This week my wife and I celebrated our first anniversary. To memorialize this milestone we performed a 1-year relationship inventory.
We started by reminiscing on the high points of our first year of marriage. Vacations, memories, victories, trials we’ve overcome, dreams we’ve started to lock into place. It was inspiring and fun to reflect on this awesome life we're starting to build together
Then my wife asked the big question:
“What’s gonna be different in year 2?”
Great question, right?!
No matter how great your marriage is, it can always get better… but not unless you approach it as a team with intention.
So we started the conversation we’d been avoiding without even realizing it. (Isn't it so easy to get sucked into the routine and status quo and forget to talk about what’s next in our growth as a couple?)
“Let’s talk about the stuff we struggle with the most, and how we can do better,” I responded.
"Perfect!" she said.
Now I’m going to be real with you and give you a look into our biggest struggle as a couple.
We are both very hyper-sensitive and overactive humans... especially in times of conflict or misunderstanding. We aren’t very good at giving each other the benefit of the doubt, or at assuming positive intent when we're feeling hurt or threatened.
This leads to us both getting wounded easily over stupid, insignificant things, then acting complete jerks to each other in response.
It’s. The. Worst.
Here's an example of what I’m talking about:
We recently went on vacation. I was standing next to the front door, bags-in-hand, ready to go load the car with the suitcases so we could head to the airport. My wife was kneeling on the floor next to me trying to cram one or two last-minute things into her carry-on bag.
She noticed I was just kind of standing there by the door, staring at her. (I often do this when we’re running late, and she’s running behind. I just stand by the door and wait… and she hates it.)
Suddenly she snapped at me. “What are you staring at?! If you want something, just ask!”
I physically recoiled. I felt like I got punched in the gut. Where the heck did that come from?
Instinctually I punched back.
“I’m just waiting for you to pack your freaking bag and move over! I didn’t want to open the door while you’re sitting there in your underwear! Sorry for trying to be considerate!” I said in the most self-righteous and least considerate voice imaginable.
It happened so fast.
She made an assumption that I was being passive aggressive (like I have been in the past), and lashed out in protection or irritation. Then I punched back.
This crap happens all the time.
Here's another example...
We were in the car on our way to meet some of our good friends for a double date.
"How was your day?" I asked my wife.
No response. She was on her phone.
My blood started to boil. I HATE when she ignores me, ESPECIALLY when she's on her phone.
I asked again.
"How was your day, honey? “
It didn't even register.
I lost it. “Good grief, can you just put your freaking phone down and talk to me?!”
"Woah, Nate! Calm down. I’m just trying to figure out where we’re meeting our friends! Can you give me a freaking second?”
I felt ignored and hurt and I lashed out. My emotional outburst cut her deep and her emotional defenses went up faster than pop-tent at scout camp. We sat in prickly silence for most of the rest of the drive.
I KNOW my wife loves me. I KNOW she’s kind and compassionate and wonderful. But I still jump to these conclusions that she’s out to get me, I get defensive, I get upset and frustrated, and I do stupid stuff that hurts her (and vice versa).
In the last 12 months, we’ve gotten really good at repairing the little hurts and healing the wounds we inflict on each other. We’re both pretty fast to forgive, and willing to admit when we've acted like a jerk.
But during our relationship inventory, we've decided to level up in year 2.
Instead of just getting good at forgiving and healing each other, we want to master not even getting sucked into conflict to begin with!
So, how the heck do we do that?
Well, first we need to get really honest with ourselves. We need to identify our weaknesses and vulnerabilities that let these conflicts creep into our marriage.
Then we need to create a plan to change our attitudes and behaviors so we can get the outcome and results we want.
Lastly, we need to follow the freaking plan.
I already identified above that our weaknesses are not assuming positive intent, getting defensive and being reactive.
Now we needed to create a plan.
"Why don't we just not be a-holes to each other in the first place? Wouldn't that solve things?" my wife asked.
“It’s not that easy,” I replied. “We're not perfect. Sometimes I’m going to push your buttons without even realizing it, and you will react without even thinking (or vice versa). The moment that happens, the "Don't be a jerk" plan goes right out the window. What happens then?”
So we thought a little harder.
"Maybe it would be easier for the person who isn't feeling the initial hurt (aka the one who did the inadvertent hurting) to keep their cool and change the direction of the conversation," I suggested.
“What if when one person lashes out, the other person responds with the phrase, ‘I know you didn't mean that. I'm going to give you a minute.’?” Ang suggested.
Woah. What a gift!
Imagine you lash out at your partner, and instead of punching back their response is to give you the benefit of the doubt and generously offer you time to heal so you can get back to your normal, loveable self.
When one partner gives the other partner exactly what they need, it stops conflict dead in its tracks.
We were getting excited about this new strategy to level up our conflict management skills, but the plan still wasn't perfect. I know myself too well. If I lash out at my wife and she says, "I know you didn't mean that. I'm going to give you some time." (no matter how generous she is) I'll probably hit her back with something passive aggressive.
So we made one more rule. You're not allowed to get mad at the other person for saying this phrase, even if you see things differently. You just take the time and the love they've given you and go calm yourself down till you can talk.
This works for us because in our marriage, we have integrity, and we play by the rules we set.
I'm not gonna lie, I'm excited to start putting this into practice... and it WILL take practice.
Now it's your turn
Have you ever had a conversation about what you can do better in your relationship? Maybe you keep having the same conflicts over and over again... would talking about how you handle things and creating a plan together change the outcome?
What did you like about the strategy we developed together? Is it something you want to try out with us? How can you make it better, or make it personal for your relationship?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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