Dear Anne & Brian, My husband and I are working to heal our marriage after an affair. In spite of it all, I know I love my husband, and I know he loves me. I just don’t understand how he could’ve loved me and still did what he did. Even with all this good will and good intentions, we still find ourselves so easily triggered into an argument, and then it seems so hard to get past it. It becomes a setback with hurt and distrust growing instead of diminishing. Why does this happen? What can we do about it?
Great question! The first thing to remember is the thing is not about the thing! Whatever the argument is about on the surface is not really what the argument is about. You’re going to need to look below the surface.
Arguments happen for a number of reasons.
Many arguments erupt like a lit match to gasoline because of the harsh start-up.
Here’s how it goes:
You do or say something that hurts your spouse without realizing it, or vice versa. The offended party (unaware) is likely to immediately jump in and say “you ........................... ”
Immediately the person on the receiving end feels attacked. They try to explain why they did what they did, which only makes matters worse because it comes off as justification and excuses instead of what’s needed, listening and understanding and taking responsibility.
Make no mistake it takes maturity to heal from an affair. It takes maturity to have a great marriage in the first place.
Here are some things you can do to move from argument to harmony in your marriage:
1. Be aware of your physiology. Sometimes the root of your conflict is that one of you is too tired, stressed, scape goating (mad about something else and reacting to your spouse), dealing with hormones, chemical imbalance, negative reaction to some medication, or you’re overwhelmed. Do all you can to get proper rest, eat well, and reduce stress in your life, and if you haven’t been able to do this, be aware of how physiology may be affecting you or your spouse. If the problem is that you or your spouse is hungry, no amount of yelling is going to solve anything. They just need to eat.
2. Sincerity, Charity & Grace. In other words: your attitude. What is in your heart towards your spouse? What are you focusing on? Are you looking for how your spouse might be doing the wrong thing? (Then that’s all you’ll find.) Or are you looking for how they might be doing the right thing? Believe the best. Attitude is everything. You can apply every great relationship technique in the world, but if your attitude is not sincere it’s not going to work.
3. Be willing to listen and seek to understand. If your spouse gets a chance to share what they are angry or hurting about, it will diffuse the situation. Decide to be the bigger person, and to genuinely listen instead of talking. Your spouse is not insane. If they are upset, there is a good reason. Find it. Empathize.
4. Stop defending and explaining yourself. Contrary to what you believe when you do this you are making matters worse and not better. Look for the truth in what your spouse is saying, and agree to that part.
5. Affirm and praise. Don’t underestimate the power of reminding your spouse of something you appreciate or value about them in the heat of the argument. A great thing to say can be, “I am really angry right now, but even so I do really love you, and only want to make things right.”
6. Be objective. Okay, so you’re convinced your spouse is wrong. Guaranteed they are wrong to some degree, because if either of you were getting this 100% right you wouldn’t be having this argument in the first place. It’s good to identify exactly what they have done that hurts you, and share how that specific thing makes you feel. It’s even better to find the part you’ve done wrong and take responsibility for that.
7. Step away for self-reflection. As much as you might hate it, and want to “fix” it now, there’s a good chance your attempts to fix it are making matters worse. When people take time to step away, both people can gain some clarity about what’s really going on and then re-engage the discussion much more effectively.
8. Avoid “you” statements. Use: “In situation x, when you do y, I feel z. “ “You” statements are an attack and invite a defensive response.
9. Use the sandwich approach. If your spouse hurt you, and there really is something important they’ve done that has hurt you (a complaint or correction), be aware of the fact that few, if any, people find it easy to own their mistakes. But if you start with a word of praise, belief or encouragement, then bring in the correction, and finish your sentence with something positive, you wisely make it safe for the core issue to be heard and received. You long to feel accepted. So does your spouse.
10. Use Repair Attempts. When something has gone sideways, give a little space, but also look for ways to re-open the lines of communication. Here are some things that can work: Apologize, an act of kindness (such as bring them their favorite drink or do the dishes), say something nice, touch them gently, sometimes appropriately placed humor can also help (caution and wisdom is needed).
11. Refrain from trying to “teach” your spouse in the heat of the moment. There is nothing more infuriating when you’re angry than to have your spouse come off with some noble (and possibly accurate) explanation, such as “I’m not making you mad. You are choosing to be angry right now.” It’s true actually. No one can make you anything. You choose your response … but reminding (or teaching) an angry person what they are doing wrong is not going to help your cause.
12. Understand that below the surface, most likely you are feeling either unloved or inadequate. Astonishingly so is your spouse. Awareness of this can go along way to moving from argument to harmony.
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