In my work as a psychologist, I see examples every day of relationships slowly dying — and occasionally exploding.
While tragic, these examples give me some insight into what causes marriages to fail. And with a little reverse engineering, they also shed light on how we might strengthen and improve our relationships.
Here are 3 tiny habits that make your marriage better than most couples:
1. Validate first, problem-solve later
By far the biggest mistake I see people make in their relationships is getting stuck in problem-solving mode.
When we’re stuck in problem-solving mode, we immediately respond to anything difficult or painful as if it were a problem: We analyze, judge, dissect, compare, evaluate, and interrogate. And while all of these problem-solving approaches are helpful if you’re building a bridge or solving an equation, they tend to backfire when applied to people.
While your intentions are probably good, treating people’s struggles like a problem is invalidating.
It makes them feel like it’s not okay for them to have the problem or that they should be able to fix it immediately. And for someone who’s struggling or upset, feeling bad about feeling bad is a recipe for defensiveness, communication breakdowns, and long-term relationship trouble.
When we’re upset, most of us just want to feel understood and like we’re not alone.
The alternative is to validate their struggles first and reserve your problem-solving efforts for later.
Validating someone’s struggles simply means letting them know that you understand what they’re saying and that it makes sense that they’re feeling that way.
For example, imagine your spouse comes home from work looking anxious and stressed. You ask what’s wrong and she replies that she thinks she’s going to be fired. She goes on to explain how she completely flubbed a potentially huge new sale and her boss was furious.
Instead of diving into three reasons she’s unlikely to be fired (problem-solving), you might start by saying, I’m so sorry, honey. That sounds like a horrible experience. I’d be pretty worried too (validation).
This initial validating statement will help your spouse feel like she’s being heard and that you’re with her.
When we’re upset, most of us simply want to feel understood and that we’re not alone.
This is why learning to validate problems is such a helpful tool — it rearranges the relationship dynamic such that you’re on the same team rather than rivals.
“Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
2. To be more compassionate, find the function
Good therapists are trained to look beneath the appearance of behavior and find the function that the behavior serves.
- You see your spouse struggling to open a can of pasta sauce, so you casually suggest he tap the edges of the top with a knife to loosen it up.
- Out of nowhere, he blows up at you: Criticizing you for always being in his business, and storming out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
- A bit bewildered — and more than a little hurt — you chalk it up to hormones and hope the whole thing blows over sooner than later.
The surface-level interpretation is he’s such a jerk! But to go a layer deeper, you might ask yourself:
What function does getting mad at and criticizing me serve?
Developmentally, maybe he’s struggling with his identity as a middle-aged person. And having his failure of independence (opening the jar) pointed out in what probably felt like a humiliating fashion hurt quite a bit. And often when we feel hurt or injured, we tend to lash out in anger.
Now, you may still disagree with your spouse’s behavior of lashing out at you. But by taking the time to understand why he might have done it, and acknowledging that on a certain level it makes sense, you can become a little more compassionate towards him.
“Make it a practice to judge persons and things in the most favorable light at all times and under all circumstances.”
— Vincent DePaul
Photo: Timur Weber/Pexels
3. For more intimacy, practice being vulnerable.
As a psychologist, I’ve learned that one of my most powerful tools to help my clients is the occasional use of vulnerability.
I might, for example, share a brief story of how I struggled with something similar to their struggle. I’ve even, on occasion, allowed myself to tear up when a client was telling me a particularly sad story that really moved me.
The benefit of these moments of vulnerability is that, while difficult, they supercharge the strength of the relationship and imbue it with trust, intimacy, and mutual admiration.
Of course, these are relatively rare in therapy, but they illustrate the importance of vulnerability for any kind of relationship. If you’re willing to be intentionally vulnerable in a relationship—especially in your marriage—you open up the possibility of taking the relationship to new heights.
Intentional vulnerability can supercharge even the stodgiest of relationships.
A common issue with married couples, for example, is they feel like they’ve lost a sense of intimacy and connection over the years.
There’s less passion in the marriage, not as much excitement, their love life has probably fallen off, and they generally just aren’t as interested in each other anymore.
The key to rejuvenating relationships like these is to practice intentional vulnerability.
The willingness to share your pains, struggles, hopes, and dreams in a radically honest way can almost instantly forge a deep connection and level of intimacy. And along with intimacy comes all those things we feel like we’ve lost with time — passion, excitement, desire, connection, even humor.
But it’s hard….
Being vulnerable means opening yourself up to pain:
- It’s always possible that the other person doesn’t reciprocate, makes fun of you, or even uses the opportunity to wound you.
- Or maybe it just feels awkward.
In any case, it’s natural to be afraid and hesitant to be intentionally vulnerable. But if the person is someone you generally trust, and the relationship is valuable enough, vulnerability is the key to breathing new life into the relationship.
A great way to get started is to practice being vulnerable in small ways.
Do this consistently, and you’ll steadily gain the confidence you need to be vulnerable in big ways. And once you can be vulnerable, you can start to unlock the true potential of your relationships.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
Nick Wignall is a psychologist and writer sharing practical advice for emotional health and well-being. He is the founder of The Friendly Minds newsletter.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.