Here is March’s installment of “Ask Shelby” with Chester County’s own Marriage and Family Therapist Shelby Riley:
My wife and I can’t stop bickering. I feel like every little thing turns into a huge fight. I’m sick of it! How can we turn things around?
Signed, Stuck in the Muck
Dear Stuck in the Muck,
I hear this all the time. Couples are often trying to “teach” each other (“You need to pick up your socks,” “Why would you cook chicken again after I told you last night I’m sick of chicken?”) It’s our attempt to have a voice in the marriage. We figure, “How will he/she ever change if I don’t speak up?” But then, all we speak up about are the negatives. If I had a penny for every time someone has said some variation of, “Why should I have to pat him on the back for doing that? He’s an adult—he SHOULD do it.”
But we all need pats. And hugs. And thank-yous. And we need them a lot. Research shows we actually need five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. How many of us can say we give our family members that much lovin’?
So here’s my suggestion for breaking out of the bickering rut: Agree to meet for a Couples Meeting. Set it up just like any other important appointment. I like Sundays at 9:00 pm: The kids are in bed, I can focus on my spouse, and it’s a nice way to end the week and plan for a new one.
Here’s how it works: For one week, agree to only give compliments and give them daily. When your heart does a little shutter of love, voice it. When you think, “That dinner was good,” say it out loud with a thank you attached to it. Save all negative comments, all teaching moments, for the Couples Meeting. And when you get there, you will pick your top 2 things to ask your partner to work on. This way, the most important issues rise to the top, and all the nit-picky things get left unsaid. Most marriages would benefit from a little filtering. And don’t worry—if you have three things, the one that you leave unsaid for the week—if it’s really important—will come back around and you’ll have another opportunity at another meeting to bring it up.
The Couple’s Meeting has a clear agenda:
1. Begin by sharing your high point (best part) and low point (worst part) of the week. (This doesn’t have to be relationship-focused. It could be tripping on your office stairs, finding $50.00 in your coat pocket, etc.)
2. Give your partner three compliments. Share something that you love or that you appreciate about your partner or something new you’ve noticed lately. Try to be as concrete and detailed as possible. (“I think you’re pretty” is nice, but “You looked beautiful on Saturday night in that new dress” really speaks volumes.)
3. Take turns sharing the two things you’d like your partner to work on for the week. This is done in a business-like manner, respectfully and kindly. Make it simple, short, and clear: “The dishes have been building up lately and it makes it hard for me to cook dinner if they aren’t done daily. This week, can you please focus on getting the dishes done in a timely manner?” And then the partner’s answer is, “Yes.” No arguments, no excuses, no “Yes, Buts…” The only time to say “No” is if the request is something that is truly unreasonable. These two requests are now your focus for the week. This is an opportunity to show your partner you heard them, you care about them, and you are willing to make the effort to serve them in the relationship. (At subsequent meetings, you will review how each of you did on that week’s requests before you move on to the current week’s requests).
4. Go over any housekeeping issues: Does someone need to call the plumber? Are there any scheduling issues that need to be addressed? Any child-care issues or vacation plans that need some discussion?
5. Wrap up the meeting by doing something fun. Play a round of cards, go for a walk, give each other back-scratches. End on a connected, positive note.
Some notes on the Couple Meeting:
• Keep it to 40 minutes or less (marathon discussions can be exhausting and you may find you dread these meetings if they last forever).
• Decide this is a time to be curious and share information, not to fight or one-up each other, nor to declare a winner or loser of the assignment.
• Tailor the meetings to meet your unique needs; assume everything written is a starting guideline to be shaped by the two of you to fit your needs.
• Have fun with it! Couples Meetings are a great way to carve out time to pay attention to one of your most important relationships.
Good luck! If you enjoy the Couple’s Meetings and want to take them to the next level, check out my Assignment Book for Couples.