In my first year of marriage, these are some of the thoughts I had:
Is it meant to be this hard?
Am I really cut out for this?
Is this, like, a joke?
Does he even know me?
Is it really that hard to put the milk back in the fridge?
Do I even know him?
Is this really normal, men and women living together like this?
Does he even know me? Oh wait, did I ask that already?
How is it even possible for someone to lose their keys every single day?
Is he deaf?
Should I blame his parents?
What even is love?
Is there someplace I can take a nap?
You guys, marriage is hard. Marriage counselling even harder. It also costs the same as a small house. Like a hut. A pergola maybe. But an expensive one.
Anyway, since I’d much prefer you spend all your money on cute shoes, here are some really useful strategies I learnt in therapy last year. Just some light reading for your lazy Monday night.
STRATEGY ONE: Alter ego personalities.
I read a quote once that went something like: If you think a family is perfect, you don’t know them very well. It’s true of course. If you get to know anyone well enough, you’re going to quickly discover annoying, unfathomable, RIDICULOUS behaviours that will have you questioning if you can deal with that for the rest of your life. The trick here is to separate the PERSON from the BEHAVIOUR and assign them a quirky little alter ego when that trait is coming out. For example, say Joel is controlling. (He’s not, but say he is.) I might come up with a little mini alter ego and call it Hitler. When Joel starts taking over, being rigid, bossy, condescending, I might – in my head – say to myself “Here we go, Hitler’s out again.” This diffuses my rage towards Joel as a whole entire person and makes it instead about his HITLER-NESS. I am hating his BEHAVIOUR. Not HIS SELF. You can do this for anyone close to you who rubs you the wrong way. Mother-in-laws, brothers, best friends. Do not ever tell them your made up nickname for them – this strategy is about you COPING with their flaws instead of you POINTING THEM OUT. And you guys, it really works. I have a few nicknames for people close to me and the exercise makes light of a situation that can turn really sour if you let it. When I talk to myself in my head about their alter ego nicknames, it always makes me smile and I can still love the person while labelling their BEHAVIOUR. I even say it in a sing-songy voice, to try and keep it extra light. It makes all the difference.
To abbreviate: Name the behaviour not the person and make up an alter ego for this behaviour.
STRATEGY TWO: Look for signs of opposing evidence.
We all have stories in our head we repeat to ourselves. One of mine is this: I do everything around here. He is so incapable of normal, adult responsibilities. I’m so sick of feeling like everyone’s slave. He honestly does not lift one finger. I am SICK TO DEATH. Look! Another sock! Oh and, surprise, surprise, the rubbish hasn’t been taken out! Why can’t I rely on anyone? And then what we do is look for evidence all day long to support our stories. The junk on the table. The clothes on the floor. We’re like lawyers building a case, marching to court with a file full of papers.
An alternative approach is to actively find evidence which opposes your story. If my story is: Joel does nothing at home, I actively search ways he has done something at home. Maybe he mowed the lawn. Maybe he got up to Billy three times last night. Cleaned the fish tank. Filled the car with petrol. There will always be opposing evidence, if we drop our little filters, and it will make for easier, better marriages.
The other trick (and it’s about to get a little deep here), but to take things further is to be aware enough of the core belief our stories come from. Example: One of my core beliefs is that I can’t rely on anyone. My story of Joel doing nothing at home only serves to confirm my belief that people are unreliable and I can only rely on myself. When we challenge the stories in our head by searching for opposing evidence (i.e. looking for ways Joel DOES support me at home) what often actually then gets highlighted is our own triggers – our own negative made-up stories which are true for us BUT AREN’T ACTUALLY TRUE. I can rely on people. I know at least five people I can immediately rattle off who would drop anything at a minute’s notice to be there for me in my darkest hour and do whatever it took to keep me afloat. People might not do things to my standard, but that’s about me, not them. It doesn’t mean I can’t rely on them. Anyway, the point is, look for the lessons about yourself that are always hidden in a marriage, or any close relationships for that matter. Use them to better yourself. Use them to challenge the beliefs which don’t serve you. And try to drop the armour and find your part to play in conflict.
To abbreviate: Become aware of the stories you tell yourself and actively search for opposing evidence.
STRATEGY THREE: Regular ‘couples time’.
This one is going up on a banner and getting waved around like a freak flag, especially if you have small children.
Start a new hobby together (we’ve gone to a few yoga classes together), date nights (dinner, drinks, movies, shows), starting a new show series or project together (building and tending to a veggie garden), playing cards every Friday night (not us, we’re too cool for that *cough* /*something in my throat*). Whatever it is, you have, have, have to prioritize quality one on one time with your spouse. Do not talk about your children or use it as ‘admin’ time, i.e. have you paid that bill and when are we going to get the toilet fixed and have you enrolled Ella in dance lessons? This is purely a fun/relaxing/switching off thing. Find interesting questions to ask each other like: What are you excited about right now? What’s made you really happy lately? What’s that thing that makes you most worried right now? Have you made any mistakes lately? What have you learned? Or – my personal favourite – should we get wine or go straight for the cocktails? These questions are saying I SEE YOU. I WANT TO KNOW WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON FOR YOU. They build closeness and connection. Our counsellor said so.
To abbreviate: Get off your backside and go out.
STRATEGY FOUR: Code word.
Come up with a signal word or phrase each. Something to be used when things are escalating quickly and a fight is brewing and you both know you’re not there to try to constructively work on the issue or understand each other’s point of view. Mine is Red Flag. I used it today, actually. I waved that flag around like nobody’s business. You have to share each other’s word and you must agree that when someone uses it, the other person must drop the issue immediately. Your spouse MUST RESPECT your code word. But listen, this code word is not a cop-out. You can’t just use it to stop the conversation. It’s a post-phoner, not an end-er. The person who used the code word must bring the issue up later, after you’ve calmed down and genuinely want to approach the problem with understanding, openness and a willingness to listen and work things out. This can take weeks, obviously. The point is that the issue doesn’t get swept under the carpet. It’s a DIFFUSER, this strategy, not an IGNORER. If the issue can’t be worked out together at a later date, and the outcome again is escalation, save it for a counselling session and go through it with a neutral, professional third person.
To abbreviate: Use a code word to stop fights and approach it at a later date with a genuine openness and willingness to work it out.
STRATEGY FIVE: Three grateful things.
Every day, throughout the day, let your spouse know three things you are grateful for, regarding them (or one – let’s be honest, we’re all exhausted). It can just be acknowledging something they did – “Thanks for letting me sleep in, I really appreciate it”, or something bigger – “I love how passionate you are about the things you love, it’s really energizing to be around”. A little text, an email, a sentence spoken before bed. It takes five seconds and its benefits are enormous. Likewise, a little tip from a friend’s mum during a girls night I had last night: Get a Husband Gratitude Diary and every night, write in it all the good things about him – the lovely things he’s done for you, said to you, the ways he makes you better, the things he brings to your life you are grateful for. It’s the little things, sisters. Always.
To abbreviate: Don’t talk bad about your husband. Kidding. Do it with your girlfriends regularly — everyone needs to get that shit off their chests, but remember to look for and document and mention the good, as well. And make sure your spouse hears it.
STRATEGY SIX: The sex thing.
Look, sex is tricky. Especially after years and years and years and years. Different couples find their own way to make it work and weave it into a healthy relationship. Obviously, regularity is necessary to sustain intimacy and connection. Maybe this means you have to schedule it in on days you know you won’t be tired, or when you can have the kids looked after. I’ve found for me, when I know it’s coming, I can mentally prepare and change my frame of mind which positively impacts our experience, instead of it getting sprung on me and dealing with the rejection aftermath which follows. You have to find a way to make it enjoyable for you both and basically it’s such a huge big topic that millions of books have been written about it and I am as fumbling and confused as the rest of them, but the point is: you need to make it a healthy part of your relationship and consciously work on it, like every other aspect of marriage. Get professional help with this if you need to.
To abbreviate: Have sex.
I photographed a wedding on Saturday and the minister (priest? pastor?) said that the biggest aspects of a successful marriage were acceptance and forgiveness. This is love, he said. Accepting people as they are. Wiping the slate clean every day.
It’s exhausting obviously, which is why one should never be far from a cup of coffee and/or a bed.
Good luck fellow marriage warriors. If you need me, I will be asleep. Do not wake me.