As the recent recession dug in, U.S. divorce rates started dropping. Not because everyone’s happier, mind you: We just can’t afford to split up. With our collective net worth down nearly 18 percent thanks to the downturn, who has the cash for a divorce attorney and alimony?
If you feel your relationship may be in peril, try this strategy: Fall back in love. It can be done. In fact, according to an Institute of American Values study, 64 percent of couples who were verging on breaking up but who stuck with their marriages and worked on them, found their way back to conjugal happiness within a few years. The route to marital happiness may not be as hard to find as you think, but you first have to identify why your relationship is off course. We surveyed experts to find out which types of strains tend to challenge couples the most, and how you can make happily last ever after.
In times of stress, we look to our relationships to help us through. But while singles start new relationships in times of stress, people who are already coupled up may find that stress can damage their relationship. It does this, in part, by eating away at our self-control and weakening the resources that usually stop us from, say, dropping mean, sarcastic wisecracks on our spouses. Self-control functions like a muscle. If you’ve been implementing a lot of self-control in other domains, you may start to have less left over for your relationship. So after you spend a day at the office trying not to say or do anything that will cost you your job, you may not have the resources left to handle even the smallest argument with your spouse.
The fix: Take some down time. When partners who generally have good relationship skills are under extreme work stress, they may have trouble using their best communication and relationship tools once they get initially get home. So try taking time to unwind after you arrive home by doing something to let go of some those stressors, instead of diving right into dinner (and potentially an argument) with your spouse. If you tell your spouse that dinner conversation is much more enjoyable after you’ve shed the day’s stress by shooting some baskets or tinkering in the garage, (for him) or talking with some girlfriends or (maybe she likes to shoot the hoops too!), each of you will be more likely to understand where you’re coming from. This will give both of you a chance to cool off before discussing your day.
Misreading Each Other?
When squabbles break out, partners tend to see each other’s negativity or hostility as an innate quality (“she’s just mean” or “he’s so stubborn”) instead of by-products of the current tension. When couples aren’t under any particular duress, they’re more likely to forgive occasional behavioral lapses. But in the heat of an argument, people often blame their mates for negative behaviors, and that pattern tends to build on itself over time.
The fix: Give each other the Benefit of the Doubt. Believe it or not, most pain inflicted in a relationship is accidental. Chances are, you’re not married to a jerk. Giving someone the “Benefit of the Doubt” means, given all evidence to the contrary, you first assume that they did not mean to hurt you on purpose. This makes forgiveness far easier to offer because there’s a lot less to forgive when you realize the behavior was accidental. If your wife snaps at you when she walks in the door at night, you first assume that she had a really bad day at work. If your husband didn’t clean up the back yard after he said he would, you first assume that other important tasks came up and his intention was never to purposefully ignore your request. Giving your partner the “Benefit of the Doubt” allows you to avoid becoming immediately angry, and therefore, to potentially access your patience and humor – doing this can dramatically decrease the number of times a mere misunderstanding turns into full-scale conflict.
Further, while occasional communication about the issues that bother you is important, try frequently communicating to each other about what you think is terrific about each other, rather than constantly trying to smooth out the tics that annoy you. Tell him (or her), for instance, that they did a great job painting the living room instead of saying, “That turned out well.” That way they’ll know that it’s him (or her) you’re impressed with, not chance.
You’re on the Wrong Side of the Libido Blanket?
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that one of the main issues that brings couples to therapy is disagreement around sex. A relationship is considered to have a problem with sex if either spouse is unhappy with the quality and/or quantity of sex. One of the reasons for this is that most women need to get started in the sexual process before they can even begin to decide if they want to have sex. This means that many women tend to wait to really feel like having sex before they even “step up to the plate.” As such, most women don’t feel safe starting something, if they’re not sure they’ll want to finish it. In other words, over time, many women stop giving passionate kisses to their husbands while standing in the kitchen because they feel horribly guilty if they get things started but don’t end up having sex. This can develop into a pattern of avoidance. Many women even admit to picking fights and feigning the ever-famous headache just to avoid disappointing their husbands. Let me make that clear, they don’t do it to avoid sex necessarily, they do it so that neither of them will have to feel the pain of a rejection.
How does this affect men? Well, one of the most common complaints I hear from men is, “The affection is missing. She doesn’t touch me anymore; she doesn’t kiss me anymore; she doesn’t even want to hold my hand.” Inevitably, I hear the woman say “Yeah, right. He just wants to have sex.” She believes that if she starts with an affectionate kiss on the couch and doesn’t take it any further, he’ll be mad and she’ll feel guilty. And often, she’s right. Men can take this lack of follow-through very personally and can have a very negative reaction, so that it sometimes seems easier for both parties to avoid the whole thing.
The fix: Touch without the turn-on. When a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University asked married couples to spend 3 days a week touching nonsexually for half an hour (with back rubs or foot rubs, for instance), the couples’ levels of the stress hormone amylase decreased, and the men’s blood pressure dropped. So even if you’re not in the mood for sex, some physical contact can help reduce your stress and improve the way you feel about each other. If you figure out what really hits the mark with your wife, her anxiety and tension about your relationship will diminish. Light physical contact may not be mind-blowing, but it’ll quickly renew your connection—and probably reignite her enthusiasm along the way.
You’re Ignoring the Little Things
Whether it’s going out of your way to find the book she wants to read, or simply moving one of his must-see movies to the top of the Netflix queue, sacrificing/compromising for each other can boost health and happiness and lower breakup rates. Compromise is a currency of relationships. Show each other that you’re committed and that you care about each other by putting the relationship and not yourself first. The good news is that when you sacrifice, the effort stands out. It’s a positive that’s really salient. It’s not necessarily expected, but it’s clear what you did for him or her.
The fix: Schedule sacrifice/compromise. Write down a few things you know your partner likes, and set a reminder on your Smartphone to do one of those things each week. If, on the other hand, you think you’re the one who’s sacrificing/compromising more, analyze the situation. Your partner may actually be sacrificing a lot for you, but it’s not in the channel you’re responding to. What evidence is there that they are thinking of you when you’re not around? Is the fridge always stocked with your favorite food? Did he/she let you change plans when your friend unexpectedly had a night free? If so, then thank him or her. They’ll be happy to hear it.
Do you know of more ways to reignite the passion between you? Let us know! Please comment below.
Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders, StrongMarriageNow.com