Communication techniques that helped save my marriage

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In July of 2018, I was faced with the reality that my marriage was falling apart. The seriousness of the situation hit me like a freight train. I could barely breathe. I lost 20 pounds. I had no clue what to do next beyond getting out of bed each morning and taking care of my children.

Except, I knew I wanted to fight for my marriage. I knew our story was not over. So, fight I did.

To say that my marriage fell apart on a hot day in July would be a wild misstatement. Much reflection forced me to see — truly, honestly see — the brutal truth. My marriage had been slowly unraveling for years. We both knew it, felt it, lived it. But we had no real idea how to go about fixing it, healing the hurt, erasing the pain, forgetting the words.

I grew up in a family that fought loudly — yelling, slamming doors, throwing objects. This was my formal training on how to disagree and communicate.

My husband grew up in a family that spoke quietly, didn’t share their personal thoughts, didn’t fight, didn’t express their real feelings. This was his formal training on how to communicate and build relationships.

As you can see, when it came to effective communication with each other, we had an ocean of difference to cross.

Only, we didn’t. We just kinda slogged our way through, thinking we were doing OK, when in fact we were failing. If I was upset, guess what? I yelled at him. And him? He went silent. There was no talking with each other; we talked at each other. There was no real listening going on; no attempt at empathy or understanding. Rather, we were both just trying to be heard and understood and failing wholeheartedly.

This was our on again, off again communication for 16 years of marriage. It took something earth-shattering to change all of this.

Now, over a year after my husband told me he wanted a divorce, we are truly happier than we’ve been since the beginning of our marriage. I don’t pretend to be an expert or have all the answers. But I do know what worked for us and, in the interest of possibly helping others in similar scenarios and benefiting from a bit of therapeutic — albeit very public — journaling and reflection, here’s just some of how we saved our marriage.

Find a marriage counselor

When the two of you are struggling to be heard and understood, having an unbiased third party mediate and guide your discussions is a must. In front of our counselor, we were more thoughtful in the words we chose and how we expressed our anger and frustration. We both felt some validation when expressing our needs. Sometimes she helped translate what we were struggling to put into words, or helped us find the words when we couldn’t find them. She gave us weekly assignments that required us to sit and talk and, more importantly, listen. These conversations were difficult in the beginning, but they came to be one of the best parts of our night. A year later, we still make time — at least a few nights a week — to sit quietly and check in with each other. If there is something pressing one of us wants to discuss, we schedule “love talks.” Calling them “love talks” means our defences don’t automatically go up and we no longer prepare for an argument. We can truly have calm discussions now, working together to solve any issues.

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Read a book

There’s no shortage of written material offering marriage advice. After numerous recommendations, we bought the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver. We would each take turns reading a chapter, making notes and then sharing our thoughts. It guided us to many conversations that surprised us while also slowly helping us reaffirm our commitment to each other. We still refer back to some of the chapters that helped us reconnect or were the spark for conversations that provided insights about each other.

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Honor each other’s love language

About five years ago, my best friend got my husband and me to take the Five Love Languages. I went along with it out of fun, not thinking I’d ever really need or use the information. I learned my husband’s top love language is physical contact, followed by words of affirmation. Mine are acts of service, followed by words of affirmation. In short, I needed my husband to see what needed to be done and do it. He needed me to touch and validate him more.

It hurts now to think about how we both seemed to intentionally not do what the other needed. I didn’t see him doing more around the house for me or showing appreciation for everything I did, so I purposely withheld affection and rebuffed his efforts. He did not feel loved, desired or appreciated so he made little to no additional effort to make a “to do” list. And thus, our dance began where the sole purpose was to withhold what the other needed out of spite.

It’s astonishing how clear things become when your little world is about to fall apart.

I began to touch my husband again. This didn’t just mean sexually (although that was a positive byproduct).

When I walked by him, rather than avoiding him, I let my hand gently brush across his back or shoulders. If he was sitting down, I’d come up behind him, run my fingers through his hair or kiss his neck. I’d reach for his hand when walking in public. I’d lay my head on his shoulder as we talked in bed. When he put his arms around me from behind, I didn’t push him away.

While I began this primarily because I thought it was what he needed, it turned out I benefited as much as he did. Touch creates intimacy. We were both calmer, happier, more willing to talk politely and listen with patience. All the times I withdrew from him, I was harming both of us.

Another effect of our increased intimacy was my husband’s eagerness to now do more of the things that I looked to him to do.

In making each other’s needs a priority, we both felt validated and loved and — surprise! — happier and more positive about our marriage and future. If you tend to withhold love, connection and affection because you don’t feel you’re getting what you need, know that you are harming not just your partner but also yourself in the process. Give selflessly, even — especially — when you’re angry, and the results might just surprise you.

Not you versus him/her; it’s both of you versus the problem

I can’t pinpoint the moment when we forgot we were partners instead of competitors in our own “who’s the better spouse/parent” reality show, but it happened. I’d get resentful feeling like I was carrying more of the burden of the family; he’d feel attacked and remind me that we shouldn’t be keeping score. Except I did. And I threw that scoreboard in his face every chance I got.

For years, our arguments were “me versus him,” when it should always have been “us versus the problem.” Anyone who has ever been to counseling before has heard that you shouldn’t use “you” statements, as in, “You never…” or “You always…” I did exactly that. And before I could even get the first complete sentence out of my mouth, his defences went up. The alligators were in the moat, the drawbridge was up, and I was not getting through his fortress. No surprise that these types of “discussions” did not lend themselves to anything remotely resembling a solution.

Since beginning with our marriage counselor, this has ended. When we do have a problem to address, we share our feelings and thoughts using “I” statements: “I feel like…” or “I would like it if…” There is no feeling of being attacked. This isn’t about him or me. It’s about the issue and how we can work together to address it.

Time alone together

This is especially difficult if you have children. Always feeling short on time, energy and money can make spending time alone together a challenge. It is, however, vitally important. You were a couple before you had children and you are still that same couple. One day your kids will be out of the house (you hope!) and it will just be the two of you again. What do you think will happen if you’ve spent the last 18 years focusing only on the kids? I know that, had we continued along our path, we would have faced each other as near strangers and not known what to do next.

Our kids are older so it’s easier for us to spend some time away from them. However, we are also on a strict budget, so dinner out every date night is not an option. In the beginning, our time together was sitting on the front porch with a glass of wine and our notes from the latest chapter we had read in the marriage book. Not terribly romantic. However, it was our time to focus solely on us and talk and listen without distraction. We still have “porch nights” and these are, by far, one of my very favorite times together.

We are both active people so we often ran or rode bikes together. Not a ton of talking going on, but it was us spending time together doing something we loved. Our bond strengthened each and every time.

Once in a while it was happy hour and cheap appetizers.

We walked our dog, watched the sunset, went to a comedy club, walked through Costco and ate all the samples. It truly didn’t matter. It was time to focus on us — something we had neglected for far too long. My husband referred to it as making deposits into our marriage bank account.

Another bonus? I think it’s been great for our sons to see us making our marriage a priority. I hope they’ll take this with them into their relationships.

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As much as I’d like to say we completely changed overnight and have not had setbacks, that would be untrue. Habits developed over years or decades do not change without a struggle.

What we are is aware. Aware of when we begin to revert back to old behaviors, aware of when we forget that we are in this together, aware of when we are talking more than listening, aware that we have the same goal in mind, have already come a long way, yet still have work to do.

We have both learned to breathe deeply before speaking. We can tell the other when we need a few minutes before continuing a conversation. We speak more kindly, gently than ever before. We remember why we fell in love and why we want to spend our lives together.

Focus every day

“Marriage is not a noun; it’s a verb. It isn’t something you get. It’s something you do. It’s the way you love your partner every day.” — Barbara De Angelis

It will be 17 years in September since we said our vows. We didn’t “get” a marriage. We are in a marriage that we choose because of our love for each other. That doesn’t end the day you get married. It is not an exaggeration to say it takes focus every single day. Some days it’s a few minutes before bed when you reconnect. Other days, you have more time and energy to give.

I’ve told my husband I love him more in the last year than I did in many of the prior years combined. Each time I say it, I know he feels it. And vice-versa.

That’s everything.

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