Marriage Exercise: Helpful vs harmful reactions

Today’s exercise is about learning how to control your reactions to your spouse - a step which is absolutely VITAL in your efforts to save your marriage.

The fact is that you can’t control your spouse’s behavior. But you can control your REACTIONS to your spouse’s behavior.

And if these reactions change for the better, the outcomes will also become more positive.

But if you DON’T change your reactions to your spouse’s negative behavior, the same consequences will emerge and the same dysfunctional loop will keep happening.

It’s true that sometimes the things our spouses do and say sometimes make us want to scream, throw something, curl up into a ball or tear our hair out.

But while we are focusing so much of our energy on being upset with our spouses, what we don’t often consider is how our REACTIONS are actually CONTRIBUTING to the problem.

It is THESE reactions that we are going to target today.

Remember, you can’t change your spouse. So although this exercise is not designed to ‘excuse’ any of your spouse’s negative behavior, it is about focusing on what YOU can change.

It is about doing what is in YOUR control to save your marriage.

Because if you are waiting around for your spouse to change, your marriage is simply a ticking time-bomb.

Before I introduce the ‘Take Action on Your Reactions!’ exercise, we are going to first take a look at the four weapons of lethality to a marriage.

In my marriage consultations, I have found that spouses frequently use these weapons against one another in unhappy marriages.

The first of these lethal weapons is Criticism.

What you need to know is that there is a MAJOR difference between a criticism and a complaint.

While a complaint focuses on the specific behavior which the complainer is unhappy with, criticism is more of a global attack on the person’s character or personality.

A criticism of someone’s character cuts a lot deeper than a complaint about something they have done, as it suggests that the problem is with the person as a whole.

This is why criticism is so LETHAL to a marriage. It gives the message that the attacker’s negative feelings about their spouse run a lot deeper than the problem at hand.

The second of these lethal weapons is Contempt.

Contempt is the worst of the four lethal weapons because it conveys DISGUST.

And when someone feels that their spouse is DISGUSTED with them, it is as if all of the love and respect has disappeared from their marriage.

In fact, nothing will turn off a spouse’s attraction faster than if their spouse is treating them with disgust.

Contemptuous behavior includes the use of sarcasm, eye-rolling, cynicism, name-calling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor.

It is fueled by negative thoughts that have been simmering for a long time.

Contempt is POISONOUS to any marital relationship. It will only lead to greater conflict and emotional distance between spouses.

Now we come to our third weapon of lethality: Defensiveness.

Defensiveness occurs when a person rejects their spouse’s complaints or accusations by saying things such as; “No I didn’t”, “That’s not true” and taking up a defensive body position.

By doing this, the defensive person attempts to take any blame away from themselves.

But rather than making the accuser back down and apologize, acting defensively usually PROVOKES the accuser further, as it disregards or invalidates their complaints and also puts blame back onto them.

As a result, the accuser usually tries to up their attack by adding more to their argument, which makes the defensive spouse respond with increased defensiveness.

Therefore, the conflict is only ESCALATED, with neither spouse taking responsibility for their part in the problem. And both are left feeling all the more frustrated with one another.

The last in our line-up of lethal weaponry is Stonewalling.

Stonewalling is usually the last of these four love-killing weapons to come into a marriage.

Stonewalling is when a spouse deliberately becomes unresponsive to their partner, emotionally disengaging from the marriage.

When stonewalling, a person acts as if their spouse is not there. They stop reacting to what their spouse does or says and therefore do not play an active role in trying to repair any marriage problems.

Stonewalling happens as a result of someone feeling overwhelmed by the force of their spouse’s negativity, so they simply TUNE OUT from what is happening.

Men are more likely to stonewall than women, which psychologists claim to be due to men generally finding it harder to express emotion and respond to high emotional intensity from their partners.

But whether it is the husband, wife, or both spouses stonewalling in their marriage, it is a sign of serious trouble.

Although stonewalling may prevent a fight from taking place, it also prevents any marriage problems from being fixed.

Now that you’ve got an idea of the behaviors which wreak havoc on marriages, it’s time to complete the exercise below.

‘Take Action on Your Reactions!’ exercise:

1. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper.

2. On the left hand side, write down ALL of the things you can think of that your spouse does to upset or annoy you.

3. On the right hand side of the paper, write down beside each of your spouse’s upsetting behaviors your own REACTIONS to these behaviors.

And I want you to be COMPLETELY honest with yourself here. How to you react each time your spouse leaves you all of the dishes, doesn’t help to get the kids ready, gets home drunk, blames you for something you didn’t do, or whatever else drives you up the wall.

4. Next, cover up the side of the paper that has the list of your spouse’s behaviors on it. Now what you are left with is a list of your own reactions to your spouse.

You may be shocked to find that some of these reactions look quite harsh and destructive when they are not placed next to your spouse’s behavior.

5. For each of your REACTIONS you have written on your list, identify if you can see any evidence of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling in them.

6. Each time you have identified these behaviors in your reactions, think of a healthier alternative that you could have used in the situation.

How could your reactions be changed to be more positive and constructive?

Write down these more helpful reactions on a new sheet of paper.

Note: Read through the notes below to help you.

Fostering change in your reactions:

• First things first. Think about how you are feeling when your spouse does some of the things which upset you.

Like every other human being on the planet, I can only imagine that at these times, you become hit with a wave of emotion.

You may feel hot, angry and venomous, or completely crushed and engulfed with pain and sadness – especially if your spouse has ‘attacked’ you with a lot of their own emotion.

Either way, when you are feeling this level of negative emotion you are in no state to be interacting with your spouse in a constructive way.

If you respond to your spouse now, you are most likely to only be fighting pain with pain and will not have a clear enough head to gather your thoughts.

If you are feeling very angry or hurt and overwhelmed, recognize that you need space to ‘cool down’ before you respond to your spouse.

It’s important to let your spouse know that you need this space right now but have every intention to continue this conversation once you have calmed down.

For example; “I want to talk with you about this but I need some space to cool down right now. Can we meet back in 10 minutes to talk?”

If you can demonstrate this self-control, you will be amazed at the positive results for your relationship and your own wellbeing.

• Communicate your true thoughts and feelings to your spouse with clarity and respect.

It is okay to communicate that you have been hurt by your spouse, but make sure you do this by making a complaint about the specific behavior you have been hurt by, rather than your spouse as a PERSON.

To do this try to always use “I” statements which focus on how YOU feel, as a result of your spouse’s behavior.
For example;

“I feel really hurt and disappointed when you have dinner without me before I get home. Having dinner together is important to me because it’s a time that we get to sit down and talk to each other. I try really hard to leave work as early as possible to get home in time for dinner, so when I get home and you have already eaten I feel lonely and rejected.”

This kind of explanation will come across a lot better than a ‘blaming’ statement, such as;

“You always just eat dinner without me without out even thinking of how I’d feel. You’re so selfish”.

Using “I” statements does not guarantee that your spouse will not react with any defensiveness, but they will at least understand your feelings about this issue and why it is upsetting you.

Remember, you and your spouse have nothing to gain by holding back your true feelings and leaving issues unresolved. It’s true: communication IS the key.

• If your spouse tells you that something you have been doing has been hurting them, fight back your immediate impulse to respond with defensiveness.

Try to remain calm and listen to everything your spouse has to say. You may disagree with some of your spouse’s viewpoints, but their feelings are real and should not be disregarded.

Accept responsibility for your own behavior and apologize sincerely, not matter how hard this may be to do.

If there is a specific reason for this behavior, clearly explain this to your spouse so that they understand (but make sure you are still accepting responsibility for YOUR hurtful behavior and are not blaming your spouse).

Lead the way in showing your spouse that it is okay to admit you’ve done wrong.

Now that you will have identified more constructive ways you could reaction to your spouse’s behavior, continue to follow the steps of the exercise below:

7. Read through the list of your spouse’s upsetting behaviors again, but this time match each behavior to one of the new, more constructive reactions you have written down.

If you want to, you can brainstorm here about how changing these reactions may affect the outcomes of your interactions with your spouse.

8. In future, every time your spouse shows these same behaviors, try to use the positive reaction alternative you have written down.

Take note of how making these changes to your own behavior affects your interactions with your spouse.

Specifically, when you react in more constructive ways, how does your spouse react? Is their behavior improving a result of yours?

Regardless of what your spouse may be at fault for, if you take responsibility for any destructive behaviors YOU have been contributing to your relationship, your spouse is more likely to start taking responsibility for THEIR actions.

Although change may be gradual, your self-control, effort and personal strength WILL pay off in the long run.
Problems are much more likely to be resolved and there is a greater chance of restoring the love you once had with your spouse.

So be strong, be kind to yourself and celebrate any small successes you have with your spouse.

By completing this exercise, you have just taken a massive step towards saving your marriage!

Until next time,

Brooke Ryan

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