“We need to work on our marriage.”
A vague awareness grows in one of the spouses. One may sense:
- Emotional distance
- A lack of meaningful conversation
- Constant tension
- Physical absence
Whatever the reason, at some point the discomfort grows enough to prompt one spouse to say: “We need to work on our marriage.”
Then, typically, the comment is brushed off. That’s because the awareness rarely arises in both spouses at the same time.
Nevertheless, the one who said it feels dismissed, angry, or discouraged, or maybe imagining it’s just in his or her head.
That’s okay. The statement isn’t true anyway. You don’t need to work on your marriage. When most people try, they mostly focus on fixing their partner.
The way people talk about it – work on “our marriage” or “our relationship” –sounds as if they are working on a “thing” that’s external to them.
But marriage isn’t a “thing” that you can work on, like a car or a computer. It isn’t something separate from you that you can analyze and tinker with.
The marriage IS real. It IS powerful, but it isn’t an independent thing. Marriage is a relationship that exists between you and your spouse. And if you are a person of faith, you view God as a partner in the relationship as well.
Since your marriage isn’t an independent thing, you’re wasting your time trying to work on it. That effort won’t bring the results you want.
A Different Approach to Marriage
Instead, you’re far more likely to have a stronger, more intimate marriage, if you take another approach. Instead of working on “the marriage,” choose to work on YOU.
That’s right. The marriage doesn’t need work. You do.
So do I, and every person that I know.
No one has the power to make another person more thoughtful, vulnerable, punctual, responsible or whatever else you’d like to see improved in your spouse. You can celebrate and affirm the characteristics and behaviors you want to see continue in another person, but willing another person to be different will get you nowhere but stressed and frustrated.
You can, however, work on you. For example, make the effort to be kind when you are tired, hungry, or disappointed. Work on humility by listening to what’s important to your spouse (even if it’s not important for you). Ask questions instead of giving advice. Rein in the attitude that you are right most of the time.
If you need help knowing where to start working, let me offer three areas for your consideration.
Work On Becoming Aware
Are you aware of your mood or how you come across to your spouse? Are you aware of whether you are engaged and helpful, or not? Are you in touch with whether you are negative, angry or judgmental?
Are you aware of what’s important to you and of what your spouse values? Do you know what he or she needs from you? Are you aware of any behaviors or remarks that squelch love and respect? Are you in touch with what you need to be more playful or resilient?
It’s difficult to see these. Maybe ask your spouse for candid feedback or ask a trusted friend what he or she sees. If you are a person of faith, you can make this a matter of prayer and ask God to make this known to you.
Work On Becoming Open and Vulnerable
Be honest and open with your worries and fears. Admit when you are challenged or need help. Make the effort to respectfully share your thoughts. Talk about everyday events that may seem trivial. All of these build closeness and intimacy.
Being open and vulnerable means you’ll confess your mistakes and wrongs. Say you’re sorry. Don’t blame your moods or actions on someone or something else.
Work On Giving and Receiving
Instead of being resentful that you didn’t get a smile or an appropriate “hello” when you got home, focus on giving a great greeting.
Some people have an idea that marriage is a 50-50 proposition. I give some; you give some. Let’s meet halfway.
The problem with 50-50 attitudes is that they leave you holding back until you see your partner making a contribution. It keeps you defensive and wary. A generosity of spirit has a hard time thriving in this atmosphere.
But when a person decides to give 100%, whether they receive it in return or not, that generosity of spirit tends to give rise to like behavior in the other.
Give compliments instead of criticism. Encourage rather than shoot down. Give grace rather than harping on imperfections in your spouse. Pitch in and help with a task that you normally leave to the other. The Golden Rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us works great in a marriage.
Compliments bring great energy to a relationship. Mark Twain said, “I can go for two months on a good compliment.” Everyone can.
The work to be done is not on your marriage but on you. If you keep focusing on what your spouse needs to work on, you’ll get nowhere. You each may become stuck and resentful, and your relationship may starve.
Conversely, you and your spouse have a better chance of thriving when you both work on becoming more aware, more open and vulnerable, and more generous.
Try this route and you may find that your marriage has a much better chance of flourishing.
And you’ll discover that you didn’t even have to work on it!
If you’ve tried to change to a healthier diet, a more active lifestyle, more positive thinking, or any number of areas where you desire improvement, more than likely you’ve tried to summon willpower to stop unwanted habits.
Likely as not, your willpower has probably failed you.
That doesn’t mean you’re weak. It simply means you failed to account for a key factor in making a change.
Try to overcome an unhealthy habit by willpower, and you will lose. Big time.
That’s because habits eat willpower for lunch.
Why Habits Override Willpower Every Time
Habits make our lives run more efficiently. Think about the way you button your shirt or tie your shoes, for example. You brush your teeth without thinking. (Don’t believe me? Just try brushing with your opposite hand and see how much you have to think about it then!)
Science Daily reports that as much as 40 percent of our daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations. Habits free the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) to grapple with new ideas and decisions.
First learning a behavior – like tying a shoestring – requires focus and thinking logically. This engages the prefrontal cortex, as well as some other areas of the brain.
Repetition deepens neural pathways enough to no longer require the attention of the prefrontal cortex, freeing it up to focus on learning new behaviors.
Habits do not require thinking. That’s why you can drive across town and not remember getting there (dangerous). It’s also why you can walk through the kitchen and grab a cookie or cracker without even realizing it (also dangerous) even though you promised yourself that you would not eat any sugar that day. Habits are quicker than your thinking.
Unwanted habits defeat willpower because the latter is a limited resource. The work of inhibiting (not doing something) takes place in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) right behind the temple areas. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock says this braking system in our brain is energy-hungry, fragile and temperamental, working at its best only every now and then.
Your capacity to put on brakes diminishes as the day goes on. That’s why you’re more likely at night to eat more than you intended. It’s why you have a harder time holding your tongue, resulting in harsher-than-intended words to your spouse or child. (Ever notice how many arguments take place shortly before bed?) And it’s why you’re more likely to engage in risky behavior as the evening progresses.
Your capacity to say “no” dwindles as the day goes on. And when your willpower runs out, you revert back to habits.
So, how do you overcome unwanted habits?
Focusing on Developing New Habits Instead of Quitting Old Ones
- Change your environment. People who move to new jobs and new cities find it easier to create new habits and patterns without the old ones staring them in the face. Since most of you can’t move, change your environment in small ways.
Think of the advice given to those wanting to change their eating patterns – clear your cabinets of junk food and replace it with healthier options. Getting it out of the kitchen means you can’t automatically toss a handful of peanuts in your mouth when you walk by the Planter’s can.
If you’re wasting too much time with phone games, remove the apps and replace them with ones that promote relaxation or learning (do you have the nerve to do that?). If you want to improve your sleep, get your electronic devices out of the bedroom, and read or talk (about lighter subjects!) for the last 1-2 hours.
- Cue your desired new habit off of an existing one. Flossing your teeth is easier after you brush because brushing acts as a trigger. Trying to remember to floss at a stand-alone time meets with little success.
Let’s say you grab a cup of coffee first thing each morning, and then pick up your phone to check for messages or social news. Perhaps you decide that you would be better served not to get so distracted at the beginning of the day.
Get the coffee as usual, but then reach for something inspirational rather than your phone – a devotional, book of quotes, or a simple pen and blank page for journaling or list-making. (Make sure it’s placed conveniently near where you drink your coffee.) Spend a few minutes thinking, envisioning how you want to enter the day, or giving thought to something you want to accomplish.
- Shoot for consistent practice, not perfection. It’s a myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Some of the latest research shows that it is much wider ranging – from 18 to 254 days – to develop a new habit, depending on it’s complexity.
So don’t get discouraged if your desired behavior doesn’t come easily in a few weeks. Stay with it.
If you mess up now and then, that’s okay. Progress towards a new habit depends not upon perfection, but consistency. Messing up occasionally won’t really increase the length of time it takes to acquire a new habit. Don’t give up if you fail.
Can you relate to any of these scenarios?
- You’re lying awake at night, unable to sleep as dozens of thoughts roll through your head.
- You’re sitting unproductively at your desk, unable to focus because disconnected thoughts keep flashing through your mind.
- You’re stuck in worry, churning over all kinds of possible scenarios – most of which are negative.
Some racing thoughts are associated with diagnosed disorders (such as bipolar, OCD, ADHD), but that is not our focus here. For all of us, our minds are always on and thoughts are constantly fighting to claim the limited space of our working memory.
When anxiety and stress are up, your mind kicks into another gear. When these are elevated a little, you may find this to be helpful. You may focus better and have the energy to take specific action.
But when anxiety and stress get a little too high, the brain creates a feedback loop that bypasses the prefrontal cortex (the PFC – your executive thinking region) resulting in a diminished ability to focus. That, in turn, is likely to cause your anxiety to rise a bit more. This cycle continues, and it’s off to the races.
Take Back Control Over Your Thoughts
Solutions come with re-engaging the prefrontal cortex and taking some control of your thoughts. A number of different strategies can help you do that, and here are three for you to try.
- Breathe. Engage your diaphragm and breathe through your nose. Sit erect with the small of your back supported against your chair. Balance your head by aligning your ears over your shoulders. Close your eyes and relax your jaw by allowing your teeth to separate while leaving your lips closed together (not tightly). Relax your shoulders by letting them sink down and away from your ears.
Think the word “inhale” and pay attention to the act of inhaling as you breathe in through your nose. Think “exhale” and pay attention to the act of exhaling as you breathe out through your nose. Do this for 5 minutes. When your mind starts to wander or race (and it will!), bring your focus back to the breath by thinking “inhale” and “exhale.”
Notice what you are feeling and thinking (like, “My shoulders are tense,” or “I’ve got to stop by the grocery store,” and then lay that feeling or thought aside without judgment and return to thinking about your breath.
Deep breathing from the diaphragm helps to flip a switch in the brain from the fight/flight/freeze mode to a peace and possibility mode. From that calmer place, you increase your ability to focus, resulting in clearer and more positive thinking.
- Write. The working memory of your brain receives new information, pulls known information from your long-term memory, and enables you to make a decision and take action in the moment. Unfortunately, the working memory is limited in capacity and duration. On average, it can hold 3-4 pieces of information for about 10-20 seconds. If you don’t do something with that information, it’s gone.
Have you walked from one room to another to get something and, by the time you got there, forgot what it was you went to get? Have you forgotten someone’s name right after she introduced herself? Have you noticed when someone reads a credit card number to you, that they give it to you 4 digits at a time? If they read all 16 at once, your brain wouldn’t recall it.
You're dealing with the limitations of your working memory.
Often our minds race as we try to remember more than the working memory can hold.
Write the information down. That will lower your anxiety about remembering it and it will free up space for you to think of something else. On those nights I can’t fall asleep for thinking of too many things, I get up (keeping the lights as low as possible so as not to trigger my wake cycle), write down key thoughts, and then return to bed.
If you’re at your desk and can’t focus on one thing, in particular, write down the thoughts that come to mind. Then you can decide which one of those is most important, or needs your attention now. The others are written down so you won’t forget them. You can prioritize them for later.
- Question. Nothing lowers anxiety and gets us into the thinking part of our brain better than a good question. When your mind is racing, any of the following can help you focus:
- What am I thinking about? (Often our thoughts remain vague. Clarify them by writing them down.)
- What do I need to focus on NOW?
- How important is this to me? Does this need my attention now, later, or can I let it go?
- What is my concern here? How true is this? How can I look at it differently? (Think more about possibilities, and what success or a better outcome would look like.)
- What is the bigger picture?
- What piece of this can I control?
A regular practice of breathing, writing, and questioning will bring focus and clarity that lowers anxiety and helps calm the mind. If a racing mind or anxious thoughts are problematic for you, I have had much success in helping people gain control of their thinking, lower their anxiety, and gain the clarity needed to get unstuck.
Reply to this email or contact me here for a complimentary call to talk about how you can gain relief and feel more in control of your life.
As a leader and influencer, you feel responsible for outcomes. As a result, you notice if people are not on their game or doing what they are supposed to do.
At that point your concern goes up. Because you care, you offer advice, give a warning, push hard, or try to steer the person towards towards a better attitude, clearer thinking or healthier action.
The problem is, telling other people what they ought to understand or do is not helpful because:
- Your anxiety will remain high
- Your efforts will likely trigger a defensive reaction, resulting in the opposite of what you want to see happen
- Over time, others will become dependent on you telling them what to do, and their capacity for clear thinking and self-initiative will decrease.
Instead of providing answers and giving direction, the best leaders and influencers move people forward by empowering them through powerful questions and giving affirmation.
Last month, I wrote about great listening and asking questions. This month, I’ll talk about how to empower through affirmation.
Affirmations are for every area of your life. Think of using them with family members, friends, employees, customers, and even with strangers! Far from an optional or add-on skill, affirmation is essential because it:
- Establishes a healthy culture by reducing false and self-limiting beliefs – I heard Donald Clifton of Gallup Organization say research showed that twenty “touches” (think affirmations) a year significantly raises productivity/behavior.
- Helps others to have a more accurate view of themselves – you point out strengths or possibilities that others may not see for themselves.
- Creates a future for which to reach – celebrate and/or comment on what you want to see continue. When someone notices what you did well, doesn’t it make you want to do it again -- even better?
- Builds energy and goodwill – Mark Twain said, “I can go for two months on a good compliment.” People appreciate being noticed and affirmed, and they will think more highly of you in return.
Affirmations can be written or spoken. They can be given privately or in front of others. Vary them up to keep them fresh. Remember this though: affirmations must be sincere and specific. Vague, half-hearted or hurried compliments do more harm than good. People can sense if they are not really meant and you’ll lose respect.
Types of Affirmation
You can empower others through affirmation is several ways. The differences in these are slight, but they offer different slants on how to encourage and empower.
- Compliment – an expression that you notice what another person has or does that is new or helpful. “I think the color of your new outfit becomes you.” “I appreciate the extra details you put into the report. Those really added value.”
- Acknowledge – usually these express observations of a quality in another person. Examples of qualities are: decisiveness, intiative, flexibility, dependability, determination, self-control, truthfulness, loyalty, and the like. “You have a resiliency that allows you to press on even in the face of huge setbacks.” “I am impressed with how patient you stayed with that difficult customer.” “I admire the courage you have to take a risk.”
- Endorse – this is recognizing what is consistently displayed, and your willingness to go to bat or stake your own reputation on who they are and what they do. “You are one of the best trainers I have ever been around. I’m going to make sure that this becomes known to others.” “I tell everyone I can about your commitment to do what is best for your clients.” “I have an unshakable faith in your ability to consistently make sound choices. You’ve got my support.”
- Champion – these are your words of affirmation when those around you question their own abilities. You champion them by believing what they can’t believe for themselves at the moment. “You say you’re not confident that you have the experience to handle an account that complex, but I’ve watched you successfully handle equally hard challenges before.” “You may feel unappreciated, but I can name a dozen people who are grateful to you for the kindness you’ve shown to them.” “That bully has you intimidated, but I’ve seen the clever and courageous side of you and I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to come out on top.”
Practice giving affirmations and watch the energy, confidence, appreciation and productivity go up. This is not a strategic way of manipulating others, but a sincere effort to speak into the lives of others in ways that will encourage and empower them.
Make the decision to become known as an affirming person. You will learn to think more postively of others as you look for their best instead of criticizing their shortcomings. And the added bonus is that you will be energized and appreciated in the process.