Those of us that check the “married” box often hear the refrain, “Marriage is hard work”. But not many people can tell you what that means. Why is it hard work? Long hours? Low pay? Having to work next to someone who can at times be insanely irritating? What exactly is it that makes it so hard to remain, day after day, in a loving relationship? Simple. We are human. And humans are emotional messes. Couples often ask me for a “toolkit” of skills they can use to improve communication, grow closer or have a better sex life. My advice is try the bookstore. It is full of hundreds of useful books, including my Bible of marriage therapy by researcher John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. But you won’t read it, I tell them. And if you do, you won’t use the information that Gottman shares. Why? Because you are human and humans are messy! We are the only members of the animal kingdom to experience intense emotion. And our emotions are often outside of our control. You can have the best set of marital tools out there but when emotion takes over, you simply won’t use them. Emotions are often irrational and the use of tools requires one to be able to stay reasonable and sane. So the hard work of marriage is remembering that you are responsible for your emotions and how they drive your behavior. “But she makes me so angry,” a frustrated husband will tell me. “She pushes all of my buttons!” Indeed she does. But they are your buttons, therefore your responsibility. She should be sensitive and handle your buttons with care, but her buttons won’t always let her. So before we can whip out the toolkit and problem solve like two civilized human beings, we must first learn how to manage our buttons.
- Dig deep and determine what your buttons are and how you got them.
- Take full responsibility for your buttons. You own them.
- Explain to your partner why that button is so raw, tender or volatile. Share the hurt behind these buttons and the painful emotions they elicit.
- Ask your partner to be the secondary caretaker of these buttons now that they understand the pain behind your buttons. This is called love. It’s a verb.
- When you feel intense emotions beginning to flood your system, take a break. Agree in advance that you will take a 30 minute time-out the moment one of you becomes flooded.
- Sit quietly or take a walk until you feel calm. Reflect on what specifically triggered you. Was it something she said, or the way you interpreted it?
- When you feel ready, share your reflections with your spouse, taking care not to push her buttons. But if you do (and you will), remind yourselves it’s inevitable and forgive quickly.
- Remember that your spouse is a messy human with buttons that were formed in childhood or in prior relationships. Cut him or her some slack. Choose compassion and curiosity over judgment and passive-aggressive punishment.
And when you just can’t get out of your own way, go see a talented marriage therapist because marriage is hard work.