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Six tools to repair emotional damage in your marriage

Rudy and Marjorie were on the verge of divorce. Married 12 years, they had constant verbal battles ending in what therapists call emotional disengagement— meaning that they simply ignored each other for days on end.

Emotionally, they were simmering inside and also lonely for each other, but were unable to reach out and communicate these feelings. They were in a “cold war” with both waiting for the other to make the first move to melt the icy atmosphere.

This couple suffers a common marital malady—lack of skills to repair emotional damage done to each other.

According to marital research, almost all couples fight; what often separates the “masters” of marriage from the “disasters” of marriage is the ability to repair the subsequent damage.

Acquiring good repair skills gives the couple a way to recover from the mistakes they may have made. These repair skills provide a “fix” for the damage caused in attempting to communicate to each other in a way that caused emotional hurt to one or both of them.

It is common for partners to make relationship mistakes – after all anyone can have a bad day, be under too much stress or just use poor judgment in dealing with a situation.

Rather than emotionally disengaging from each other or staying angry, try to “fix it” if you are the offender.

And if you are the receiver of the damage, your challenge is to find a way to accept your partner’s repair attempt— that is, to see your partner’s repair attempt as an effort to make things better.

Repair Tool #1—Apologize

A simple sincere and heartfelt apology can sometimes do wonders for a relationship, especially if your partner sees you as a person who never admits they are wrong or at fault. Say things like: I’m sorry; I apologize; What I did was really stupid; I don’t know what got into me.

Repair Tool #2—Confide Feelings

Be honest and share the feelings that are underneath the anger such as fear, embarrassment, or insecurity. Your partner may respond to you quite differently if they see those other emotions, instead of just the anger.
Confiding what is in your heart and in your mind can make a huge difference in promoting understanding, closeness, and intimacy.
Say things like: I was really afraid for our daughter when I got so angry; I didn’t want to hurt you; I just lost my cool.

Repair Tool #3—Acknowledge Partner’s Point of View

This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it; just acknowledging it can decrease tension and conflict because it shows your partner you are at least listening to them. It also demonstrates empathy—the ability to see things from their vantage point instead of only yours.
Say things like: I can see what you mean; I never looked at it that way.

Repair tool #4—Accept Some of the Responsibility for the Conflict

Very few conflicts are 100% the fault of either partner. Instead, most conflicts are like a dance with both of you making moves to contribute to the problem. Inability to accept any responsibility is a sign of defensiveness rather than the openness required for good communication. Say things like: I shouldn’t’ have done what I did; I guess we both blew it; I can understand why you reacted to me that way.

Repair tool #5—Find Common Ground

Focus on the issue at hand and what you have in common rather than your differences. For instance, you might both agree that raising healthy children is a common goal even though you differ in parenting styles. Say things like: We seem to both have the same goal here; we don’t agree on methods but we both want the same outcome.

Repair Tool #6—Commit to Improve Behavior

“I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it if you continually repeat the offensive behavior. Backup words with action. Show concrete evidence that you will try to change. Say things like: I promise to get up a half hour earlier from now on; I’ll call if I’m going to be late; I’ll only have two drinks at the party and then stop.

Anger in the American family – four steps to teach family to treat you better

Case #1- Elizabeth, a 40 year old homemaker was always feeling angry and “used” by her family, constantly saying that everybody took advantage of her. She felt that she worked like a slave but her family showed no appreciation or acknowledgment of her many efforts.

Case #2- Bill, a 34 year old husband complained that his critical wife was always angry at him. He spent his life trying to cope with her outrages which often escalated him into defensive anger which didn’t happen anywhere but in this relationship.

Case#3- Betty, a 42 year separated mother struggled with her soon to be ex-husband’s contempt and disrespect every time she angrily called him to discuss details of their divorce.

These three cases bring up the question often asked by participants in our anger management classes: Is it possible to control how family members treat us? The short answer is “no” — but often we can teach them to treat us better!

Believe it or not, we are constantly teaching our family how to treat us— both by our responses to their behavior, and by the behavior we display to them which they react to. In our case examples:

By automatically doing whatever her husband and children requested, Elizabeth was “teaching” them that there are almost no limits to what she would do for them. With his behavior, Bill was actually teaching his wife that the way to get attention from him (even if it was negative attention) was for her to create drama.

Betty was so intimidated by her husband, that her defensive “attitude” was “teaching” him that to deal with her, he had to push back with the contempt and disrespect that he constantly showed her.

The dance of anger

Our interchange with family members is often like a carefully choreographed dance. They make a move. You make a move in response to their move. They then respond to what you said or did and ….well, you get the idea!

How do you change the dance? Start by seeing yourself as a teacher—of how you would like your family to treat you.

Four ways to change what you teach others

  1. Try a softer-start-up. Marital research shows that the first few seconds of an interaction can predict the final outcome of the encounter. Try being softer, more polite, more respectful, less hostile, or more empathetic—and see how this change in your approach actually teaches others to respond better to you.
  2. Take a time-out before dealing with the conflict or situation. Conflicting or arguing family members often work themselves up to a point at which problem solving is impossible. The solution is to retreat and give yourself time to calm down and think things over. This takes at least 20 minutes, often much longer. Before taking your time out, it is important to tell the other person that you will commit to returning soon to deal with the conflict, after you are calmer—then be sure to do it!
  3. Acknowledge that you see how they must be seeing the situation. Called “empathy,” this response on your part teaches others that you care about their feelings and viewpoints, and opinions. Acknowledgment doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with their viewpoint—only that you see it. Sometimes, your family needs to know that you care about them and respect their opinions before they listen to what you say.
  4. Set limits and boundaries for your family members. Limits and boundaries are basically rules regarding acceptable behaviors toward you as well as what you are willing or not willing to do. If you feel others are taking advantage of you, ask yourself what you may be doing (or not doing) to give the message it is “ok” for them to do whatever they are doing. Often you can change their behavior toward you by teaching them different rules of being with you. The easiest way to do this is simply to respond differently yourself. For instance, they make you the core of a nasty joke. Being a nice person, you pretend it doesn’t bother you( even though it does), so you laugh with everybody else. As an alternative, try not laughing with them, which is a way of teaching them that they have crossed a boundary with you.

How to be less angry in your marriage – Tips on how to become allies around issues

Tom and Mary have been married for 10 years. Both are employed. Let’s listen in on an angry conversation they are having in their kitchen while making dinner:

(curtain up)

Mary: Would it have killed you to stop off on your way home to buy me some Valentine flowers?

Tom: You should have seen the traffic. It was horrible. I didn’t have time to stop. Besides, last week you never picked up my dry cleaning like you promised.

Mary: That’s the feeblest excuse I ever heard! I’ll tell you what it REALLY is. You forgot to get me something because you don’t care anymore.

Tom: How can you say that? I just built that bookcase for you, didn’t I? And didn’t I just change the oil in your car last Saturday?

Mary: Fine! (said with a hollow and sarcastic tone)
Tom: Anything good on TV tonight?

(curtain down)

After this interchange, the children came into the room which resulted in Mary and Tom focusing on them and thus avoiding each other the rest of the evening. Although neither could admit it, they were both miserable and lonely, wanting to connect with each other but not knowing how.

Turning each other into strangers

Even though they loved each other, Mary and Tom had effectively turned each other into strangers, feeling miles apart emotionally while sitting at the same table, sleeping in the same bed, and living in the same house.
Both felt misunderstood, angry, resentful and unappreciated.

Turning each other into enemies

In contrast, Dennis and Nancy , married only 6 months, found themselves constantly at odds with each other. Let’s listen in on their latest fight:

(curtain up)

Nancy: You left the toilet seat up again, just like a little boy. I almost sat in the water at 3AM this morning.

Dennis: You would think that an intelligent woman like you would remember to look to see if the seat was up or down before sitting down.

Nancy: You are inconsiderate and selfish and purposely do things to irritate me.

Dennis (to Nancy): I forgot! Get off my back.

Dennis (to himself): Why should I give in her to? Last week she wouldn’t even have sex with me after I bought her that expensive Valentine’s gift.

(curtain down)

Anger is a “fall-back” position

In both these marriages, anger is seen as “fallback” behavior—what the couple resorted to when they were unable to express themselves to their partners in any other way. Their goal wasn’t to fight: it was to be heard by the other, to control the other, or to get the other to change some problem behavior.

The crossroads moment

Truth is, at any moment in your relationship with your partner, you can elect to either antagonize them, alienate them, or turn them into an ally.

Solve the moment—not the problem

Anger in marriage is often generated by couples trying to solve an unsolvable issue. Many issues are unsolvable if attacked directly—this is true no matter who you are married to.

These issues are “perpetual” and successful couples find a way to be with each other despite these differences.

Rather than demanding change, (which often leads to frustration and anger), try instead opening up an honest dialogue around the dispute to develop deeper understanding of why both you and your partner feel as you do.

Seeing things from their point of view can do wonders to soften conflicts and decrease tensions, even if the original issue remains. Often your partner will try harder to change if they see that you are trying to understand them better.

You may also find that you too try harder to “soften” your anger if you feel that your partner is trying to understand your feelings around the issue.
Being on the same side of the issue—allies— is the key to dealing with it, even if the actual problem is never solved!

How to reduce resentment toward your partner – even if your partner won’t change!

Do You Have Resentment In Your Marriage?

Mary, age 40, came to see me recently for a consultation on how she could improve her marriage and deal with an angry husband who refused to see a marriage therapist. She was extremely resentful, unhappy and depressed. She had tried “everything” to get her husband to change- all to no avail.

The resentment Mary was feeling was normal when a partner has grievances toward their partner which are unexpressed – or- when your partner does not respond even when they are indeed expressed. Take our free Anger Quizto assess the degree of resentment in your marriage. Many times grievances are formed in a marriage because some essential needs are not being fulfilled – needs which you want satisfied through the marriage. After all, satisfaction of some of those needs are the reason you married in the first place.
Mind you, just because you have normal needs doesn’t necessarily mean you are “needy.” We all have needs, as a famous psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about way back in the 1940s. Here is a simplified version of his needs diagram. In Maslow’s theory, lower needs (such as having enough to eat) need to be satisfied before higher needs such as “esteem” seem important.

The question is:to what extent should we look toward marriage to satisfy some of these needs?

According to Dr. Finkel, some people put too much pressure on the marriage to satisfy those needs without considering other ways to get them satisfied – so that the marriage can still survive and you can be happy again.

Fact is, many people never ask themselves exactly what their needs are and to what extent they expect their marriage partner to satisfy those needs. When I asked Mary what she wanted or needed out of her marriage, she looked at me like a deer in the headlights.

She had never asked herself that question; she only knew that she was very unhappy with her life – and very unhappy with her husband who never seemed to change even though she constantly expressed her frustration and resentment to him.

You may not be aware of some of your needs

In reality, it not a simple question to answer for a number of reasons. First, you may not be aware of some of the needs you actually have – like needing to feel safe or needing to be acknowledged often for your contributions. If that is the case, you might want to consult a psychologist to help you sort it all out. After all, it is unfair to your partner to resent them for not satisfying needs that even you don’t know that you have.

Need satisfaction is a moving target requiring re-calibration

Secondly, what partners need from each other often changes as the marriage goes through different developmental stages (yes, marriages have developmental stages just like children do). Successful couples find a way to adapt to these changes and strive toward satisfying these changing needs either through the marriage itself or in other ways.

This often requires a recalibration of your relationship which is accomplished by asking yourself some basic questions, rather than holding resentment toward your partner who isn’t changing despite your pleas.

Three questions to ask yourself about your needs:

  • What needs do I have that can only be satisfied through my partner? Some needs indeed can only be satisfied by an intimate partner. After all, that is why we got married in the first place. Examples of needs in this category are to develop and sustain a warm emotional climate in the home, have a steamy sex life, co-parent and enjoy your children.
  • What needs do I have that can be met through our partner or some “other significant other” (OSO) such as a friend or other family member? Examples of needs in this category are to receive emotional support when something bad happens at work, celebrate when something good happens at work, debate politics, attend cultural events, travel.
  • What needs do I have that can be met through our partner, through an OSO, or on our own? Learning to meditate, anger management, deepen relationship with God, learning to play the piano, writing that long-promised novel.

When Mary looked at her list of needs, she was shocked at how much she was asking of her marriage. With her therapist, she began working on a more deliberate plan for meeting her needs.

The most difficult part of course is evaluating what to do about needs that indeed can only be satisfied by one’s partner. The good news is that often through re-calibration, we can create a different vibration in the home so that our partner might respond by being more motivated to indeed try harder.

For instance, if your need is to have a warm emotional climate in the home, you might work on being less critical and more trusting by letting go of resentments caused by things done in the past. How do you do this? Through the process of “forgiveness.” You can learn to forgive either through therapy or through a a faith-based approach (all religions encourage forgiveness).

Five tips for preventing resentment from ruining your marriage

When you and your spouse hit rough times, it seems that no matter what you do, things get worse.

You blame your spouse; your spouse blames you and nothing changes.

Out of desperation, you eventually step back from your situation and try to think more clearly. And thankfully, when you aren’t mired in the muck, you actually figure out more productive ways to handle your differences. You are determined to do better the next time a challenging situation rears its ugly head.

And then it happens. It feels like a déjà vu. The same old argument starts unfolding.

You and your spouse have been there so many times before.

And although you promised yourself that you would take the high road this time- to remain calm and loving in the face of controversy-your anger and resentment have another plan for you.

You are going to do the same old thing because you’re mad and resentful as hell and your spouse doesn’t deserve better treatment. All the brilliant planning for a better outcome goes right out the window.

Resentment wins. You lose. Sound familiar?

If you want to improve your relationship, you have to find ways to triumph over resentment so you can live up to the promises you make yourself to approach your spouse in more productive ways.

But the sixty-four thousand dollar question is, “How?” The following are five tips for rising above resentment.

  • To prepare for the next challenge, ask yourself, “How will I resist the temptation to allow resentment to run my life?” Most people believe that feelings are the trigger for how we behave.If we are fearful, we should avoid anxiety-producing situations. If we are shy, we must stay away from people.If we anticipate failure, we need to avoid challenging activities.But psychology has taught us that the best way to overcome negative emotions is to push ourselves to do the very thing we resist.When we face our demons, the demons go away.And it is then that we realize that feelings don’t have to run us. We can choose our how we act and react despite our feelings.The same is true for dealing with long-standing resentment in relationships. You can feel resentment and still behave in loving, productive ways toward your spouse.You can notice that you feel angry, but you can choose what you do next. In those testy moments, ask yourself, “What can I do to resist the temptation to give into this resentment?”You might need to take a few deep breaths or go for a walk. Perhaps asking your spouse for a time out would work.You might notice what that little voice inside your head is saying when you are angry. Is it fueling the fire by telling you your spouse is trying to make you angry?If so, turn down the volume of that voice. It’s just a thought and it isn’t helpful. Decide to replace it with a more positive thought such as, “She is doing the best she can right now.”
  • Understand your role in things spiraling down You might be wondering how you can beat resentment by understanding how you contribute to the problem. Here’s an example.George was extremely unhappy about his sex life. He and Fran made love once a month. If George had his way, they would make love three times a week. Clearly, there is a sizable desire gap in their marriage.If you ask Fran whether she likes sex, she will tell you, “Yes, but I don’t like having sex with George when he is angry.” Fran needs to feel close to George emotionally before she wants to be physically close.But George insists that he is angry because Fran won’t have sex. The angrier George becomes, the less Fran wants sex. The less Fran wants sex, the angrier George becomes. You get the picture.This is obviously the case of two rights. If George wants Fran to desire him, he has to be nicer to Fran. If Fran wants George to be nicer to her, she has to consider his need for touch.But even if George knows that he needs to be nicer to Fran, he might say that he can’t because he is so resentful about Fran’s blatant disregard for his feelings. However, if he can understand that part of Fran’s withdrawal has to do with his irritability, he can empathize with her and feel less resentful.When you feel resentful towards your spouse, ask yourself, “What are my steps in the dance we do together when things aren’t going well?”“What could I do differently that would, in turn, change our dance entirely?”And once you acknowledge that you really do have something to do with the problematic situation- and the solution- you will feel more compassion toward your spouse.Compassion helps you rise above resentment.
  • Focus on results Rather than pay attention to your feelings of resentment, when things go haywire, ask yourself, “What do I want to have happen?” “What’s my goal here?”In the same way that George realized that he had to be nicer and kinder to Fran if he wanted her to be more affectionate, he didn’t always feel like behaving that way.However, over time, he started to connect the dots…”When I’m kinder to
    Fran, she wants to be closer to me physically.”Observing the results of your behavior as opposed to the feelings you have inside is a sure-fire way to increase the odds you will get more of your needs met.And once that happens, resentment dissipates.
  • Forgive Judging your spouse harshly and feeling angry isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s downright harmful.Even if your spouse is making mistakes, it doesn’t mean he or she is doing it purposely. Poet and sage, Maya Angelou says (adapted a bit), “People do the best with the tools they have. If they knew better they would do better.”I totally believe this.If you truly believed that your spouse isn’t out to hurt you and that you are willing to wipe the slate clean, you will feel better and start acting in ways that signal you are ready to let go of the past.No one can free you from the shackles of resentment. You have to do it yourself. It doesn’t just happen. It requires a conscious decision to forgive and move forward.Once you realize that holding a grudge is really hurting you and your marriage, you can choose forgiveness and resentment will gradually melt away.This will make it easier for you to stick to your marriage-strengthening plan.
  • Remember, you are not perfect either I’ve heard it said that people who think they’re perfect have lousy memories.And isn’t that true? Everyone makes mistakes, even you and me.Remembering that you are great but not perfect will make it easier to be less judgmental of your partner.We are all imperfect beings.Don’t feel guilty about your mistakes but on the same count, don’t hold your spouse to a higher standard. If you do, you will have a hard time letting go of lingering feelings of anger and resentment.
  • Have compassion for both of youHere’s a personal challenge. The next time you feel resentment welling up in you, implement one or more of these five tips and see how much better you feel.

It’s a formula for success. 

© Michele Weiner-Davis, all rights reserved. michele@divorcebusting.com 303.444.7004 PO Box 271 Boulder, CO 80302