ever was, and I want to share a few things we learned along the way as well as some helpful resources. So hoist the sails, let's go:
1. Be quick to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.
I am starting with a big one. It is the hardest to remember in the midst of an argument. Naturally, we all like to take the side of the offended party, put up defenses and wait for the other person to make amends. Eventually, somebody has to set the pride aside and take the first step towards reconciliation. It may start out as an awkward apology and a pouting forgiveness, but the quicker this is done the better.
After the conflict is over, my husband and I often discover that:
#1 both of us contributed to the argument,
#2 it was mostly misunderstanding and
#3 it was not worth fighting over in the first place.
The fault is never one-sided, and if one of us simply says: "I'm sorry for...", it all stops before blowing out of proportion.
So we learned that it is better not to wait for the other person to admit his or her portion of the fault. Take care of yours and he or she will follow your lead. If not - it was the right thing to do anyway.
But what if you're always the one apologizing? What if it's a repeated offense? What if apology seems too superficial or pain too deep? Then it will take more work. Here're some resources to get started:
When Sorry Isn't Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love - book
Hurt by the One You Love: The Power of Forgiveness in Intimate Relationships - book
The previous point leads to this one. Listening makes apology sincere and forgiveness easy because two people feel validated.
Early in our marriage, we made a lot of assumptions that led to disappointment and frustration. There was a lot of "but I thought..." because we jumped to conclusions instead of hearing each other out first.
We discovered that taking time to listen prevents a lot of misunderstandings, plus it makes the other person feel appreciated.
Even if your spouse is not a good listener, start with yourself. Listen even if:
you are not interested in what your significant other is saying (pretend you are),
you want to jump in and offer an obvious solution (offer sympathy first),
you want to interrupt and talk about your side of things (first ask: "is there anything else?").
Knowing how to ask the right questions, pay attention and hear each other correctly is a skill worth acquiring in any relationship.
The Art of Listening - TD Jakes speech
3. Express your thoughts and feelings.
If listening is a skill, then being open with another person is a conscious decision.
When my husband and I first fell in love, we spent hours on the phone talking about all kinds of things. Later in the marriage life got busy. We talked less about what was on our hearts and more about daily issues. Our friendship was turning into a business partnership and we had to come up with ways to go beyond the superficial interactions into an agenda-free sharing. Here are a few things we discovered:
- There are barriers to open communication.
I found out that my husband dreaded sharing his business problems with me because I got emotional and wanted to fix things when all he wanted was to unload some stress. I also shared with him that I felt shut down when he was distracted with a computer or a phone while I talked. So now I hold my tongue and he pretends to be very interested in what I am saying :).
- There is a good and a bad time to talk.
I can never expect my husband to hear a single word while he is watching a football game but I get his full attention while I am doing a massage for him. Sometimes we have to catch the moments to talk - at a dinner table, in the car, before bed, etc.
I also had to be Ok with giving my husband time to process before discussing certain sore subjects, especially if we just had an argument. I wanted to resolve everything right away, and it usually made things worse. The reality is, a person might never be ready to have certain issues discussed but you can still work on building mutual trust and finding different ways to bring up the topic.
- We have to keep our expectations realistic.
My husband will never be interested in having long deep discussions about abstract concepts and I can never get excited about football. So we stretch ourselves a bit for each other but some topics are better left for friends.
Do you have reasons for not opening up more to your spouse? You might be naturally more reserved and consider this a weakness or a waste of time. You might feel like she or he will not understand or, worse, will hurt your feelings. But when two individuals stop revealing their inner thoughts and feelings they become distant and appear uncaring.
Are you willing to take a risk to have more closeness, support and effective problem-solving in your relationship? Take initiative and share something small with your spouse today.
Power of Two - resources for better communication
4. Dream together.
This is a step further from sharing thoughts and feelings as a normal part of daily life. Dreaming together does not mean that two people agree on the same goals. Even if future plans are discussed before marriage, the reality is, people and circumstances change.
At times, my husband and I felt like our lives were going in two different directions but we simply took turns supporting each other. Dreams can get expensive, require relocation, hard work and time away from family. You need to share your vision with a spouse and gain their support before venturing out on this journey.
Find out ways to interest your spouse. My husband is good about putting ideas in my head. He never tries to persuade me with logic (although, some people need exactly that). He shares his excitement and the benefits he sees of making a certain decision. I can never resist.
So aside from discussing future vacation, talk about your aspirations. Maybe, it is time to take your old dreams out of the closet and put it in front of your life partner.
5. Connect daily.
It might be an obvious point but it often gets missed. In our family, we are always busy with work and kids' activities but in our spare time, we don't necessarily want to do the same things either. we all have different hobbies and ways to relax, we don't share the same friends and can easily spend days without truly connecting.
To avoid that, my husband and I make an effort to do something together that both of us enjoy. It might mean agreeing on a movie (tough one!), playing a game with kids, planning a date or at least a lunch together, going on a walk, cuddling for a few minutes, sending a random text, even scheduling time together, whatever it takes to bond. Being in the same house for a few hours or discussing what to get at the grocery store does not count :).
What does your spouse like to do? Can you join him or her? Even if you are not thrilled about the activity, it will be a time well invested.
READ PART II