You find yourself in a marriage crisis.
Perhaps your spouse just told you about how unhappy, dissatisfied, disappointed, frustrated, or angry he or she is. Perhaps your spouse talked about separation or divorce.
Your first reaction is likely shock. You feel that gut-wrenching grab in your stomach, the cold sweat of fear gripping you. The floor can seem to fall out from under you.
If you are like most people, your initial response is to try to convince your spouse that he/she is wrong.
You beg and plead for an opportunity to change. For an opportunity to do something different.
You are hoping that your spouse’s mind can be changed.
Reality check: the reaction of convincing, begging, and pleading sets the stage for an even deeper crisis.
In other words, your initial response may do more to push the marriage into crisis than your spouse was even feeling!
But that doesn’t mean that the marriage has no chance. Or that there is nothing you can do. Only that your initial reaction may cause more problems.
You want to be opening possibilities, not deepening the crisis and closing doors, right?
So let’s just admit that those reactions are based in fear. Fear is primitive, and not the best point of reaction.
There are several reasons why this can be counterproductive.
First, you will likely end up reenforcing the beliefs your spouse already has. The reactions of begging and pleading only make you look needy and unreasonable. If your spouse has any feeling that he/she is not getting his/her needs met, this reaction will create an immediate thought of “see, this is just what I am talking about.”
Second, if your spouse feels unheard, misunderstood, or ignored, then as you are trying to “convince” him/her, all that will be felt is you being more dismissive of his or her feelings. You may think you are speaking logically, but it will be heard as you being dismissive.
Third, there is a psychological term that you need to understand: “psychological reactance.” This term refers to the fact that all of us, when we feel pushed, pulled, cajoled, etc., will tend to do the exact opposite, even if we agree with direction to which we are being pushed or pulled.
If someone throws us a rope and pulls, we will pull back. We truly are “stubborn as a mule!”
So, don’t give more to push against.
Okay, so we have established that the begging, pleading, and convincing will not convince, but will only firm the beliefs you really want to change.
So how do you respond?
First, let’s talk about some “don’ts.”
DO NOT try to use “reverse psychology.” This is the type of communication that many resources on the internet suggest.
Reverse Psychology may work on your 5 year old: “don’t you dare drink that milk! You do NOT want to get strong!” But it will NOT work on an adult.
It may surprise your spouse, and just for a moment, confuse them. But then they will be onto you. And you will lose even more credibility.
By the time your spouse tells you there is a problem, he or she has been thinking about it for awhile. The various scenarios have been painted. It may be news to you, but it is not to your spouse.
Whatever reverse psychology you might use, it will do one of 2 things:
- lead your spouse to think you agree (when you do not),
- lead your spouse to think you are not taking it seriously (when you do).
So, no reverse psychology!
Also, don’t get caught up in believing you need to fix everything in one conversation, either right after your spouse “drops the bomb” or any other time.
Marriages are not saved or destroyed in a single conversation.
We all are great script writers. We are worthy of Oscars. The only problem is, we are all writing the scripts, but no one else is following OUR script! They are following (or trying to follow) the one in their own head.
While you are rehearsing that conversation and how it will go, realize it won’t go that way, so don’t place all your hopes on that one convincing, transforming conversation.
Don’t try to initiate a big relationship talk.
This is not the time to delve into your issues, hashing them out, and hoping for resolution. Remember: psychological reactance. Also remember that the more we talk about our beliefs, the more deeply we believe them.
The more your spouse repeats his/her feelings of unhappiness and belief that the marriage is doomed, the more deeply he/she will come to believe it.
Don’t dodge your spouse’s relationship conversations.
Just don’t initiate them or perpetuate them. Listen. Don’t correct. Listen. Don’t argue. Listen. Actively listen. Ask questions, clarify to make sure your spouse feels heard and that you understand (not agree, just understand what he/she is saying).
If you can’t beg and plead, and you can’t pretend to agree, what can you do?
Gather your courage. And remind yourself that courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of fear.
Thank your spouse for being honest and sharing.
Be very clear that it probably took a great deal of energy for your spouse to even speak. This is true, even if you do not agree with what your spouse said. It still took energy. It was a risk. Honor that, even if you don’t like what was said.
For example, “Wow! That must have been hard to say! That is hard to hear, but I am sure it was harder to say.”
Accept that what he or she said is what he or she feels (at least right now).
For example, “I think I understand how you are feeling. Is this right? (then repeat what you think you heard)”
It is important to check to make sure you understood.
I have heard from many people that assume they are headed for divorce, when in reality, the spouse just needed the relationship to change.
You can also verbalize that you are a bit surprised (if you are), and that you do not feel the same way, but certainly understand that is how he/she feels.
Also, you can state how sad you are that there is so much disconnection that you were unaware (if you were unaware). If you were aware of the disconnect, you can say it: “I have been feeling disconnected, too. I am so sad we are at this place.”
Be careful. This is not the time to problem-solve.
No suggestions of how to fix the problem. At this point, you want to hear your spouse, let him/her know you listened, that you know it was hard to say, and a statement of your own sadness.
There is time for rebuilding in the days to come.
Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage. <=== Click Here!