Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
You’re still angry about that? It isn’t always a big, obvious misstep such as infidelity or dishonesty that derails a marriage. Some relationships are undone by an event so small or distant that one partner is befuddled about why the other considers it a big deal. Other marriages fail because of misunderstandings or miscommunications that slowly and steadily undermine the partnership. This year, an added element has exposed how vulnerable many marriages are to stressful irritations. Lawyers say there has been a spike in divorce requests because couples have spent much more time together as they have sheltered in place and because they have faced greater financial challenges.
Here are four seemingly small things that can bring a relationship crashing down…
The Long-Ago Misstep
A wife asked her husband to skip a business trip and stay home to care for her when she felt very sick. He went anyway. Decades later that decision still haunted the relationship. The wife couldn’t get past it because, to her, the long-ago business trip was just one example of a larger pattern—she felt her husband was never there for her when she needed him. The event triggered in her a need to constantly monitor her husband’s behavior for further evidence that he would disappoint her.
Although there were times throughout their marriage when he took her feelings into consideration, the wife failed to notice these exceptions.
This wife wasn’t intentionally being unfair to her husband—she truly believed he kept letting her down. But her belief had less to do with her husband’s behavior than it did with human psychology—people tend to seize on evidence that supports their existing beliefs and ignore evidence that refutes it.
What to do: If your partner continually accuses you of a pattern of misbehavior that you do not believe exists, set aside your defensiveness for the sake of the relationship and apologize. Whether or not the accusation is warranted, your partner believes it is. Your relationship will not escape the cycle of blame and defensiveness unless you express contrition and genuine empathy for the pain your partner is feeling. It helps to remember that your partner’s pain is real even if the pattern you’re being accused of is not. Promise to work hard at correcting the pattern, then go above and beyond to do so. Your promise of change followed by clear evidence of new behavior could convince your partner that a new and positive pattern has begun.
You might be thinking, That’s not fair—why should I apologize for something I didn’t do? No, it isn’t fair. But you have to make a choice—would you rather be right or be happy?
If you are the one who sees a problematic pattern that your partner denies, watch carefully for counterexamples that suggest the pattern is less clear-cut than you believe. Keep a list of these counterexamples to balance the mental list you likely already keep of examples that support the pattern, and then be open to letting go of your negative belief.
Giving Love the Way You Want It
You probably learned the golden rule as a child—treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Turns out, that’s not always good advice for couples.
When people show love for their partners, they tend to express their love in the way that they like to receive love. But the things that make your partner feel loved probably are very different from the things that make you feel loved. Sometimes this is because of gender differences—many women feel most loved when they have deep, meaningful conversations with their partners…while many men feel most loved when they are physically intimate with their partners. But not everyone falls into these gender roles.
There are five broad ways in which people give and receive love to partners, sometimes called “love languages.” Some people feel most loved when their partner spends quality one-on-one time with them, doing things together or just listening closely to what they say…or when the couple has sex. Other people feel closest when the partner does things to lighten their load…or provides encouraging words…or gives thoughtful gifts.
When partners speak different love languages, it can leave both of them feeling unloved even when both are genuinely trying to express their love.
What to do: If you have been with your partner for many years, you probably already know which of the five love languages he/she most values. If you don’t, it’s time to ask. Then express love to your partner this way, no matter your personal preference. Meanwhile, confirm that your partner understands what makes you feel truly loved. Don’t get angry if your partner occasionally reverts to showing you love the way that he likes to receive love—it takes time to break habits. When you receive your partner’s preferred type of love, remind yourself that your partner is showing you love but in his preferred way.
Many people believe it must be a positive thing for partners to always seek to be on the same page on any given topic. Actually, that thinking can devastate a relationship.
It’s not realistic to expect two people to be in agreement on everything, and when couples treat total agreement as a goal, they tend to see their inevitable disagreements as a serious problem—a sign that they’re not really right for each other. These problems are exacerbated when one partner squelches disagreements by insisting that the other partner must fall into line and agree. Example: A man refused to accept that his wife could have different opinions than his own regarding virtually anything, including the state of their marriage. When she suggested that they had begun to drift apart following a relocation to Chicago, he said, “You don’t really believe that, right?”
What to do: Remain open to the possibility that two people can have completely different opinions without either of them being wrong. Make it your goal to listen to and understand your partner and to treat her point of view with respect, even if you do not fully agree. Consider differences of opinion as opportunities for engaging in debate or for learning something about your partner—not as arguments or signs of incompatibility.
Feeling Out of Focus
“I love you…but I’m no longer in love with you.” When someone says these words, it means that he no longer feels close to his partner but can’t point to any big, dramatic reason why. His partner hasn’t made any major missteps…the spark is simply gone.
The partner’s focus usually is at the root of these feelings. At the beginning of the relationship, you felt like you were your partner’s primary focus…but over the years, the focus has shifted to career, kids or other interests. That has left one or both feeling disconnected from the other and wondering, Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?
What to do: Think back to the beginning of your relationship, when you felt passion for each other. What, specifically, did you and your partner do together that made you feel like you were each other’s focus? Maybe you had special meals together…or took long walks where you discussed art and movies.
Do those things again, at least once a week. The activities that made a couple feel focused on each other in the past often will do so again in the present. Schedule this together time in advance if life has become too busy to depend on it happening naturally.
Meanwhile, stop keeping score. A partner who feels he is no longer the other’s focus probably has been blaming that partner for the lack of closeness for some time. Your feelings of distance are not something that your partner did to you—it’s perfectly normal for the passion and focus that existed early in a relationship to be replaced by routine and responsibility as the years pass. If you want that passion and focus back, don’t allow your sense of having been hurt or rejected prevent you from doing something positive such as scheduling meaningful time together.