By Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.
Coupling up is never simple. Even the best marriages will get stuck in too much distance or blame. The natural course of marriage is downstream, unless you are intentional about paddling against the current.
Consider the following from Marriage Rules. Think of the list below as rules, or commandments, or just some pretty good ideas.
1. Warm Things Up. Make at least two positive comments every day to your partner and speak to the specifics about what you admire (“I loved how funny you were at the party last night”). Make sure that your positive comments exceed critical ones by a healthy margin.
2. Dial down the criticism. Many folks value criticism at the early stage of a relationship, but become more allergic to it over time. Get more bite marks on your tongue, by letting all but the most important issues go by. When you have a criticism, make it in three sentences or less. Remember this: No one can survive in a marriage (at least not happily) if they feel more judged than admired.
3. Overcome Your L.D.D. (Listening Deficit Disorder) Whole-hearted listening is the greatest spiritual gift you can give to your partner. Drop the defensiveness, and listen only to understand, without interrupting, correcting facts, or counter-punching. Save your defense for another conversation.
4. Be self-focused. Connect with friends and family, pursue your own interests, and be of service to others. If your primary energy isn’t directed to living your own life as well as possible, you’ll be over-focused on your partner in a worried or critical way.
5. Apologize. Offer the olive branch. You can say, “I’m sorry for my part of the problem” even if you’re secretly convinced that you’re only 28% to blame.
6. Sweat the Small Stuff. When you say you’ll do something, do it! Never assume that your overall contribution to the relationship compensates for failing to do what you have agreed to do, whether it’s picking up your socks or moving the boxes out of the garage by Sunday.
7. Stop the emotional pursuit. Under stress, don’t press. If you pursue a distancer, he or she will distance more. Consider it a fundamental law of physics. Focus less on your partner, and more on your own life plan. A distant partner is more likely to move toward you when he or she has breathing room and can see you taking good care of yourself.
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