How to Begin to Improve Your Marriage: 5 Conversations to Get You Started

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IMG_0852Do you remember when you first met and fell in love how you thought your marriage would be?  Or what you thought when you were a teenager?  Remember how sure you were that your marriage would not look like your parents?  What we don’t learn in kindergarten, is that every marriage will face some unanticipated challenges.  Yet love is so vital in this ever transient and demanding world and the benefits of fighting our way through and shaping our love into something that works are significant.

Change can happen, relationships can heal, and I want to help get you down the path of repair.  Perhaps you are considering couples therapy.  Maybe you don’t want or need therapy or maybe you can’t go to therapy now, but you may need a productive self-help approach to strengthening marriage.  Regardless it is always helpful to learn about connection and have a general knowledge about the process of couples therapy (which you can learn more about here) and relationship repair.  When couples I’ve worked with have done some preparation we gain traction more quickly and it saves time and money.  Some couples can make big changes on their own if they just have the right tools.

These suggestions are based on Emotionally Focused Therapy, (learn more here and here).  There are other good models of couples therapy out there, though EFT really speaks to my heart, has significant research to back it up, and has changed my life.  EFT, in a nutshell, is about creating deeper, more secure connections between partners.  It is about creating a safe space where each partner can be vulnerable and lean in to all of what love is.  Here are 5 conversations to help you begin your journey.

As you begin, I know that some of you are experiencing a great deal of pain in your relationships.  Please know that there is a way through.  There are powerful tools out there that work (and some that don’t) including therapists, books and other resources and you are on your way to finding the best tools out there.  The journey isn’t easy, but it is possible.  I am so often moved by the capacity of the human heart to heal and change. I have seen it happen in my office, even with those who initially seem so hard to reach.  For some it doesn’t take long, for others they’ll muddle their way through for a while until they can emerge and see the hope, light, and love that their marriage has to offer.  Don’t give up.  It is worth it.  

Conversation 1: Talk with your partner about strengthening your marriage.  As you do this, make the request from a place of love, and also longing for the best you can have with them.  Tell them how much they matter to you and that you’d like to make sure you are loving them the way they want to be loved, and that you want the same in return.  Avoid blame, attacks, and criticism.  

If your partner agrees to join you, see if you can agree to a regular time, maybe weekly, to talk about your relationship and proceed to Conversation 2.  If your partner is reluctant, defensive or troubled by your request, jump to Conversation 2B.  This time you set aside isn’t to talk budget, kids, or work, it’s about your connection.  Prepare by getting a copy of Love Sense, by Sue Johnson.  Local libraries have them, as does your favorite book buying site.  The book is also available in audio and digital format.  

As you arrive at your scheduled time, you can follow the next 4 conversations one at a time.  Set a pace that is right for your relationship.  If you end up talking about one conversation for weeks, no problem.  If you can’t help but move faster that’s fine, too.  Though when talking about feelings, generally slower is faster.

Conversation 2: Talk about the following things.  What are the strengths of your relationship?  What initially drew you to your partner?  What draws you in now?  What have been the best times in your relationship, when have you felt the most connected?

Prepare for your next conversation by reading pages 1-57 Love Sense.  Chapter 1 will give you a general theory of love and romance.  You’ll learn more about what is realistic to expect in a long-term love relationship and what we need and can achieve.  In Chapter 2 you’ll learn about the different ways that children and adults try to bond and connect and start to see how you fit into that.  Stop and do the experiments on page 29 alone.  Identify 2-3 meaningful quotes or ideas that you’d like to discuss with your partner at the agreed upon time.  

Conversation 3: Discuss what you read in Part I of Love Sense.  How did it resonate with you?  Could you identify with any of the stories?  In what ways does your relationship feel solid and secure?  How do you wish it was different?  Do the experiments on page 56.

Prepare for next week by reading Part II.  In these chapters you’ll learn about how emotions, the brain, and the body all have their systematic and instinctual ways of behaving within close love relationships.  You’ll begin to gain a sense of what’s happening in your complex system as you try to love and be loved.  

Conversation 4: Discuss what you read in Part II of Love Sense.  Perhaps you’ll be up for doing a few of the experiments in the book.  After this move through the rest of the book at a pace that works for both of you.  

Conversation 5: Have a bowl of ice cream together, or humus if that’s your thing.  Take a break from the heavy stuff and talk about which Ben & Jerry’s flavor truly is the best.  Talk about things you’d like to do together for leisure and weekend dates.  

Then consider moving on to another book, either Hold Me Tight or An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples, depending on your learning style.  Hold Me Tight is similar to Love Sense, but it has more exercises and discussion points.  It goes through 7 conversations to build a deeper connection.  The workbook, well, is a workbook.  Watch for a future post about each of these books, but don’t wait for me if you are ready for more.  If you do read them, please share with me your experiences about reading these and how it went for you.  

Conversation 2B: If your partner is defensive or hurt by your request to improve your connection try to be patient.  While I know it is painful, see if you can try to understand why your partner is resisting.  It could be fear of inadequacy as they discover, or are reminded, that they aren’t meeting your needs in the relationship.  It could also be general discomfort, or even distress, in talking about their feelings.  Your partner may need reassurance, which can be really hard to give when you are in so much pain.  And perhaps you can’t give them enough.  The next best place to start is by focusing on becoming the kind of person you want to be in a relationship.  Through the process of change each person is responsible for learning about their own world and what they bring to the marriage and how this impacts their partner.  You’ll be able to apply what you learn to all your important relationships and thereby foster more close connections.  You don’t need to wait for your partner to be on board to begin your part of this process.  As you learn and change your partner may come around.  You may learn new ways to ask for what you need in the relationship in a way that your partner will hear and experience differently.  You’ll likely also gain more clarity about what you want your marriage to look like, what you can live with, and what you can’t live without.

I hope that you have found this helpful.  Remember that if these exercises are a struggle or seem to be stirring up emotion that is difficult for you to handle, help is a phone call away.  If you are in Northern Virginia or Washington, D.C., I can help.  If not, refer to this post about how to find a couples therapist.  Remember, this relationship is worth it.  You are worth it.  Take the next step in healing your relationship today.

I want to hear from you!  Please send your thoughts, experiences, comments and suggestions in the contact form below or give me a call.