The average wedding in the U.S. costs around $30,000. You would think that such an extravagant ceremony would reflect a high level of commitment among married couples. Yet, roughly 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. That divorce rate rises even more sharply with second marriages. While these sobering statistics may make it seem like the success or failure of your marriage is just a very expensive coin toss, there are concrete reasons why some marriages make it while others fail, and what’s more: there are things that you as a couple can do to improve your odds.
By far, the number-one problem that the couples I work with identify in their marriages is that they “can’t communicate” with each other. What that usually means is that difficult topics cannot be discussed reasonably, where both sides speak their mind and negotiate a solution. What happens instead is that these topics either turn into vicious fights or are avoided altogether.
One of the key factors that lead to the success of a marriage however, is a couple’s ability to work through these kinds of issues. In other words, it’s not simply the lack of bad stuff that helps long-term couples to become resilient to adversity, but how they deal with those challenges. So how can you and your partner learn to communicate in a constructive way about those difficult topics?
First, it’s important to understand that not only is disagreement normal, it’s a good thing! You are two different people with different upbringings, preferences, fears, and coping mechanisms. Second, learning this will be hard at first. That’s normal too! Successful relationships take “emotional muscle” and if you haven’t exercised your relationship muscles in a while, coping with differences will be painful. But in the same way that you can develop physical muscle, you can stretch and grow relational muscle too, and as a result, make your marriage stronger and more resilient.
A key factor in developing the emotional muscle of healthy communication is something I like to call showing up. Couples tend to feel closest when they can share everything with each other, but that requires being present with each other.
Showing up has two aspects to it:
1. Showing up means expressing yourself authentically. That means being able to recognize your own thoughts, feelings, values, and desires, and to be willing to honestly share these with your partner. It means showing yourself to your partner with all of who you are — both your good and your bad sides. It means acknowledging that you and your partner are separate people, and that disagreeing on points is an acceptable fact of life.
Expressing yourself honestly can be difficult. Some have a hard time identifying what their needs and preferences actually are. Others hesitate to express their desires for fear of being denied what they long for. Opening yourself up, only to have your partner argue with you, may feel like more than you can bear — so there is a temptation for people to bottle up their desires, often expressing their displeasure and resentment indirectly and therefore in a ineffective and non-constructive way.
2. Showing up means letting your partner express themselves authentically, too. ln other words, you need to become a good listener. As a good listener, you stay curious about your partner’s thoughts and feelings without immediately thinking about what that means for yourself and your own agenda. A good listener can put him or herself into the other person’s shoes. This can be quite difficult, especially when you disagree with your partner’s point of view, so the temptation to argue or defend yourself is great.
The goal is to create an atmosphere at home where both of you can be real and which supports your development both as individuals and as a couple. This is usually not a skill set that comes naturally, but one that needs to be learned and practiced daily.
Training Your Muscles
You may long to develop the communication skills described above, but don’t know where to start. Couples’ genuine attempts to discuss the changes they long for can often end in bitter arguments and even more estrangement. That’s why distressed couples need support. This can come from friends, relatives, and faith communities. Books and articles like this one can be helpful as well. But in the same way that serious athletes need professional trainers, the most systematic support a couple can get is through formal marriage counseling (also known as couples therapy).
Couples therapy creates a safe space to explore your relationship, providing you with the tools you’ll need — both to communicate your own needs, and to listen to the needs of your partner. As a skilled witness, your therapist can help to uncover and break out of the underlying dynamics and destructive patterns in your interactions with each other.
This will take time. You will literally need to re-wire your brain from responding in old ways. But the good news is that this re-wiring for relational resilience can be done, provided you both are willing to put in the time and effort to exercise that muscle.
Originally published on YourTango.