Is your marriage experiencing marital stress? If so, here are some insightful tips to help resolve marital issues.
by Lori Gurtman | Lori Gurtman lives in Aspen, Colorado with her husband, two teenage children, and Old English Sheepdog. Reading and writing are her favorite escape, but when she isn’t doing that, she can be found on the mountain: hiking, biking, or skiing. Lori is also a published author, freelance writer, certified proofreader, and college essay tutor—who is passionate about empowering her students to write from their hearts. Follow her on Twitter @lorigurtman.
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Most couples enter a new marriage with a dream––a fantasy of happily ever after, believing their partner will complete them and make them whole. But once the newlywed phase begins to fade and life’s challenges get the best of us, marital bliss can fall apart. If, however, a couple is willing to work on themselves and learn positive, healthy ways to communicate with each other, then marital issues can be resolved and stressful symptoms alleviated.
To better understand the inner-working of marital problems and how to overcome them, I had the privilege of speaking to licensed psychotherapists and relationship experts Lori Ann Kret and Jeffrey Cole from the Aspen Relationship Institute. They shared their vast knowledge about the underlying causes of many common issues that couples face and the importance of guiding their clients on a journey of self-exploration that will ultimately strengthen the marital bond.
According to Kret and Cole, issues within a marriage are considered either macro, glaring problems, or micro, which refers to minor tensions.
Macro issues may include infidelity, significant financial stress or financial infidelity, childcare responsibilities, lack of transparency, lying, major illness or loss, family problems, unsupportive with household chores, etc.
Micro problems are more common and include day-to-day stressors, balancing household responsibilities with work, miscommunications, tensions with in-laws, etc.
Both macro and micro traumas can trigger a fight-or-flight response, where couples blame one another for the issues at hand. When arguments escalate, spouses either take flight by turning off or escalate fighting by adding more fuel to the fire with their words.
Kret and Cole teach a step-by-step process to help overcome marital issues. The first step is to pause when a couple’s arguing gets heated. Spouses often get stuck fighting about the content, which Kret and Cole call “above the line.”
To create a healthy resolution, partners need to be willing to drop “below the line” and explore the root cause of the argument. The second step does just that, and is about self-reflection, whereby each spouse asks themselves, what am I feeling, and what’s my story? In other words, they need to look inside and try to understand the underlying emotion and vulnerabilities related to the topic.
Once both partners have a better sense of their points of contention, it’s time for the third step, when the couple reconvenes to share their stories and have their feelings validated by their partner.
The final step shifts back “above the line” to resolve the initial content challenge with a new understanding of what the issue represents and compassion for each other’s feelings, so that they can determine a resolution that satisfies both parties.
Putting This Into Action
Let’s imagine an ensuing altercation between a husband and wife to clarify how this works. The husband tells his wife that he made plans to play golf over the weekend. The wife, a stay-at-home mom of young children, snaps upon hearing this. She wants her husband, who’s been working late all week, to do some chores around the house and spend time with the kids so that she can have a break. The couple begins to fight. He yells. She yells. Before the chaos takes a turn for the worse, the husband and wife need a timeout.
Above the Line
For both the husband and wife, the initial conflict lies in the content of him wanting to golf and how much time he spends golfing.
Below the Line
Understanding the husband and wife’s emotions and story will help them get “below the line.”
Husband thinks about his story. He’s had a stressful week at work, and he needs downtime. If he gives in to his wife, he will resent her and the kids. Plus, staying home with the family isn’t relaxing. His wife is constantly nagging him about the chores, and when, for example, he cleans the garage, it’s never up to her standards. She always finds something to complain about.
Now that the husband has an idea of the stories and feelings driving this conflict about golf, he has an opportunity to dig deeper. Growing up, his father was always picking on him—nothing was ever good enough. His wife talks to him in a way that reminds him of how his father treated him. As a teenager, he would spend as much time at his friends’ houses to escape his father’s relentless demands.
The wife thinks about her story. As much as she loves and appreciates that she can afford to stay home and raise her kids, she misses the stimulation of working. As a result, she’s jealous of her husband. He has a fulfilling career, and she feels neglected by him, knowing that he would rather be with his friends than with her and the kids. The wife also gets annoyed that her husband never helps with household chores, and she doesn’t think the weight of childrearing and keeping their house in tip-top shape should always fall on her shoulders.
After the wife identifies her stories and feelings, she reflects long and hard on what might be at the root of her vulnerability. Her parents divorced when she was five years old, and her father remarried and had two more children. Her father was hands-on with her half-siblings and wasn’t emotionally available to her when she was a little girl. The wife’s childhood wounds were ignited by her husband’s long hours at work and eagerness to choose his golf game over spending time with the family.
Sharing their Stories
Once the couple has a better understanding of their stories, they take turns—in a peaceful way–– sharing their vulnerabilities. After listening, the wife acknowledges her role that she nags her husband and recognizes that he needs to participate in activities that help him recharge. Listening to the wife speak, the husband realizes that he’s making his wife feel the same sense of abandonment she felt from her father.
With each partner understanding what this topic represents to the other, it’s much easier to find a compromise that addresses their needs. For example, the couple might decide to hire a babysitter to watch the kids on Saturday, allowing the husband to play golf with his buddies and giving the wife some time to herself.
Whatever the issue, applying Kret and Cole’s process is the key to transforming any relationship. We learn so much about ourselves through our connections with others.
When troubling situations between couples manifest, our bodies often initiate a stress response: thoughts spin, hearts race, tension in the body arises, etc. Rather than fighting with your partner, which only has the potential to make things worse, try taking a moment to yourself to do some mindful practices. Breathing exercises and meditation will help calm the mind, and getting into a clear headspace will make it easier to identify your story.
Most importantly, couples need to learn and practice raising their emotional intelligence to manage marital problems in a constructive way. In doing this, spouses will be able to build a stronger, harmonious relationship—till death do them part.
Did this article help you in your marital issues? If so, tell us about it by opening a discussion in the Forum.
Lori Ann Kret, LCSSW, BCC, and Jeffrey Cole, LPC, BCC are founders of Aspen Relationship Institute and provide unique couple-to-couple coaching. www.AspenRelationshipInstitute.com.