By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
In reference to Dr. Sue Johnson– Hold Me Tight– 7: Keeping Your Love Alive Part One
Disclaimer: this article is more appropriate for couples who have been working on marriage problems
For anyone who’s just achieved a hard-fought victory, their biggest concern after taking a nap is holding on to what they’ve earned. It’s no different for couples finally seeing some light after trekking through the gloomy forest of marital strife. If you and your spouse are already experiencing improvements in your marriage, you don’t have to return to the dark days that sent you running for the “relationship” section of the book store of your marriage counselor’s office; you just have to keep implementing the skills you’re already using to save your marriage.
The Word repeatedly exhorts believers to be alert (I Peter 5:8, 1 Cor. 16:13, Luke 21:36). It commands them to be aware of temptation, the coming return of Christ, etc. Marriage is the same way. You can’t go about it half asleep. You have to stay alert lest you and your spouse fall back into the old habits that got you into trouble in the first place. As Dr. Sue Johnson discusses in the seventh conversation of her book Hold Me Tight, the key to leaving behind marital problems is to “actively care for your relationship.” If you don’t, all the good you see now will disappear. (205) She begins by telling couples they need to be aware of and steer away from relationship “potholes,” or situations that trigger emotional wounds or spark nasty arguments that go nowhere. For example, during arguments one of you may react to the conflict by automatically spewing the most hurtful thing you can think to say. One way to handle this defensive reaction is by discussing with your partner how their approach triggers your defensive reaction and discussing how they could modify it for future exchanges. Once you’ve recognized something as a pothole, the task becomes figuring out how to avoid driving your marriage into it.
However, not all disagreements in marriage arise from attachment issues. Sometimes you fight over regular stuff such as one of you not being as involved in parenting as the other thinks you should. But, as Johnson says in her book, the two aren’t completely unrelated; the better couples are at dealing with attachment issues, the better they deal with everyday problems. This is because everyday problems are no longer the vehicle through which couples clumsily attempt to deal with their attachment problems. They’ve gotten a handle on dealing with their attachment issues, so now they can approach regular problems normally. (214)
Consider the example of Cordelia and Doyle. After spending several months in relationship counseling, they’ve finally gotten a handle on asking for and demonstrating support. Cordelia has struggled almost their entire marriage with not feeling sufficiently reinforced by Doyle. Almost every disagreement they have eventually turns into an emotionally charged accusation that he just leaves her to fend for herself. Now that they’ve finally gotten a handle on that, they can move onto the issue of wrangling their 16-year-old daughter. Like a lot of teenagers, she’s made some friends her parents aren’t completely stoked about. But, thanks to the work they’ve done dealing attachment issues, when Cordelia asks Doyle to help her monitor their daughter’s comings-and-goings, he no longer hears accusations that he’s a sorry parent. He hears someone who cares about his daughter asking him to help look out for her best interests.
But not all of happy-fying is scurrying about in terror looking for problems. Some of it is fun stuff like being there for one another. Think for a second about what it’s like when one of you has a bad day. The discouraged spouse eventually comes home, collapses somewhere (if this were an episode of Arrested Development, there would be Charlie Brown music) and starts talking about what happened to get them so low. Does the comforting spouse ignore them? No! Because then they wouldn’t be the comforting spouse. They go to their partner, put an arm around them, and commiserate. Maybe come up with an elaborate revenge fantasy. Most importantly, they let them know they love them and want to help them feel better. As Christ models the necessity of inviting those in need to seek him for comfort, so should you lend a shoulder to your partner in need.
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands on them and went away.” Matthew 19:13
“A major part of keeping your love alive is to recognize these key moments of connection and hold them up where you both can see them… They remind us of how precious our relationship is and what close connection feels like.” (209) This is what people are looking for in a relationship; more than sex, more than someone to pay half the bills, they want someone to have their back no matter what. That’s what strengthens a marriage– mutual support. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV
Create habits that will improve your marriage
People like rituals. They infuse a semblance of stability in a world that seems out of our control. But they also trigger memories associated with those rituals, for instance, Christmas. Johnson encourages couples to accessorize the positive changes in their marriages by implementing small rituals such as leaving notes in each others’ vehicles or making a point a few nights a week to extend dinner with coffee or dessert and share your days. These small symbols or breaks from the maelstrom of life help you and your spouse focus on your marriage and provide an opportunity to remind each other of your affection. As Johnson addresses in her book, North Americans are some of the most culturally over-occupied people in the world. Many couples fall into marriage trouble because they neglect their relationship in favor of everything else they have going on in their lives. Creating small rituals such as these help tip the balance back in favor of marriage maintenance. (213)
Even though your marriage might be a lot better now than it was a while ago, or even if it’s never been that bad, figuring out where to go from here can be difficult. Consider making an appointment with a Christian marriage counselor– after all, they’re not just there as a last resort. A professional relationship counselor can work with you to assess your marriage, figure out how to maintain what you’re doing well, and shore up areas of weakness.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Couple Taking Measurements” by Ambro
“Couple With Breakfast” by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee
“Couple At Home” by Ambro