By Dr. Nadia Persun
Imagine a heavy-duty truck riding off the road, slipping down a hill and getting stuck in thick, sticky mud. Trying to get out, it desperately spins its wheels, mud flying everywhere with no resolve. After a long time, there is finally a hopeful sight of another car. The truck begins honking like mad, desperately wanting a much needed pull.
This is an allegory for many couples seeking therapy. They typically come at a high point of marital distress. The war has reached its peak; the partners are tired of fighting but unable to end it. Attempts to fix things only led to getting trapped deeper in a cycle of confrontation, standoff and increased feelings of hopelessness. They look at the therapist with a mix of hope and despair, ready to bargain for any quick solution. Deep inside, they sense a need for a major and complicated repair, but their pain is so intense that they want anything, to feel at least a bit better now.
The therapist, being that little car faced with the grave demand for a major lift, may simultaneously feel empathetic and overwhelmed. Even though it is true that there are no quick fixes, it is fair to expect that couples want some relief. What quick strategies can distressed couples use?
Strategies to Help a Troubled Marriage
One recommendation is to slow down, back off, and give yourself a major timeout. It may be contrary to what many couples tend to do in conflict. Feeling rejected and misunderstood, a partner typically increases the intensity of the pursuit to keep the marriage together, while also trying to apply some new solutions obtained from self-help books, magazines, and helpful friends. The spouse is only becoming increasingly overwhelmed, while disagreements intensify.
Think of driving on a highway and getting lost. What do you do? You probably do not push the gas pedal to its limit, hoping that divine intervention delivers you to your destination. You slow down and may even stop to read the map, to get your bearings, and then proceed with caution. The same advice applies to a marriage in crisis: when you don’t know what to do and are feeling lost, slow down and do nothing for a while. It is not a good long-term strategy, but is certainly more preferable in times of marital crisis. Take time to calm down, regroup, and think of reasonable solutions.
Second, avoid getting stuck in a crossfire of disagreements. Concentrate on one issue at a time and evaluate the pros or cons of your spouse’s preference calmly and fairly. Identify one issue that you disagree about, a point of tension that commonly leads to fights. Be specific and avoid being vague and generalizing, as “We can never agree on anything!” For instance, a wife who was a stay-at-home mom for years desires to go back to work, while her husband disagrees with this decision. They have opposite, mutually exclusive goals about handling this situation. They are convinced of their own point of view and prepared to give multiple arguments to justify their preference and dismiss the ones of their mate. What is likely to happen if they begin talking about the issue with no restraint or agreed-upon rules? A crossfire of arguments and an increase in anger likely will result.
Instead, they may agree to discuss this issue on two separate occasions, taking place on different days, picking a time when both are feeling relaxed. They agree to follow the rules: On a first meeting, they only give and discuss the reasons why going to work is a good decision, while on the second meeting, they only express and review the reasons against it. Both times, the spouses record their opinions to create “pro” and “con” lists. Each discussion ends in thirty minutes, after both partners have expressed themselves, by thanking each other, then moving on to doing other things.
These two talks take place one or two days apart from each other and spouses refrain from continuing to talk further about the issue. Next time, this topic is discussed with the counselor. Even though the issue may not be resolved, spouses may be comforted to have their partner on their side, supportive and willing to listen.
Many disagreements stem from our frustrated need for respect and appreciation. Just listening without interrupting, refraining from being contradictory and judgmental, while staying calm and patient are very important steps for partners in learning to get along better. Even though there is no quick way to solve marital issues, these steps can be implemented quickly to soothe the tension and begin healing.
Dr. Nadia Persun obtained her degree at the University of Chicago. She is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Illinois, specializing in treatment of anxiety disorders, adolescent issues, marital and other issues related to relationships, love and intimacy.