On my last post about negativity, someone asked, “How do you get your marriage going in a positive direction when there are unresolved issues (anger, resentment, score-keeping, not speaking to each other like grown-ups, intimacy problems)? We don’t ever get down to the unresolved issues. We just fight about surface things, which creates more emotional distance.”
The question led me to compile the following truths about unresolved issues.
Truth #1: You Don’t Resolve Your Issues in one Conversation.
Rather, you chip away at them, one short conversation at a time. It’s tempting, in our fix-it-quick society to want to improve our marriages in just 24 hours. In reality, it takes months if not years. Start with one small, seemingly tiny issue. Talk about it. Come to an understanding. Agree on a resolution. Then move onto the next one, slowly working your way up to the most challenging issues.
Truth #2: You’ve Resolved More Than You Realize.
Marriage improvement is often a two steps forward, one step back process. Because of the negativity bias that causes us to fixate on failures and overlook successes, we often only notice the steps we take backwards. We find them frustrating and use them as evidence that “this marriage is never going to survive,” when, in reality, the marriage is slowly improving. Similarly, our spouses might be making great progress in a certain area, but we’re likely only to notice the times our spouses backslide.
Truth #3: Fighting is a Form of Love.
Yes, it’s scary. Yes, there’s a better way. Yes, it’s hurtful.
But no, fighting is not a sign that your spouse despises you. Actually it’s a sign of the opposite. We fight the most with the people we love the most. When we stop loving someone and completely lose interest, we become apathetic. We stop caring enough to try. The fight leaves us. Silence wins. When this happens, you no longer have a spouse. You merely have an annoying roommate.
Truth #4: Change Starts With You.
I know, this truth bites, but there’s no way to get around it. It’s a lot easier to change yourself than it is to change your spouse. The fastest way to a better marriage: self-improvement. Become the best communicator you know. Forgive. Hand out affection and compliments freely. Listen.
Truth #5: Marriage Is a Dance. As Long As Your Spouse Is Still On The Floor, You Can Lead Your Marriage Where You Want It To Go.
Here’s the positive flip side to truth #4. If you change for the better, your spouse will follow for the better. It won’t happen overnight, but it will definitely happen. The more patient you are, the more patient your spouse will become. The more you let things roll off, the more your spouse will do the same.
Truth #6: You Can’t Be Understood Until You First Understand.
Our minds like to place people in black and white categories: Good and bad, mean and nice, angry and friendly, and so on. Yet real people are messy. The most patient person in the world loses her temper every once in a while. The kindest person in the world occasionally does something that many people think of as selfish. We’re a blend, and we’re dang complicated to boot.
One thing most humans share in common, however, is this: We want to feel understood. You want to be understood, and so does your spouse. If you seek to understand your spouse—by asking questions, by listening intently, by giving him or her the benefit of the doubt—you’ll have a much easier time stating your truth in a way that doesn’t offend your spouse.
Truth #7: You Have More In Common That You Think.
Here’s more. In addition to both wanting to be understood, you also both want something else: to be happy. You both want to be loved, cherished and adored. You both want to minimize suffering.
Most fights are about a mismatch between what makes you happy and what makes your spouse happy. Before every conversation, remind yourself, “My spouse’s happiness is just as important as my own.”
Truth #8: It Doesn’t Take Much to Make Your Point.
Speak softly and slowly, keeping your words to just a few sentences. That will have much more impact than speaking loudly, quickly and going on for what feels like forever.
Truth #9: Your Truth is Your Truth.
We often feel the urge to dredge up example after example to show why we feel the way we feel. Yet this overkill is what leads to fighting, and it’s also unnecessary. Your feelings are your feelings. “That hurts” is true, no matter what “that” is. Resist the urge to pull the past into the present. In other words, don’t go to the, “That hurts and so did this and so did that and so did this other thing and see? All you ever do is hurt me. This is why I’m so miserable!” place. Stay with your truth. Know it to be true. And allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to show it without exaggerating it.
Truth #10: Many Issues Don’t Require a Resolution.
Consider how your marriage might change if you were struck with a case of persistent global amnesia and could not remember a single so-called unresolved issue from the past. Consider how things might be different if, from this day forward, you lived in the present and responded to your spouse only based on the present. Consider what would happen if, when you responded, you used excellent communication skills—skills that allowed you to speak your truth without coming off as defensive. After thinking about that, consider what is more important to you: resolving old issues or starting over right now? This is actually the storyline of a novel I’m reading by Allison Winn Scotch called The Song Remains The Same. In it, the main character has amnesia and can’t remember all of the trouble she’s had with her husband in the past. It’s a fascinating read and I’ll be writing more about it in weeks to come.
What makes you struggle with unresolved issues? Do you have advice to share with others? How have you resolved issues from the past?
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.