Last week my good friend Justin in Texas tweeted, “I’ve been married to a dietician for nearly 18 years. I’ve never been trapped at home with her for weeks on end.” You may easily convert Justin’s sentiment into the language of your own very recent lived experience.
Given my profession, it’s not uncommon for me to be asked for marriage advice. This seems as good a time as ever to offer some. You may think these tips should go without saying, but in my professional experience as a marriage and family therapist and my own personal experience of fifteen years of marriage, they have not.
Seek to understand before demanding to be understood
Arguments drenched in defending, criticizing, and debating facts cause vicious cycles of resentment and emotional paralysis. It is not easy to listen humbly and negotiate vulnerably through the tremble of raw emotion. Yet, when empathy is experienced, togetherness is more likely to be experienced, even in conflict. Dr. Sue Johnson, a leading expert on couple’s therapy in Ottawa, Canada, has written of fighting couples, “Both are terrified; they are just dealing with it differently. Trouble is, once they start this blame-distance loop, it confirms all their fears and adds to their sense of isolation.”
Be quick to repair hurt feelings
One day early in marriage, my wife Karla sensed my odd vibe, I didn’t like her asking, and it grew from there. We both got mad, and she went to our bedroom and shut the door. After a little while, I wrote a note expressing love for her and slid it under the door. Before too long, the tension lifted. Our quick surges from anxiety to embattlement lead us nowhere good when we become stuck in dynamics revolving around momentary self-interest. Renowned relationship researcher and UW professor emeritus Dr. John Gottman has found that relationship masters aren’t so because they’re conflict-free but because they make amends “early and often.”
Be emotionally responsive
Baylor University research professor Dr. Keith Sanford studied perception of emotion in couple relationships, calling emotions perceived as asserting power “hard” and those perceived as expressing vulnerability “soft.” Sanford found that when one partner observed an increase in “hard” emotion from their partner, anxiety rose as a result of perceiving a threat to control, power, or status in the relationship; when one observed a decrease in “soft” emotion or an increase in what Sanford called “flat” emotion, anxiety rose as a result of perceiving emotional neglect.
Hard and soft emotions react in a reflexive fashion to perceived threat and neglect in a nearly moment-by-moment chain reaction. Sanford has instructed, “What you perceive your partner to be feeling influences different types of thoughts, feelings, and reactions in yourself, whether or not what you perceive is actually correct.” We're a glutton for our own perceptions, aren't we? Perhaps rather than relying on the unreliable, we should simply heed Otis Redding's sage advice—“Try a little tenderness.”
Being emotionally responsive is not only about softening interactions but about meaningfully responding to the individualized needs of our particular partner. Dr. Ted Huston at the University of Texas studied predictors of divorce and concluded, “When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and decreasing emotional responsiveness.”
Act in spite of emotion, rather than at its whim
When we allow insecurity, panic, anger, or despair to decide, a primal fight-or-flight instinct trumps our capacity for empathy and negotiation. To the extent we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own emotional impulses, they’ll go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. Relationship researcher and intimacy guru, Dr. David Schnarch, concluded, “If you can’t regulate your own emotional temperature, you’ll regulate everyone around you to keep yourself comfortable.”
When the positive end of one magnet is placed against the negative end of another, an invisible force pulls them together. When the magnet’s positive end is placed against the positive end of another, they repel one another. Especially in the midst of extraordinary global events adding multiple life stressors, couples must work to develop freedom within the felt pushes and pulls of powerful emotions in their relationships.
Blake Edwards is the Behavioral Health Director at Columbia Valley Community Health.
Fifth in a series of columns with mental health advice from Wenatchee Valley behavioral health experts. All the columns are available online at wenatcheeworld.com.
Friday, April 3 | Jennifer Beauvais: Choosing resilience during COVID times
Weekend, April 4-5 | Karla Edwards: In a time of crisis, play is the work of the child
Tuesday, April 7 | Abbie Shepherd: COVID-19: Why some of us have more time but are less productive
Wednesday, April 8 | Lina Kurlis: Now, more than ever, we need connection and compassion
Thursday, April 9 | Blake Edwards: Research-backed relationship remedies for quarantined couples
Friday, April 10 | Julie Rickard: 10 tips for children’s mental health during quarantine
Weekend, April 11-12 | Julie Rickard: 10 tips for parents during quarantine