Both spouses must be able to “see” the cycle that has taken over communication between them, before they can begin to make any changes.
In identifying the cycle, each spouse must accept (even without agreeing with it entirely) that regardless of whether each spouse is guilty or innocent of wrongdoing against each other, the cycle itself is the most pressing problem. What matters most is not what cannot be talked about (the content), but why it cannot be talked about (the process). Noticing the process that takes place in most discussions helps the couple identify their cycle.
Noticing the cycle helps the couple identify who between them is most likely to play the role of pursuer or that of the withdrawer. The pursuer notices that she or he acts this way out of feeling disconnected from the other, e.g., feeling alone, isolated or ignored. The withdrawer notices that he or she acts this way as a defense against the pursuer’s strong emotions and repeated attempts to connect.
In the cycle, both the pursuer and the withdrawer have run out of options on how to reestablish a positive, intimate connection with each other. Noticing that the cycle has taken over and that either spouse is powerless to break it on his or her own is crucial for positive change to occur.
The cycle of destruction cannot be stopped or changed until both spouses agree to lay down their verbal and emotional (and sometimes physical) weapons. Thus, the first step is a mutual truce, by which both partners intentionally agree to stop causing emotional pain to each other.
To break the cycle, both spouses must also become aware of how what one is saying is received by the other and how he or she is reacting to it. Instead of being concerned simply with what he or she wants or means to say, both spouses must become familiar with how the other receives it and responds to it.
Many problems in couple communication are created or made worse by one spouse meaning to send one message and the other spouse receiving another. The cycle of destruction can be broken by doing less of what does not work, e.g., tit-for-tat escalation, and more of what works, e.g., active listening.
The next step in breaking the cycle of destruction is by joining each other’s side. When two spouses feel passionately about an issue or have different viewpoints, they often take a confrontational stance toward each other. They will figuratively stand facing each other. Often they will talk at each other rather than to one another.
A much more effective and safer way of communicating differing points of view is for one spouse to join the other and stand together on the same side while examining the issue. This does not require the spouse who initiates the joining to automatically agree with the other’s point of view, but it allows both spouses to alternatively see things from the same perspective.
In joining, the issue being addressed becomes “our” common problem that both spouses try to resolve together, rather than working against each other. In this way, neither spouse “owns” the problem alone. The problem is viewed as external to both spouses and something that challenges both as a couple, as opposed to coming between them.
The cycle of destruction is broken by making it “our” problem and by refusing to engage in its pattern any longer. Accepting that the spouse is not the enemy (even though he or she might feel or have felt as such) helps the couple externalize the problem of faulty communication and use more positive ways of connecting with each other.
In creating a safe haven for each other, both spouses become intentional in viewing the other more frequently as a potential ally and friend, and less frequently as a potential enemy. Each spouse is willing to have unconditional positive regard for the other, refusing to take the role of parent, judge or critic of the other.
In a safe haven marriage, each spouse gives the other more than just the benefit of the doubt on most issues. They both intentionally believe and are willing to accept their spouse to be innocent and guileless and to regard him or her as truthful, innocent of wrongdoing, and worthy of respect.
If and when an issue arises that causes a spouse to doubt the other’s sincerity or innocence, the doubt is handled with all the respect and loving care that a close, intimate partner deserves. Doubts are expressed in an inquiring rather than accusatory way, with the intention of learning the truth and respecting that the other’s perception of it may be different.
In those instances when a breach of trust occurs, or something is said or done, or not said or done that causes emotional injury to the other, each spouse is willing to give the other a pass. A pass must be openly declared as such to be effective, so as to not go unnoticed and build resentment. A pass does not deny the need for apologies or amends, but recognizes and accommodates the humanness and fallibility of each spouse.
Empathy in marriage is striving to see the other spouse’s point of view, trying to imagine his or her feelings, and accepting that both points of view and feelings are legitimate and that they deserve to be expressed and heard with respect. In the safe haven of marriage, opinions and beliefs are admitted without prejudgment or penalty.
Each spouse hears and makes room for the other’s point of view and the feelings that go with it, without seeing it as either right or wrong, but simply as his or hers. Empathy is present when a spouse expands his or her point of view to make room for that of the other spouse. Both points of view can, for a time, exist alongside each other as the spouses engage in a dialog to come up with the best possible solution to their issue.
Empathy extends beyond successful problem solving. Empathy is present when one spouse accepts and makes room for the shortcomings of the other, without being critical or judgmental. In helping each other overcome their personal challenges, both spouses show their interest in learning how the other sees the problem, how it makes him or her feel, and what obstacles stand in the way of growth.
Emotional safety is facilitated when each spouse has the inner assurance that the other is genuine and truthful in what he or she says. Genuineness is the active ingredient that must be present for feelings, words, and behaviors to convey the truth to each other. Genuineness provides the opportunity to know each other more intimately and completely and to rely on the truth of this knowledge to take whatever action may be necessary to strengthen, maintain or repair a safe haven relationship.
Genuineness, when embraced and maintained by both partners, strengthens the relationship and the feeling of being able to share with and receive from the other the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent of life together. There is power in knowing that, no matter the issue may be, each spouse can know it at the same time as, and with the same level of detail, as the other does.
Genuineness maintains a safe haven marriage healthy and strong. It helps repair any temporary breaches that may occur, and do occur, in every relationship. Although seeing eye to eye in all things and always maintain a balanced approach in every issues may seem goals worth pursuing, they are unrealistic, given our imperfect control over our emotions, words and actions. Accepting of naturally-occurring relationship breaches, and the ability to repair them successfully, are enhanced by the inner assurance of genuineness toward each other.
Truth in feelings, words, and behaviors sets the spouses free. They become aware of each other’s challenges, shortcomings, successes, and uncertainties, as soon as they happen. Each spouse is given a fair opportunity to respond to the other in the most appropriate way. Truth builds and maintains trust between the spouses. Sometimes truth may hurt, but lies always destroy. Without genuineness, there cannot be trust. Without trust, there cannot be a safe haven marriage.
Alasting marriage is built on the bedrock of emotional safety. A safe marriage is one where both spouses have each other’s back. No longer living as individuals, husband and wife genuinely share their lives with each other in every conceivable way. A loving marriage, where each spouse can be trusted and counted on to understand, empathize with, and unconditionally accept the other is a treasure of incalculable value.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. I Corinthians 13:4-7