In Part 1 of our 4-part Relationship Communication Series, we uncovered how the phases of a relationship affect your levels of marital happiness, and, ultimately, how the manner in which you attempt to manage conflict will affect the likelihood of your marriage ending in divorce. While shoving your emotions down to avoid conflict only leads to greater resentment down the line, your communication style can be the best predictor of whether a happy marriage of today will end up in divorce in the future. Even more important than your personality or the emergence of stressful life events, how you communicate can make or break your marriage.
Disclaimer: This article isn’t about changing your spouse, getting them to communicate better, or be a better partner or listener.
It’s about changing yourself.
Fix Yourself First
Before you can fix your relationship, you’ll first need to take a look in the mirror. In an article for the New York Times, Timothy Smith, a Psychologist at the University of Utah, found that when couples who have low, general levels of hostility to the world around them are brought into the laboratory for research, it’s nearly impossible to provoke an argument between them. On the other hand, in couples where either partner harbors hostility, fights erupt easily. In fact, it’s been shown that a hostile partner can trigger an angry response even if their spouse is generally easygoing.
What does that mean for your marriage? If you, as an individual, harbor anger, frustration, and hostility toward the world at large, there’s almost nothing you or your partner can do to avoid fighting on a regular basis until you address these underlying issues. Not only does harboring anger and hostility destroy your marriage, but according to PsychCentral, high levels of anger are also a strong behavioral predictor of early illness and even death. In order to regain control of your emotions, PsychCentral recommends:
- Realizing that behind anger is fear. Be aware of how you’re feeling when you’re experiencing anger and ask if there’s an underlying fear. For example, you may feel angry when your partner is driving. Perhaps, beneath that is the fear and anxiety of being out of control–that’s what you need to address.
- Being present with your fear. Don’t push away from uncomfortable emotions. Experience them fully, be aware, and let them run their course.
- Letting it go. Instead of wasting energy attempting to control every situation that may arise in life, learn to let go. A regular yoga or meditation practice can do wonders with this important teaching.
- Improving your self-esteem. While anger is a normal emotion, you’ll be better able to regulate your emotions if you feel that you’re truly a worthwhile, capable individual.
- Rehearsing an appropriate response. Make note of the situations which provoke your anger and plan a better response.
- Using I-language. Expressing how you are feeling is a better way to communicate than attacking your partner’s behaviors. Instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” shift the focus to how you’re feeling…i.e., “I feel overwhelmed when I have to handle everything around house.”
- Stop “shoulding.” Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary immediately! “Shoulding” places expectation on yourself, others, and situations, and keeps you from accepting things just as they are. Things simply are, or they are not. Instead of saying that you should improve your communication with your partner, do it. Or don’t. The choice is yours.
Once you’ve begun the hard work of looking inward, it’s time to learn just how to fight the good fight. Read onto Part 3 for the rules of fighting fair.