Marriage Exercise: 10 Things I Love About You Follow these exercises to save your marriage from the ravages of fault-finding. BY DR. CARLA MARIE GRECO
Find the parts of your marriage that irk you and eradicate them by doing a few exercises.
“ Habits are often created on an unconscious level; we are often completely unaware when we are creating certain unhealthy patterns!”
Your spouse drives you crazy. It’s those little (or big) annoying habits and irritations that wear on you day in and day out. On one hand, you love your sweetheart, but on the other hand you want to scream!
What do you do when you feel the push and pull of these opposing forces? Do you hug your partner or grimace and boil in frustration? I say: It’s a matter of choice.
"Ha!" you might respond, "You don’t have to live with my spouse. I do! You just don’t know what a pain he (or she) can be!"
Certainly, all of us have a few irksome routines and oddities that might annoy others to the point of tears. When living in the same household, these personal characteristics pop up front and center. Little oddities that were once endearing can become a source of chronic irritation. Is the toilet seat left up? Does she talk on the phone more than she talks to you? Are video games consuming his free time? Does she forget to do fill up the gas tank? Does he drink milk from the carton? Is she always 15 minutes late? Did he bounce another check? Is it "mac and cheese" again? Did she stay out too late with the girls? Could he stop being such a flirt?
Oh, the long-term effects of irritating habits can surely nibble and gnaw away at the best of marriages! If we aren’t careful—and before we know it—we no longer see the adorable person we fell in love with, but instead all we see is a growing mountain of glaring faults and defects! It is not the major and devastating marital life issues I am talking about here (for example, an extramarital affair), but those annoying little patterns and grievances that end piling into a garbage heap.
It can be difficult to get out of the fault-finding cycle, but it can be done! On a neurobiological level, anything that we do repeatedly becomes engrained in the brain’s neural pathways. Believe it or not, this goes for noticing—and concentrating on—the faults in our loved ones. Habits are often created on an unconscious level; we are often completely unaware when we are creating certain unhealthy patterns! While we might set out purposefully to do certain activities on a regular basis (such as drinking plenty of water or exercising every morning), we often just "slip into" other behaviors and ways of thinking at a level just below our conscious awareness. This is often where the trouble starts. The good news is that you are not doomed to repeat old patterns! It is the brain’s amazing neural plasticity that gives us the opportunity to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. What does this mean to you? It means that you can choose to take on a new way of perceiving those irritating habits! Too, it gives you the chance to respond to your spouse in a new—and more loving—way.
When we silently wait for the other person to change, the unspoken angst can mount until there is a breakdown in communication altogether. Conversely, if the irritating issues are used against a spouse at every turn, the marriage can begin to feel like a battle zone. Whether the list of annoyances is spoken or unspoken, the result is that no one is happy and nothing is solved. In fact, the situation can too-easily degrade into bouts of angry silence or occasional shouting matches. As each spouse waits for the other to change, the irritation mounts and the frustration increases. It’s a relationship standoff where no one ends up winning. But, there is another way.
Change Your Mindset
You might already be thinking, "Well, I shouldn’t have to change, it’s my spouse who is in the wrong!"
If that sounds like you, it might be a good time to take a different perspective. We’ve all been there. Do any of these sentences sound familiar?
"Oh, if he would only learn to be a bit more romantic." "I wish she weren’t so darn sensitive. If she’d toughen up a bit, she’d know I’m only joking!" "I know that things would be so much better if he spent more time with me!" "If she didn’t work so hard, I bet we’d have the kind of sex we used to have!" "We wouldn’t have any problems if his mother weren’t so over-involved."
Given the nature of many relationships, I imagine you might have your own list of similar statements. Do you notice any particular similarity in these all-too-common statements? In short, they are all examples of "if-then" thinking.
When you engage in "if-then" thinking, you, quite simply, become stuck. By using the words (or thoughts) of "if and then," you have placed a condition that depends upon some change or event coming to pass. Here’s an example: "If my sweetie were more romantic, then our marriage would improve." The condition you have unconsciously placed upon your marriage is that your marriage won’t improve unless your sweetheart is more loving. In a peculiar way, "if-then" thinking sets up your relationship for failure. When we use this type of thinking, we begin a process of thought patterns that stops us from taking responsibility for our own role in a marriage. When we use "if-then" thinking, we give up our personal power and self-responsibility. In short, we make our happiness dependent upon something else happening.
As if that aspect of "if-then" thinking is not problematic enough, let’s use a variation of the above example to hone in on another catch of "if-then" thinking. "If my spouse were more loving, then our relationship would be like it was when we were dating." Stop to think for a minute. Not only is it an example of "if-then" thinking, but it also lacks clarity and intention. What do you mean by "loving?" So many times our conditions are very broad and we haven’t delineated our expectations!
When you say "loving," does that mean you would like a home-cooked meal once a week? Fresh flowers twice a month? A good hug to start the day? Sex three times a week? A love note in your pocket? Without knowing it, you have set up a condition without having a clear goal or plan in mind of how to achieve it.
Now, for the really great news! Once you are aware of patterns like "if-then" thinking, you can begin to make changes. That’s the lovely part of neuroplasticity; the brain readily adapts when you begin working on patterns through methods such as neuro-linguistic programming. In essence, by paying attention to your thoughts and words—and really noticing their underlying messages and the patterns they create—you can begin to improve your ability to communicate. Armed with a more thorough understanding of who you are and what you want or need, your personal relationships improve and thrive.
Get Started With 5 Simple Steps
Before you begin, note these few basic guidelines:
* Write without self-judgment! The first few exercises require that you write from your heart without self-editing. Don’t be critical of yourself. This is about letting your thoughts and feelings arise freely.
* As you move through the steps, you’ll find that several steps allow the more logical mind to move in to hone in on thinking errors and unconscious beliefs.
* This is your personal work. We are often accustomed to running to friends or family for their feedback. These exercises, when in progress, are all about you learning more about you.
* This exercise can be terrifically beneficial when both partners work independently and then share their results at the end. To keep lines of communication open and clear, it’s important to allow your spouse to have his or her own unique perspective! The goal is to move forward, not stay stuck!
Step 1: Write a list of your spouse’s 10 most irritating patterns and habits that drive you bonkers. It is fine if your list is shorter, but really allow yourself an opportunity rant! It’s fine to get a bit silly on this one too. When you’re done, put away the list for one week. Pull it out again on a day when you are not upset with your spouse. Are there are items you can cross off? If so, keep it that way. The next time you are angry, remember that those are items that aren’t truly upsetting to you. Most likely, these items are more "emotional ammunition" than a source of true irritation. If you can laugh off some of those items, kudos to you. You might even find one or two that were charming at one time; put an asterisk or heart next to those items. If they were endearing once, you can imagine finding them endearing again.
Step 2: Working toward a goal can be truly enjoyable. Make a list of the 10 top "if-then" sentences that automatically stream through your mind when things get rocky. Again, your list might be shorter than 10 items, but try to really brainstorm here! Think of all those conscious and unconscious thoughts you have that make the success of your relationship contingent on something else occurring. Once you’ve finished, put your list away for 24 hours. This will give your thoughts time to stir and shift.
Step 3: Bring out your list of "if-then" sentences. Take each sentence, one at a time, and change it up. Change each sentence into a form that turns it into a GOAL. For example, an "if-then" sentence on your list might be something like this, "If my sweetie would only treat me better, then I wouldn’t feel so ignored and alone." Here’s a possible conversion of that sentence, "I would love having more real time to share with my sweetie; we could do this by cooking together and dining at the table instead of eating in front of the television." It takes a bit of time, thought, and reworking, but you can shift each sentence into a form that makes a meaningful goal that you feel could be accomplished. It’s important to keep the focus on changes that you can make. Work on creating positive shifts in your own attitudes and behaviors. When each spouse focuses on their own part, the emphasis is taken off of finger-pointing!
Step 4: Share your revised, goal-oriented sentences with your spouse. Keep your mind open when you listen to your partner’s sentences. Notice that if you each make a commitment to keeping your side of the equation flowing (the behaviors and thoughts that you can control), the chances for success improve dramatically. Neither of you know exactly what the outcome will be, but if you set good intentions and positive goals, good things ultimately happen. In most cases, you’ll find that you are both after creating a better, more bonded marriage. Negotiate in a playful and loving way to create a win-win situation!
Step 5: This step is the cherry on top! Take out 10 sticky notes. On each one write out 10 things that you "love" about your sweetheart. No matter how silly, no matter how goofy, it is these things that most likely drew you to your partner. Is it his laugh that makes you melt? Is it her lips that bring you to your knees? Do you love the way his eyes crinkle at the corners? Or the way he looks at you through sleepy eyes in the morning? Do you adore the way she smiles? Or is it her pout that turns you on? Remember all those priceless little bits that you love about your sweetie. Write them down and post those sticky notes where you’ll see them daily. Place them on your door, your mirror, or your bathroom wall. Even when (or especially when) things get bumpy, remember these precious things about your husband or wife. Consciously focus on them at least once a day. Just as you can forget to stop and smell the roses that once had you lingering in their fragrance, you can forget the priceless bits of your love that are terrifically important. What you focus on is what you’ll tend to see! Focus on the positive! Make a commitment to yourself that you will focus on what you love about your spouse!
Remember, the brain doesn’t change overnight. If you find yourself slipping into old patterns, be kind to yourself and your sweetie. With practice and patience, you’ll find yourself making more positive changes week by week. As you continue on your marital journey, you can make a commitment to affirm and acknowledge the most precious aspects of your spouse. Now that you know how to focus on the 10 things you love about your spouse, you can put aside the things that drive you nutty.
Dr. Carla Marie Greco has her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a private practice in Santa Rosa, California. Dr. Greco specializes in the treatment of anxiety, trauma, depression, grief, and life transition issues. Her greatest goal is to offer services to those in need, offering select appointments on a "sliding scale" for those who have serious financial constraints. Pro bono services, including EMDR, are available for our veterans suffering from issues such as combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD. Dr. Greco is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Redwood Psychological Association. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com.