There is no perfect marriage and all marriages need constant attention to keep them vibrant and alive. Years of working with couples has taught me the number one reason marriages fall apart is because partners stop listening and paying attention to each other. When someone feels as though what they say or feel doesn't matter, they learn to protect themselves from getting hurt. They achieve this by giving up on expressing their emotional needs. Once this happens the couple loses the ability to feel emotionally connected and they begin feeling lost and alone. Resentment begins to fill the void.
Suppressing how you feel is never healthy, but it has deleterious effects when you can't express how you feel to the one person you vowed to be with forever. Feeling detached and resentful, you lose your admiration and love for each other over time.
There are signs to look for before this downward cycle begins in your marriage, however, you must pay attention. Frequent check-ins with your partner, asking them directly how they feel and taking ownership of "your part" can help you stop, change and redirect if you notice these patterns of behavior becoming more frequent in your relationship.
- You avoid issues rather than working them out. Sweeping hurts or problems under the rug to avoid an argument is okay if you make sure you address it later, if that works for the two of you. Sit down when you're both in a quiet place and rather than argue with no change, brainstorm solutions. There is no one way to fix issues; the best way will be whatever the two of you create together.
- Tit for tat compromise. When you see this in your marriage understand it is fueled by revenge. The idea is you want to punish your partner for hurting you or not attending to your needs. You begin keeping score. This is built on a love scarcity model. Basically, I love you if I get something back. If you see this in your marriage, it's important that you seek a professional's help. It's a sign of resentment, anger and detachment. A counselor can help you learn to express your needs directly to your partner. This behavior is a high alert to therapists when they see couples engaged in this tactic.
- You play the blame game. When you feel as though the problem is your spouse you have a problem. Criticizing your partner causes more conflict and resolves nothing. Besides, there are very few negative behaviors that happen in marriage without both partners contributing. When one partner blames another they are giving their power exclusively to their partner. If their partner "fixes themselves" the marriage can be saved. If not, the other partner gives up or nags. Much better to own your part of the marriage issues and be willing to change in order to enhance the relationship. When you go to couple's therapy tell the counselor you want to learn skills that will help you each be a better partner.
- The same argument keeps coming back. If you notice the same argument again and again, it's a warning sign that the two of you need to work on your ability to resolve and clear the air over problems. Couples who let this go end up feeling as though they constantly lose arguments and must defend their position. You cannot feel close to your partner if you can't be accepted for your opinion and your feelings. Couples need to understand that being in love is not agreeing on everything. It's having the compassion to listen to each other and support their feelings even when they're different than yours. Begin to discuss and practice accepting each other's differences.
- One of you or both of you put the children first. Marriage comes first. The health of your relationship is the foundation of your children, not the other way around. If you put your children first, you will exhaust your marriage. Couples who don't nurture one another and their marriage because of the children end up feeling resentful and alienated from each other and their children end up being insecure and demanding. Take the pressure off your kids and get back in touch with your partner. Physical affection helps couples reconnect, lowers stress and nurtures emotional connection.
Breaking these negative patterns and building a healthy relationship of trust, love and intimacy is not easy. Remember that nothing changes until you commit to changing and owning your part. There is no perfect marriage, but there are perfectly imperfect marriages. The whole idea is to find someone with whom you can be vulnerable, work, and love. It's up and down, messy and beautiful. It mimics life, and like life, it's who you share it with that matters most.