Before outlining some basic strategies for repairing your relationship all by yourself, let me state a few caveats—first, there’s no fixing a relationship with an abusive partner, especially with an abusive partner who’s not highly motivated to own, confront and end his or her abuse. Also, there’s no repairing a relationship (for good, right reasons) with a partner you no longer love, or who no longer loves you. If you are facing these circumstances, the suggestions I offer will not apply.
Most relationships collapse, whether slowly or more cataclysmically, from chronically poor communication. As John Gottman and others have noted in their research (and as countless therapists like myself have observed working in the trenches with couples), high levels of mutual defensiveness, contempt, criticalness and stonewalling/shutting-down attitudes and patterns doom all relationships to misery and conflict.
Also, partners’ deficient interest to care to understand each other’s experiences (e.g., of each other); or their failure, for many possible reasons, to transmit their understanding well, will engender the building of resentment, over time. And partners’ resentment invariably gets expressed in aggressive or passive-aggressive, and, ultimately, highly corrosive ways.
So how can you repair your troubled relationship all by yourself? Of course, let me state the obvious—ideally (and reasonably and importantly), your partner should be joining you in a collaborative effort to repair your relationship. Really, it shouldn’t be all on you to singlehandedly repair things. We both know that, don’t we? Of course, we do. If your partner has no skin in the game, no authentic desire (like you) to be a better, more gratifying mate, that’s flat-out ominous. That should prompt your consideration, or reconsideration, of what you’re doing in the relationship. Can we agree on that?
But sometimes, someone has to make the first move. Sometimes, someone has to be the better, more responsive, more mature, more generous partner, at least for a while. And sometimes just your singular commitment to being a much better partner can stimulate, in time, more generosity and reciprocity from a previously withholding, begrudging partner. If it doesn’t, if your partner fails, over time, to respond to your unilateral repair bids with some appreciation, recognition and reciprocation of the positive, new attitudes you’re contributing, that’s also a sign that bears close heeding.
So, what can you do, unilaterally, to repair a damaged relationship with a partner who’s basically a good human being, still loves you, maybe likes you a lot less than he or she once did, and between whom considerable distance and tension have built?
Let’s start with what I alluded to, above—immediately, you must embark on a program to greatly reduce your own levels, and contributions to the relationship, of defensiveness, contempt, criticalness and tendencies to stonewall (shut-down) communication. In other words, don’t wait for your partner to become less defensive, you become less defensive. Don’t wait for your partner to become less critical, you become less critical; don’t wait for your partner to dial down his or her contemptuous tendencies, you dial them down in yourself; and don’t wait for your partner to decrease his or her stonewalling tendencies, you catch yourself doing any stonewalling/shutting down, and stop doing it.
Incidentally, none of these commitments on your end disempowers you. Instead, you are more powerful when you’re less all these things—less defensive, contemptuous, critical and stonewalling.
So, become optimally accepting of everything that annoys you about your partner that’s not monumentally important. Short of absorbing abusively expressed attitudes and behaviors, stop taking anything else personally. Lower your expectations hugely—your partner is hugely flawed (as you are), so it’s futile to pursue a program to reform him or her. Strive to understand your partner, and to convey your understanding in a generous, clear fashion—in a word, practice validating your partner regularly and effectively. Realize that validating your partner doesn’t mean agreeing with him or her, although it’s better, in general, to be more than less agreeable. Validating your partner means appreciating his or her experience and perceptions, and transmitting with respect your recognition of his or her experience, even when it doesn’t square remotely with yours.
Let’s look at an extended, hypothetical interaction between you and your partner. Notice how, regardless of how pushed you may naturally feel to respond with mixtures of defensiveness, criticalness, contempt and stonewalling, you do none of this. Notice how constructively the new you communicates throughout this interaction.
Your partner: Why the hell are you always riding my ass? You’re just looking for shit to bust my ass for.
The New You: I’m really sorry you feel that way. That’s not something I want you to feel. It’s not fair for you to feel like I’m never satisfied. It’s not even true that I’m constantly unsatisfied, that’s not how I even feel, but that’s how I come across too often, and I’m sorry. I’ll try to do less of that.
Your partner: Yeah, I’ve heard that before. That’s nice. But you still do it. All the time.
The New You: All I can do is try and be more aware of that. You know that habits are hard to break. For all of us. I wanna try and leave you feeling less nagged and criticized. I do.
Your partner: I have a hard time believing that. I’ll believe it when it when I see it. I just took care of like five things today, and you’re screaming at me to _______.”
The New You: I get why you’d feel skeptical. I do. You’re totally used to experiencing me like this. I get it. I can’t promise you magical changes, but I want to show you I mean it. Over time. I’ll have to work at this.
Your partner: Can we record this? So I’ve got proof I’m not hallucinating? Honestly, you sound like you’ve been kidnapped, and a nice version of yourself has bound and gagged your ball-busting self.
The New You: I’m not sure if you’re being funny, sarcastic, or hostile? But I’d appreciate it if you’d appreciate that I’m gonna make a sincere intention to change in this respect. I understand what you’re saying—this isn’t a version of me you know, so let’s see if I can get better at it? I want to. As far as finishing what I asked you to finish, maybe you want a break? It can wait.
Your partner: So this new you? Are you cool if I head out to FRIDAY’s to watch football the rest of the afternoon and night with my friends?
The New You: Honestly, I’m really not cool with that. Maybe you’re testing me, or something? Is that possible? But we’ve got a lot going on with the kids, today and tonight. You know that. A lot. So, as much as I know you and your girlfriends love to watch football, I don’t really think this is the best Sunday to disappear all day and night with them, and leave me stranded all alone, till 10 pm. Can you understand how I feel?
Your partner: You know, if this is really the new you, my new husband, I could grow to like it. I’m starting to feel a little intrigued. Okay, I’ll tell the ladies my controlling husband wouldn’t set me loose all day and night.
The New You: Yeah, tell ’em when you proposed it, I went into my customary rage and you almost called 911. Seriously, I appreciate your sticking around.
Yes, I threw a little twist in there, to challenge gender stereotypes. This is not a gender issue, after all. But did you notice the countless invitations throughout the interaction to get defensive, critical, contemptuous and stonewalling? Did you note how your responses maintained a generously disciplined, constructive tone? How validating you were, even facing your partner’s sarcasm and edgy replies? You were humble, you owned something, you validated, and you offered an intent to bring a new experience of yourself irrespective of your partner’s imperfect, skeptical, mildly snarky reactions.
In this hypothetical interaction, you committed to generous communication without demanding commensurate generosity from your partner. You were unilaterally non-defensive, non-critical, non-contemptuous and non-stonewalling, even as your partner answered in ways and tones that would have provoked the old you into habitually knee-jerk, defensive, accusatory language.
I offered up, here, just a hypothetical example of what I’m proposing you’re capable of introducing into your relationship, all by yourself. Together, we can look at many examples, far more pertinent examples in your actual life that can offer you chances to singlehandedly change the dynamic of your communication with your partner from more to less hostile; where power-struggling, thanks to your singularly more constructive approach, will yield to power-sharing, and a dramatic diminution of tension and resentment.
What a great article and very practical and valuable advices for couples who deal with communication problems! I wish I came across this read and your name two years ago when I started looking for professional help to save/ fix our relationship with my husband.Thank you Steve!
I appreciate your comments so much. It’s just so gratifying to hear from you, especially regarding a piece written years ago. You’re so generous. Thanks so much.