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5 Strategies for Reviving Your Relationship

little_crueltiesThe couple sat on the couch facing me, sad and sullen and talking about divorce. They seemed to have many reasons to stay together: a toddler son, a newly purchased house, a history stretching back to their high school days. So why was the wife insisting on divorce?

“He bought an Alexa device when he knew I didn’t want such a thing in the house.”

On one level, it seemed so frivolous. On another, it made perfect sense. This was a wife feeling that, again and again, her preferences and opinions had been ignored.

While some couples part in the wake of a major crisis — an infidelity, domestic abuse — others split after a series of small cruelties that can add up to emotional estrangement.

What are the little cruelties that add up to marital distress? They’re as unique as the couples involved.

There was the couple I met when I arrived at their spacious home to interview the man, a prominent doctor, for a magazine article. His wife welcomed me warmly, brought coffee and was returning with a plate of pastries when her husband said brusquely “Just set that plate down and get out! We have work to do.” Her face burned with humiliation and anger as she silently withdrew from the room. The doctor didn’t miss a beat, turning on the charm for the interview as I sat there stunned.

Then there were the couples who came for therapy:

The wife who never let her husband forget that she thought she had “married down” and who corrected every statement he made — incorrect or not — with a running commentary on what he was saying, questioning both his accuracy and intelligence.

The husband who belittled every interest and pursuit of his wife as “stupid and insignificant” and fondly called her an “airhead.” When challenged by others, he would smile and say “Aw, she knows that I love her!”

The husband who escalated ordinary disagreements to major crises by giving his wife the silent treatment for days at a time.

The wife who had a habit of blaming her husband every time anything went amiss — from a balky computer to a rained out picnic — with one phrase: “Can’t you do anything right?”

And there was the husband who snapped at his wife whenever he had a bad day at work and then wondered why she tended to keep her distance.

Of course many of these “little cruelties” are not little at all and some indicate larger problems within the marital relationship. But the fact is that casual cruelty, careless words and thoughtless actions can add considerably to marital tensions.

Working with couples, I often stress the importance of being kind to each other, even when depressed, mad, exasperated, disappointed or otherwise challenged. So much more is possible if disagreements are resolved amicably, if spouses are as courteous to each other as they are to good friends.  Some people talk to their spouses in a way they wouldn’t dare with friends.

“Yeah,” one husband in therapy told me. “If I talked to my friends the way I talk to my wife…well, I wouldn’t because it would hurt their feelings.”

And he thought his wife’s feelings weren’t hurt?  He squirmed a bit. “Well, she’s my wife. She should understand that I need to blow off steam. That’s just the way I am.”

Just the way I am.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that in couples counseling as a way to justify casual cruelty. It’s a way to say “I don’t intend to change” or “Pleasing you isn’t worth any discomfort on my part.”

It’s a relationship dead-end.

So what can you do to change a relationship headed downhill?

Think before you speak.  Is that “just kidding!” comment or barbed humor likely to hurt your spouse? Is that casual aside or that verbal victory worth the cost to your relationship? Consider that it’s more important to be kind than to be relentlessly right.

Remember that your spouse is — or could be — your dearest friend. So treat him or her that way. If you wouldn’t say or do what you’re about to do to a dear friend — why in the world would you say or do that to your spouse?

Change established patterns. This is as necessary for the victim as well as the perpetrator. As long as you don’t speak up, your spouse has little incentive to change.

Eradicate hierarchical thinking in your relationship.  Get over yourself. Those married to people they consider beneath them in social status, intelligence or education may not only inflict considerable pain and hurt on their spouses, but also miss the joy of realizing the spouse’s unique strengths and talents.  Growing up poor or middle class instead of rich doesn’t mean a person lacks class. The absence of a college or professional degree is not an indication that a person lacks insight or intelligence (and the acquisition of such a degree is no guarantee that a person is insightful or wise). Besides, there are many kinds of intelligence. In real life, emotional intelligence may far exceed intellectual ability in becoming a successful human being.

Don’t minimize those little things.  Maybe they’re not so little to your spouse. Maybe the accumulated weight of small hurts, flashes of anger, and small betrayals is adding up to a big problem.

After all, it’s the small things, the casual, passing, little cruelties that can erode love and good will.

And it’s the small moments of connection and caring, of thoughtfulness and of kindness, one after another after another, that can help love to grow and flourish.

In marriage and in life, those small things can make a huge difference.


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