1. Being married doesn’t guarantee happiness.
I’m responsible for my happiness.
Do you know what makes you happy? When you’re having a bad day, do you know how to get yourself out of it? Believe it or not, it’s not up to your spouse to make you happy. Your spouse can support you, lift you up, encourage you and motivate you- but at the end of the day, your life and your happiness is up to you. No one is the keeper of your joy; your happiness is an inside job. And isn’t it kind of a relief to know that you aren’t the keeper of anyone else’s joy, too? Thinking that a spouse should make the other happy is a recipe for intense pressure, high expectations, and potential for codependency.
Sally is in a horrific mood. She was late to work, had to skip lunch, and when she gets home she sees a sink full of dirty dishes. She stomps around the house furious that no one bothered to clean up and thinks about how all the housework always falls on her. She expects Harry to know what she’s thinking and immediately help her clean as soon as he gets home, not to mention, ask her about her day so that she can express some pent-up emotions and feel better. A back rub sounds pretty nice, too. Harry comes home in a crummy mood, himself. To decompress, he decides to take the dog for a walk for his own self-care.
Sally could either:
yell at Harry about how he didn’t help her or make her feel better as soon as he got home from work, or
make a bubble bath and relax until Harry gets back from walking the dog and then she can tell him about her day and ask that they tackle the housework together.
Which should Sally do? What would you do?
2. Emotions and feelings can deceive me and will not last forever.
Emotions aren’t bad, but we shouldn’t allow them to control us. Instead, they should indicate that we need to pause and assess something. Before we have a feeling, we have a thought. If that thought is distorted, negative, false, or inflated, the emotion that comes isn’t going to be appropriate. If we don’t want to be deceived by our emotions, we must consider what thought produced that emotion. We also need to remember that feelings don’t usually last all that long. If we can learn to pause, breathe, and calm ourselves down before we react, initiate a conflict, or send that text, we’ll be much better off. Time has a way of making what seems like a huge deal not to be ignored, more trivial and small in the big scheme of things.
Harry forgets to put the toilet seat down and Sally falls in when she goes to the bathroom. Sally immediately says to herself, “how many times have I told Harry to put the toilet seat down? He doesn’t care about me if he doesn’t remember to do what I ask him to do. I’m so furious!”
Sally could either:
immediately talk to Harry which would be heated, angry, and blaming, after all, she’s furious. Because of this approach, Harry will immediately become defensive, while minimizing Sally’s emotions as dramatic and irrational, or
wait for her emotions to subside, remind herself that Harry does care about her even though he forgets this request, and speak to him later that day, so they can have a more productive conversation about what happened and a way to better remember next time. Harry won’t get so defensive and they won’t have a heated conflict to work through.
Which should Sally do? What would you do?
3. Forgiving your spouse doesn’t mean you’re letting them get away with it.
I’m capable of forgiving and being forgiven.
Do you like to be forgiven when you do something wrong? So do other people. When you choose to forgive, you aren’t justifying, forgetting, denying, or obliging. You are simply making the choice to get your own peace and joy back; after all, studies show that unforgiveness harbors all kinds of negative emotions for the victim, not the perpetrator. You’re acknowledging that people need grace, just as you do. The moment you choose to forgive, you let negativity melt away because you are taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for your own well-being, instead of placing it in someone else’s hands.
Harry finds out that Sally has been communicating with her ex-boyfriend on social media. Sally apologizes repeatedly, stops communicating with her ex, and takes responsibility for her actions.
Harry could either:
shut down on Sally emotionally and physically. He could choose resentment and anger, and internalize many false assumptions such as Sally finding him unattractive. He begins to feel unworthy and unlovable. Harry cannot stop thinking about what happened and cannot forgive her no matter how many times she apologizes, or
choose to assume Sally made a big mistake and trust that she will not do it again and is committed to their marriage. Harry chooses to forgive her rather than harbor resentment and hurt so that this situation doesn’t effect their entire relationship or his self-worth as a whole. They are able to have a vulnerable, honest conversation about why Sally connected with her ex to begin with.
What should Harry do? What would you do?
4. There is no person, including my spouse, that can fully meet my needs.
My worth, contentment, and safety isn’t my spouse’s job.
Who do you allow to tell you who you are? Other people, culture, yourself, a higher power? Have you ever asked yourself this question? So often, we allow our personal histories and choices to tell us who we are or we allow others to tell us who we are. This is dangerous because it can lead us on a wild goose chase trying to be that person until we are completely exhausted or broken, making the assumption that we aren’t worthy if we aren’t that person. A common obstacle to mental health is an incorrect view of oneself so we develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s important to build our inner resilience in order to handle emotions, criticism, and rejection. No one, not even our spouse, can be that shield for us. And without this inner resilience, it can destroy our self-worth, our inner peace, and our feeling of safety in this world. Learning to differentiate from your partner is learning how to be connected without it affecting your worth, identity, or how you think and feel. In other words, how your spouse feels about you (or says to you, or does to you) isn’t how you feel about yourself.
Sally is trying to get dressed for her date night with Harry but nothing seems to be fitting right. There is a mound of clothes on the floor and she is beginning to panic and her thoughts are filled with faulty assumptions like: I’m fat; he won’t think I’m pretty; I’m not worth being taken out; he’s going to be more attracted to someone else and cheat on me.
Sally could either:
place her worth, contentment, and need to feel attractive on Harry’s (human) shoulders. If Harry doesn’t behave or say what she needs for him to, her self-esteem could unravel at the seams, or
show resilience, speak truth to herself, and know that she is loved, worthy, valued, and safe no matter what someone else, including Harry, says to her, good or bad. She can see that she is being triggered and bounce back from her negative thoughts, not allowing them to stir shame which can breed disconnection. Thus, she can finish getting dressed and have a great date with Harry.
What should Sally do? What would you do?
5. There’s no marriage that can’t be healed.
Myself, my spouse, and my marriage are capable of changing.
We are all constantly changing whether we realize it or not. The first step is being aware of this and the next one is to be intentional on whether we’re changing for the better or the worse. Think about your marriage, yourself, and your partner on your wedding day. Now think of those things now. Have they changed? Of course. If there seems to be a negative trend in your marriage, you and your partner have got to be committed to doing the work if long-lasting positive change is going to happen. In my first sessions with couples, and individuals for that matter, I stress the importance of doing the work outside of our sessions together. But with the correct mindset, communication, willingness, tools, patience, and love- any marriage can be healed. I’ve seen it happen and it’s such an amazing experience to be a part of! You do not have to be stuck in an unhealthy marriage and divorce is not your only option out of an unhealthy marriage.
Harry and Sally agree to try couples counseling. They make weekly appointments and go to sessions together. They are open and vulnerable during sessions and make progress with the therapist. They realize that they have changed and that their marriage has changed.
They could either:
apply what they are learning outside of sessions and in their day-to-day lives. Use the tools of healthy communication and compromise, along with using awareness of their own coping and defense mechanisms to minimize conflicts and increase intimacy, or
only validate, honor, and take ownership of their thoughts, feelings, and actions in sessions and once they walk out of the session, go right back to their destructive patterns. They tell each other that “they are who they are, and cannot change,” have a fixed mindset on themselves and their marriage, and don’t put in the time, effort, or empathy it takes to create lasting, positive change. But they both sit back and still wonder why their relationship isn’t getting any better.
What should they do? What would you do?
Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.
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