Written by Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC
Dr. Sue Johnson– Hold Me Tight– 7: Keeping Your Love Alive Part Two
Disclaimer: this article is more appropriate for couples who have been working on marriage problems
Looking Toward the Future of Your Relationship
Johnson encourages couples to look back on their period of distress and “recap how you both have been stuck in insecurity and then found ways to move out of those mires together.” (217) Most of the time, creating a story you both agree on is almost impossible while you’re in the midst of marital strife. Neither of you can look beyond your own perspective nor how everything is all your partner’s fault. It’s only after you’ve finally overcome your pain and the overwhelming fear of your marriage failing that you can begin to see things more objectively.
◦ How did you get together?
◦ When did the problems begin/what triggered them?
◦ How did you find yourselves distancing from one another?
◦ Did anything come along that made it worse?
◦ What did each of you do to contribute to this?
◦ What helped you to resolve some of your relationship problems?
◦ How do you help each feel more secure/loved?
◦ How do you feel now compared to when your marriage was limping along?
Johnson uses the example of a pair who were intensely in love, but lacked positive relationship models growing up. When their children came along, they found themselves growing apart. Things only got worse as they established individual territories in the home and at work. Eventually the wife developed some health issues that led to them no longer having sex or keeping in touch in any other significant way. During their sessions, both acknowledge how they contributed to their relationships problems and describe various negative patterns in their relationship. Eventually, they get around to discussing what they learned about one another and how to relate based on each other’s attachment fears and personalities. Finally, they discuss what makes them happy about their improved marriage and strategies and rituals they implement now to strengthen it. (218, 219)
Just because you begin badly does not mean you can’t end well. As the Bible shows, God can work marvelous changes in anyone. Paul went out of his way to help a group of men stone Stephen and eventually dedicated his life to preaching the Christian gospel. David was a shepherd boy with a handful of rocks who eventually became one of the most well-known kings of the Bible. If the Lord can accomplish that, he can certainly fix the marriage of two people who are willing to work to fix it.
What Happens Next
It’s a well-kept secret that women fantasize about what their wedding would be like with almost every cute guy they meet. The flowers will go here and their dress will look like this and they’ll have a boy and a girl named Anderson and Olivia. (Daydreaming is fun; don’t knock it.) Johnson invites couples to do something significantly less stalkerish and imagine what they want their marriage to look like five to 10 years from now. How do they hope it improves? What would they like to see happen? One of her strategies for helping couples maintain the positive changes they’re making and continue to improve their marriage is to have them both describe what their vision of the future is and how they can make it happen together.
The husband might admit he’d like to buy a boat for family outings. His wife may join in by suggesting where they can trim their budget to save for it. On the other hand, she may volunteer that she’s had a dream for several years to build a small carpentry shop in their back yard. He can support her by getting excited about the kinds of projects they could use it for. Unlike embittered, sniping spouses, healthy couples want to be there for one another. Rather than scoff at how their partner doesn’t have time to take out the garbage, but has time to shop for boats online, the loving spouse looks for ways they can help their partner realize their dreams. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Romans 14:19 ESV
Creating a healthier marriage is a lot like creating a healthier body. Both require you to exchange poor habits for better ones. They also invite you to create milestones, exceed them, and then create new ones. Johnson says one of the most important practices for maintaining marriage improvement is to break the cycle of assuming your relationship is doomed every time you hit a snag. Everyone has been programmed by past experiences to have certain expectations about relationships. The more negative experiences you’ve had the more ammunition your brain has to use against you when something bad happens. This also means you’ll have to work to harder at telling yourself this relationship won’t end up like the ones that failed in the past. The key is learning to shut up those negative voices in your head that prey on your attachment fears. (224)
This process is probably best explained in an outline:
1. The fear/anxiety machine in your brain goes into overdrive and starts convincing you
• Your partner doesn’t love you.
• You will never be able to get a relationship to work, just quit.
• If they really loved you, they would just know.
2. You need to recognize this is what’s happening. Your brain is just fixating on your fear/anxiety and magnifying it.
3. Take a breath. Calm down. Slow down the machine/turn it off.
4. Remind yourself of a time when you found yourself in a negative situation like this and think about how you resolved it. Replace the negative cycle with something more positive. Think about:
• A time when your partner demonstrated they love you (made a present of something obscure that you mentioned MONTHS ago).
• Your relationship had been going well until this snag. And that’s all it is, a snag. Think about efforts or risks you made in the past that paid off.
• Your spouse has told you they have difficulty reading subtle signals about certain things and asked that you’d be more forthright with them in the future.
Consider the example of someone who’s finally in the first healthy relationship they’ve ever had. They might have had to undergo some counseling and work hard to get it that way, but for once in a long time things are going pretty good. The second their relationship hits a pothole, those old thoughts might start churning, telling them this is just like every other relationship they’ve ever had. They don’t ever work out, and they should just stop trying. Instead of succumbing to the deluge of assumed failure, Johnson says you need to remind yourself that all relationships have low points, just like anything else in life. Rather than running out on your spouse, you both need to sit down and do some “relationship maintenance.” (224)
“When we learn to foster safe, loving interactions with our partners and can integrate new experiences into models that affirm our connections with others, we step into a new world. Old hurts and negative perceptions from past relationship can then be put away and not allowed to orchestrate our way of responding to our lovers.” (225)
This issue of dealing with negative thoughts about your relationship has a lot in common with how Christians deal with their sin. Christians are not perfect. They make mistakes and fail and don’t meet to that legalist measurement they feel they should. But you can’t view each time you succumb to temptation as a sign that you will never grow as a Christian. Rather look at it as a reminder that you are wholly dependent on God to make this “new creation” thing work. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV Marriage is the same way. Sometimes you’ll slip backward, but that doesn’t negate all the good you’ve accomplished so far.
Winning The Race
Marriage is hard work. There’s no getting around it. But with the right tools and attitude, you can have a positive relationship. “It’s like anything– you sit there and do it every day, and eventually you get good at it,” as Kathleen Hanna once said. However, she was talking about making rad Riot Grrrl music, not marriage. But the principle still applies. If you and your spouse are having difficulty understanding how to work on your marriage, or where to start, consider consulting a Christian marriage counselor. Professional marriage counseling provides a safe space for you and your partner to speak openly about problems in your relationship. A relationship therapist can guide you through the process of becoming more objective about your marriage and seeing what you both can do to improve it.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Hiker In Ice Cave Creek” by porbital
“Feet Of Runner In Evening Light” by Sura Nualpradid