Even the best marriages will never be perfect. When two imperfect humans merge their lives together, it is bound to get messy. We show up each day with new insecurities, stressors, and preoccupations that we proceed to project onto our spouse when unaddressed. This is why it's beyond crucial to not just take care of ourselves, but communicate effectively with our partners, allowing them to understand and therefore better empathize with our daily realities. Without a doubt, every marriage has their days, weeks, months, or even years of feeling not good, especially when you've been married for a long time. It's inescapable, and it's normal. However, we can work to have less of these seasons when we use effective tools that promote communication and healthy conflict resolution.
While we certainly are not perfect and do not have the wisdom or experience of our parents, my husband and I have sure learned a lot in the last two years that we hope will help other couples in our ballpark.
Here are the five tools my husband Garrett and I shared during this week's episode:
Scale of 1 to 10
No, we're not rating each other (but if he's reading this, you're an 11 baby). This is a way to measure how important something is to each person, particularly in a decision-making process. One of you wants Thai food for dinner and the other wants a heaping plate of pasta. You want to accept the Saturday invite to a tailgate, but your spouse would rather take the opportunity to watch the game at a friend's place. Garrett wants to watch Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives while I was really anticipating the next episode of Unsolved Mysteries (you get the point - this is not a tool for deciding "are you ready for kids?"). At this point, ask one another, "how important is that opinion to you?" It might sound like this:
"I'm pretty tired from the work week and would honestly rather watch our football team lose from a plushy armchair, plus it's pretty cold. I'd say this is an 8 for me."
"I'd like to watch the game from the stands but time with friends sounds nice, and there will be other home matches. It's probably a 5 for me."
When you're honest about the strength of your opinion, this usually goes smoothly and is argument-free. If you're tempted to make this a competition, write your numbers down at the same time and flip them. If you're constantly writing down a number between 8 and 10, maybe it's time to reflect on how a "my way or the highway" attitude is weighing down your partner. Don't @ me :)
Schedule a regular time for check-ins
It doesn't matter when - find a time that works for both of you. For us, it used to be during our monthly date nights. However, because this was a scheduled time to air grievances, we found ourselves sometimes withholding negative feelings until this opportunity came. This led to sipping wine and spinning bucatini around a fork very quietly and awkwardly. Our former marriage counselor reminded us of the importance of protecting date nights - not pretending everything was perfect, but maybe saving more serious conversations for... well, not in restaurants. Now we do this on Sunday mornings after church instead. Here are some basic questions to consider for this time:
1. Which parts of our relationships are going well for you?
2. Which parts have been difficult, stressful, or hurtful?
3. How can we improve as a couple?
"The story I'm telling myself..."
Thank you, Brene Brown. Has your partner ever seemed "off" and your instant reaction is to blame yourself? You might experience thoughts like, "they must be angry with me" or "do they not want to spend time with me?" These beliefs cause anxiety, often leading us to approach our spouse accusatorially: "why are you so mad at me?"
Instead, gently let your spouse know what your mind is saying to you. "You've been quiet since you got home. The story I'm telling myself is that you're mad at me or don't have interest in speaking to me." This non-defensive communication tool allows your partner to see the situation from your perspective. Rather than feeling accused, they can either confirm or deny the narrative you've written in your head. Usually, you can discover the situation actually had nothing to do with you - a bad work day, stress rumination, a running check-list, simply needing time and space to decompress. Instead of an argument, you get quick relief.
No, do not define your significant other by a number. However, we've found the enneagram to be incredibly helpful in understanding one another's behaviors. The enneagram focuses on our core motivations and fears, as well as where we turn in growth and stress. I'll keep it basic here, as a full understanding of the nine personality types can be quite complex (and I am prone to completely geeking out over it). In short, Garrett might know I'm under stress when I feel as if I'm not succeeding. If I'm acting strange, Garrett can tell himself, "she's eating Cheetos on the couch because the podcast has 87 Instagram followers." When Garrett has a day that felt chaotic, unproductive, and lacking impact, therefore coming home withdrawn, the story I tell myself is that he is an 8 who goes to 5 in stress. Rather than constantly stating, "I don't understand you," we've developed a certain level of empathy for one another by knowing what makes us tick.
You can learn more about the enneagram on the The Enneagram Institute website and take the free test if you don't know your number here (then DM me and tell me what it is because I am a nerd). If you are in a relationship and have successfully forced your other half to take the test, the official enneagram website has a Type Combination page where you can see which areas you might blend or clash in. And yes, any combination can have a successful relationship together.
No, not like that (unless you'd like to, no judgment zone here). This is a concept we learned in our premarital counseling program, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. I honestly can't remember what the actual terms used were, but we made our own acronym out of it which we refer to as "getting TIPSI together" (I'm sure the conservative Christian authors would really appreciate this). This is a five-step check-in process that can be done in less than 30 minutes (depending on how chatty you are - the Jamesons may or may not take an hour; see: bread baking). Usually we do this over dinner at home:
Thank each other: Thank you for taking the trash out earlier. That was really helpful to me. Thank you for always being a friend to me. Thank you for your patience earlier; I was hangry.
Share Information: This can range from "we're making department changes at work" to "Kanye West got dropped by ADIDAS" (as he should) to "Facebook told me a girl I went to high school had a baby and named it Pennelypeigh, but they're going to call her Ely" (those are our favorites).
Share Puzzles: I don't know where I want to apply for grad school. Am I ready to be a parent? Does this person still want to be friends with me? I think I might start an LLC. Wait, do I actually like the name Pennelypeigh? Those things you're ruminating over? Go ahead and do a little external processing together.
Suggestions: Also known as "complaint and request." Lately, when I want to talk to you, you seem distracted by your phone. Can you please put it away when we're having a discussion? I've been feeling a little neglected this week. Can you please hug me more often?
Disclaimer 1: Saying or responding to the above in passive-aggressive, defensive, accusatory, and/or argumentative tones may lead to an argument. Do not blame me for your less-than-helpful communication choices. Which brings me to
Disclaimer 2: This part presents an opportunity for the bonus letter: A for apologies. This does not mean, "I'm sorry you feel that way." One example might look like, "I am sorry my actions or lack thereof led to hurting you. I will work to do better." We'll save the rest for an episode of its own.
I Hopes: I hope we can have some quality time together tonight. I hope you write the book you want to publish. I hope your anxiety gets better. I hope we make new friends. I hope our friends get pregnant like they're praying to and that they spell its name normally. I hope our kids are okay. I hope our parents stay healthy. I hope you're down to start a dog farm. Take time to hope for yourselves together and for each other. Let one another in on your dreams.
Congratulations, you are now drunk on love.
I will end with this: these tools are meant for two people who are both willing to improve their relationship with each other and will not fix every issue you have. If you and your significant other need additional support communicating, I kindly suggest seeking other professional resources.
More importantly, there are behaviors that absolutely should not ever be tolerated. If you are in an abusive relationship, I see you and do not want to overlook you. You are worthy of a healthy, loving partnership. If you can do so safely, please seek help at the National Domestic Violence Hotline which provides confidential support 24/7 (and is not reserved for only those being physically abused).
I wish you all loving relationships with yourselves and each other. You deserve it.