Sandra A. Shachar, PhD
When I see couples in my office for the first time, they are often on the brink of separation or divorce. Frequently, one or both partners doubt that the relationship can be saved since there is so much "water under the bridge," and hurt, anger and resentment between them.Angry words, hurtful behavior, threats of leaving, lies and secrecy have dimmed hopes of ever rekindling what couples felt for each other so strongly when they first fell in love.
Even when couples feel skeptical about recovering from deep wounds and continuing to be together, there are helpful steps every couple can take immediately to heal and reduce the likelihood of separation and divorce. These are:
Step 1: Commit to being together one day at a time. When couples feel that their relationship has become untenable and something has to change, they may also feel overwhelmed by the amount of healing and change that needs to take place. Couples may may wonder if they are capable of such change. The answer is "Yes, you are," but trust in each other can only be rebuilt slowly, so slowing things down means acknowledging that real change is only accomplished a day at a time.
Each morning, turn to your partner (or take 10 minutes by phone) to say to each other:
"I commit to being married/partnered to you today because" and fill in the rest with a POSITIVE reason for being with your partner for today.
For example: "Because you listened to me talk about my day yesterday, and were supportive. That made me feel cared about by you." Or, "Because you have such a great laugh and when I hear it, like when you heard that joke, it makes me smile."
Daily commitment affirmations help each partner notice and state positive things about each other, which reminds them both of the good in the other person and in the relationship.
Step 2: Close the exits. When you have a fight or feel frustrated or hurt, don't threaten divorce or to leaving (or even imply it, such as saying, "I can't take this anymore," or "I've had it!"). Threatening divorce or to leave the relationship is damaging to your coupleship. If you need time away, tell your partner where you are going and when you will be back. "I want to take a walk around the neighborhood. I will be back in an hour." Then come back when you said you would. If you are late by more than 5 minutes, check in by phone or text.
Step 3: Adopt the mental attitude that while each of you has a valid experience, neither of you is right or wrong. This is without a doubt much easier said than done, and is a major focus of couples' deepest work in moving forward. What really matters in intimate relationships is not "who said what and when," but "who heard what and what did that mean to them?". Relationships are about experience, not "reality".
When you go for a walk to "cool off," don't use the time to develop your "come back" or how to convince your partner that you are right. Instead, force yourself to tell the story of what has happened from your partner's point of view. How did it look and feel to them? What did it mean to them? It is only when you are able to see things from your partner's experience that you can move forward as a couple. You don't have to agree or share their experience, but "getting it" from their perspective means you can honestly say to them, "It makes sense to me now that you felt that way about X, because ….". When your partner hears this from you with sincerity, you will see a softening in their face and posture. That is a sure sign of healing for your relationship!
Step 4. Do small things for each other every day. Remember the little things you did when you were first together? The thoughtfulness of getting their favorite treat at the grocery, sending them a heart emoji text during the day or turning down their side of the bed at bedtime? Do those things now! It is the small things that communicate to your partner, "I am thinking of you; you matter to me!" These small things are a deposit into your couples' emotional savings account and each deposit offsets the account withdrawals or "ouch!" moments when we say and do the "wrong" thing (and that's still going to happen, because we are human!).
Step 5. Don't wait for your partner to "go first". As the saying goes, "Be the change you want to see." This is as true for relationships as it is for saving the world. Even if your partner is stuck in a hurt and angry or distant place, keep doing small, thoughtful things for them. Try to see things from their point of view and let them know you are trying to do that. Come to relationship counseling on your own to better the relationship until they are willing to join you. As they say in 12-step recovery programs, "If nothing changes, nothing changes," but if one person changes what they do, then everything will change!