“There is nothing worth doing that doesn’t require practice, and having a good marriage is one of them,” says Harriet Lerner, PhD, bestselling author and marriage expert. “One can practice choosing happiness over the need to be right or always win an argument. One can practice playfulness, generosity, and openness. One can practice calming things down and warming them up even when the other person is being a big jerk.”
Dr. Lerner’s advice is spot on. We have the power to control our response, even when our partner is acting badly—especially when our partner is acting badly. That doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be mistreated, but we can choose to practice behaviors that bless our marriage rather than curse it.
Consider the effort you put forth to improve in your career or hobbies, or in your parenting (where we all fail every once in a while). Yet, we expect our marriages to continue humming along without much effort at improving our skills or attitudes. I know I need some fine-tuning on a regular basis, particularly on choosing to remain positive despite the normal obstacles in life.
In her essay in Creating a Marriage You’ll Love, Dr. Lerner adds to the above advice, saying you may get tired of doing more of the work in your marriage, but since you can’t control your mate, it’s up to you if you want to see improvements in your relationship. “And if you want a recipe for divorce, just wait for the other person to change first.”
Here are some concrete pointers she advises you to practice:
1. Practice pure listening—with an open heart and with your full attention, and without becoming defensive.
2. Stay self-focused. This means you aren’t focused on “fixing” your spouse, but rather you are open to how you can contribute to a better life together. You can change without blaming yourself or your partner.
3. Bite your tongue. You don’t have to share everything that bothers you every minute of the day. Use timing and tact to communicate important matters.
4. Apologize, even if you’re not fully to blame. “I’m sorry for my part of the problem,” may be a good way to move forward.
5. Use positive feedback, praise, and compliments very liberally. Remember Dr. Gottman’s 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments.
Start today by focusing on just one behavior on this list that you think could help you the most. Once you have incorporated that, add another. When you respond angrily or start to act nit-picky, just start again (and apologize if necessary). Practice makes perfect.
Which of these areas is hardest for you to implement? Do you find yourself wishing you could change one thing about your spouse, or focused on trying to change yourself?