By: Greg Schutte
In many of my sessions as a marriage therapist, I have seen a particular pattern with countless clients when it comes to the breakdown of their marital relationship. Often, couples report that they are at odds with each other and frustrated with their communication or lack thereof. Many of them often don’t remember how it all got started, but they are sure of one thing, they’re tired of the pattern and don’t know how to change it. They’re stuck in the proverbial ‘mouse wheel’ of frustration, demands, harsh words, and disappointment, and they don’t know how to get off.
The struggle with changing a pattern we don’t like is to first understand where things went wrong and how we got there in the first place. But as with any breakdown in our marital bliss, it is hard to work through all of the hurt and lack of trust. It’s too easy just to point the blame at each other and stand firm until the other person gives in. Often the one who gives in is the ‘fixer’ in the relationship, and if they are the one who always gives in, then all that happens is the discussion ends. The real issue is not resolved, and the fixer walks away more and more resentful. I had one client who referred to this resentment as their s*** bucket they drug along behind them to catch all the blame. However, it is critical to remember it takes ‘two to tango’. It is the actions or inactions of both parties that get couples here in the first place.
Trust takes time to fix but is only earned by the ways we change our actions for the betterment of our relationship. I have learned over the many years of doing this work that 99.99% of all husbands and wives truly want their spouse to be happy and often look to do what is best for their spouse. However, through the many distractions and difficulties faced in family life, we often lose sight of what our spouse’s true needs are.
Without good communication and time set aside to figure out our spouse’s needs, we are often left with guessing, misreading the needs they have of us, or getting so busy we don’t see what our spouse needs from us. If our spouse responses with anger, frustration, or disappointment it can cause us to withdraw or fight back. Why? Because our intention was not to upset the ‘apple cart’. We just want to know how to make things better. Thus: Our intention was good but method…stunk! When this pattern goes on for too long, we stop listening altogether and find ourselves in a ‘dance of destruction’; simply battling each other in a hope to eventually get our needs met but sometimes with little hope.
In order to rebuild trust after the times we get things wrong in our relationship, I offer three thoughts:
1. We need to work hard to believe the best about our spouse in that they do want us to be happy, they just don’t know how. And remember, if we have been in an established pattern of fighting to get our needs met or defending our honor, sometimes harsh words are said, and spouses pull away to protect themselves from attacks. It doesn’t always mean they don’t want to meet your needs anymore, but they may be in a state of self-preservation. So, start by believing that their intent is good, the method just needs to be fixed.
2. We need to be gentle with each other and truly listen. We won’t be able to understand each other’s hearts and perceptions if we come at each other with harsh words and don’t listen. This is hard because we have to be willing to get out of ‘attack mode’ and encourage our spouse to take down their walls of self-protection.
3. We need to seek to understand each other’s needs and what we have done or not done which has caused our spouse to not have their needs met. Don’t let pride get in the way at this point; truly seek to understand verses defend. Then make a plan together on how you both plan to change the behaviors. This is the way to regaining trust and rebuilding what was broken.