2. Smile. I mean that figuratively and literally. Studies have shown that athletes who smile during exertion actually feel less fatigue and pain than those who don't and perform better. I have a friend, who may or may not recognize herself in this post, who constantly posts on Facebook how much she loves and adores her husband and her children. By constantly, I mean almost daily and sometimes multiple times a day. I love it. She's smiling to the world, and you can bet her family knows it. She's also smiling to herself and reminding herself to be grateful for what she has, and not allowing what is wrong to overwhelm her. Have they had rough times? Yup. You'd never know it by her posts because that's not their purpose. Their purpose is to keep her in a mindset of gratitude. This is not easy. When things go wrong, when we're in pain, the last thing we want to do is smile. When I'm at the end of a race and my legs feel like rubber and my lungs burn, the last thing I want to do is smile; yet research shows that is exactly the time I should be doing it. So should you if you care about your relationships.
3. Let's look a little more deeply at my friend in #2. I look at her because I know you're thinking that her case is different because her husband is really a good guy at heart and her children are wonderful people, but your spouse is a jerk and it won't help. Wrong. Smiles are contagious. With my friend, I smile when I read her posts, as does everyone I know who is also her Facebook friend. Try smiling (and no, I don't mean one of those maniacal smiles crazy ax murderers do, but a real full face smile). Make an effort to smile more. Two things will happen, You will feel happier, and those around you will smile back. Even your "jerk" spouse. It won't happen right away, and that's the problem; you have to keep it up over time with no immediate results. Do it anyway, and I bet eventually, the world smiles back at you.
4. Think back with me for a minute. Did you have a best friend when you were a child? Is that person still your best friend today? Are you even in touch with them? Did you have a favorite cousin when you were a child? I bet you are still in touch with them, and they're probably still someone you like. What's the difference? The difference is choice. You had a choice whether you remained friends, whether you put the effort into the relationship with your best friend. You didn't have that choice with your cousin. Your cousin was going to be at all the family get-togethers. You were going to see them no matter what. You had a choice with your cousin too - you could either maintain the relationship or have a miserable time at family get-togethers. You put the effort in because not having a relationship wasn't a realistic choice. You had to find interests in common, ask about their lives and be an active participant in the relationship. You had to talk to work out your differences because you knew you had to see them again. Of course, your favorite cousin could be your least favorite cousin now, and that is a whole different set of choices. Marriage is more like your cousin than your childhood friend, and if you think of it that way, it will be better. You committed to this relationship by moving in together or getting married; it's not like having your best friend down the street or in school. You made a choice to commit and sometimes we forget that.
5. Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff. We all get so caught up in the daily act of living that we sometimes forget this. The little things pile on top of each other: he leaves the toilet seat cover down at night, she puts the toilet paper roll on the wrong way (yup, that's me. I never knew there was a "right" way), he takes a week to completely finish the laundry, she leaves a mess in the kitchen, he leaves piles of paper all over the house, she interrupts constantly. That's just a few of mine. I could go on forever. What happens is that going on forever is the opposite of what we're talking about in #2. It's like frowning all the time. For most of the people I see in the Trenches, the small stuff adds up like a dripping faucet gets on your nerves. They add to each other until they lost sight of what brought them together in the first place. Sometimes the little stuff is big stuff, like drug addiction or alcoholism. It's still small stuff. The big stuff is what brought you together in the first place, and that is what you need to keep reminding yourself. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to shake things up and remember what's important. Focusing on the small stuff and constantly criticizing is the opposite of #2; it puts you in a mindset of scarcity and resentment which just feeds on itself.
6. Communicate with your spouse. No, I don't mean discuss politics (which right now is an absolute taboo in my home) or current affairs. I mean how you feel. Are you feeling worried, angry, anxious, happy, excited? What are you concerned about? Do you need help with a solution or just someone to listen (folks have to be told this, otherwise we all jump into problem-solving mode)? What do you need - a hug, help with a chore? Sometimes communication is non-verbal; it's touching their shoulder, holding their hand, bringing them their favorite chocolate, going together to something you have to go to but neither of you wants. Maybe you need help communicating and a therapist works with you. The folks in my office stopped communicating years before they walked through my door; it is not unusual for someone to say during their time in the Trenches that they didn't know that's what bothered their spouse or that's what their spouse wanted, and if only they did.....
7. Talk about the money. Where it is, what it is and how to spend it. What is important to each of you about money? Don't hide what you're buying or saving. We all come to relationships with our own attitudes about money that were taught to us by our families. Money issues carry a lot of baggage and shame. That's why you need to talk about them. Again, having this conversation is hard, and most people won't do it. Instead, they will walk around the elephant in the room until their spouse pulls up in the new Mercedes that they can't afford or there isn't enough money to send their kids to college. Have an in-depth conversation now and often. With a reluctant spouse, start small by expressing simply how you feel about an upcoming purchase or the lack of savings. By expressing, I don't mean accusing; I mean saying I'm really anxious about how we're going to afford the upcoming car repair. Baby steps until you can get to the bigger issues.
I know, you're thinking that these are all fine words (at least I hope you are), but my spouse will never do this. They will never change. Sorry, but they constantly change, just like you. People constantly evolve and change, which is why maintaining a relationship is hard. I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago and neither is my honey. We each have different interests and different outlooks on life than we did then. I know the same is true for you. The point here is not to change them, but to change you. You have no control over some other adult's actions; all you can do is change your response to them. How you choose to respond determines not only how you view what happens, but also your level of contentment with what you have. Whether your spouse changes or not is beside the point; the point is rewriting your inner narrative. This is all hard work. Some people aren't up to it. Some people choose not to do it. I can't guarantee a saved marriage, but what I do know is that if you do the things in this post, you will have your best shot. Here in the Trenches.