By Dixie Andelin Forsyth
Marriages and long-term relationships can become especially difficult because you’re with another person day in, day out, for an indefinite period of time. Being with someone for long stretches can create strains on any relationship, no matter how great they were in the beginning. It’s easy to take someone for granted when they rarely leave your sight, and when the newness of knowing them begins to lose its sparkle. This is when your relationship heads into dangerous waters. So many marriages and committed relationships end before they really have a good chance to grow into the lifelong love affair we always talk about at Fascinating Womanhood. Are you working towards and dreaming about a lifelong love affair? What can you do when your relationship hits the inevitable snags, or at least falls into an unpleasant pattern?
If you’ve ever known an elderly couple who still laugh together, hold hands and love each other’s company after decades together, you can usually assume a couple of truths about their long-term relationship, even without ever having met them:
- Their life together has had ups and downs. There’s no way they’ve coasted through the years together without all sorts of difficult things happening in their lives.
- They have created their own system to repair any incidental damage to their relationship along the way. And as they’ve gotten older, this repair function has become a well-oiled machine that they can rely on like an old friend.
Since the first truth concerns something none of us have control over (unless you’ve found a way to keep the surprises out of your life), I’m going to focus on the second point, or the ones you CAN control: repair functions.
What is a repair function, exactly? It’s a customized system or strategy set in place –by YOU— that you can use to repair bruised feelings and remedy dysfunction in your most important relationships. . A repair function helps you smooth out difficulties using helpful methods of support and communication, verbal or otherwise.
You might say “My man doesn’t always cooperate with my repair strategies.” This is a complaint I hear from women all the time. I want you to imagine two different scenarios for a moment. Think of your feelings as big heavy boxes that need to be transported across a bridge before you can make sense of them. Now, imagine how you would feel transporting them across a bridge like this (you can have a car or other vehicle in this scenario, if you want):
Not a bad bridge, right? It’s sturdy, wide enough for two lanes of traffic, and even pleasant to look at. In no time, you can unpack those boxes and begin organizing your feelings the way you like. But now imagine your bridge looked like this:
How confident will you feel transporting loads of heavy boxes across a suspension bridge over rocky water? A car or other vehicle would only make the situation worse. The best solution might be to simply open the boxes where you are instead of trying to get to the other side, but where you are isn’t really a good place to do that, and it will take a lot longer.
The first bridge represents the strong connection females tend to have between the right and left sides of their brains. In other words, by nature we are wired more between those two hemispheres. In contrast, the right/left connection in the typical male brain would resemble something more like the second bridge, because they tend to be wired more from front to back (which is why they are target-oriented and natural Task Leaders in a relationship). Because of this dubious connection between right and left, men are more likely to dread transporting their cumbersome feelings from the emotional (right) side over to the reasoning (left) side of their brains. To them, the entire idea feels uncomfortable and even dangerous, so they do what they can to avoid it. We would too, if we had such a bridge.
Keep in mind that, as a female, you are the Relationship Leader in your home. Because of that beautiful strong bridge in your brain, you are equipped with greater natural skills in conflict resolution and sensing the needs of others. You also have a greater ability to sort out your feelings, and you do this through greater language acquisition skills and verbal processing that is made possible, again, by that bridge. So many of us automatically assume that everyone can do this like we can, but it’s unfair for us to expect such emotional efficiency of our men when they have a markedly different way of thinking. Rather than carry those heavy boxes across their rickety suspension bridges, men tend to stay on the emotional side, which is a very difficult place to open those boxes and make sense of tumultuous feelings. It takes them longer (sometimes hours, days, weeks, even years) to organize their emotions and get back to us with realizations, apologies, and the desire to change. Does this frustrate you? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
I had a big discussion about this with my husband Bob. Not only is he a mature man who knows his own nature well, he’s also a neuropsychologist who has seen thousands of patients throughout his 45 year practice. Over time, he’s seen certain patterns repeating themselves in females and males. He told me that, because of the suspension bridge problem, there are several coping mechanisms or behaviors that men will exhibit when faced with a relationship in trouble. Here is a list of possible things a man might do to try and remedy a rough patch in a relationship:
- Ignore it and hope it goes away (which might include him being extra nice)
- Jolly you out of feeling sad or angry (he suddenly becomes extra funny, trying to make you laugh)
- Distract you away from the problem (“Hey, let’s go shopping!” or “Look, your roses need attention!”)
- Shower you with gifts, attention, or even a poem/song written just for you
- Quietly stop any offending behavior on his end and hope this is enough
- Freeze you out (the cold shoulder); often he will add another brick to his Wall of Reserve
- Seek comfort elsewhere (alcohol, travel, video games, another woman)
- Phony apologies and fake remorse (perhaps the most dangerous, at least until you become immune to the lies)
- Become a dictator, laying out rules he thinks should be followed to fix the issue
I’m sure most of you will agree that some of these coping mechanisms are better or more desirable than others. I’d rather get jokes or the cold shoulder than a bouquet of lies and phony remorse. My husband said something very important about this list, however: no matter which thing a man chooses to do, he is in some way admitting to his mistakes by doing it. You could say he is attempting a “partial repair” (think of duct tape and how it *sort of* works), which is often a huge deal on its own for many men. Bob has told me countless times how out of touch men are, as far as their feelings go. They usually prefer to avoid talking about them at all costs, so any indication he gives you that he’s actually remorseful or aware (of what he’s added to a bad situation) is something. Obviously, we ladies want a lot more than that, but what are we going to do, force them to think, feel and behave the way we want them to? When you’re tempted to do something like this, remember the famous quote by Dale Carnegie:
A man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still
It’s impossible to effect real change in another person through force. Most of us can’t talk someone, even persistently, into doing things a different way. The best we can do–and try to take comfort in the fact that we’re ninjas at this–is to lead by example. When I say you’re a Relationship Leader, it is not to be taken lightly. You are in this position because of your inborn abilities to nurture and repair relationships. YOU are probably going to be the first to realize there’s a problem. YOU are the one who can quickly and clearly see what needs to be done. And YOU are the one with the skills to get the repair train back on track.
I’m not saying all of us ladies are the same. We are born with and develop varying levels and styles of coping with relationship difficulties. But we all have feminine power, feminine instincts that accelerate our learning of these skills. Some of you may feel new to these ideas, so I want to share with you some repair basics that I’ve picked up over the years.
Steps of Repair
- Identify the problem: It’s vital that you recognize exactly what has gone wrong and how. Once you have done this, it’s important to identify what is needed to remedy the situation. Recognizing what is needed and the desire to repair are crucial to healthy relationships.
- Take responsibility for your part. Look at what part you play in it: It may be minor—or it could be major. You might have said something without thinking, taken something out on him, taken him for granted, misread his intentions, etc.
- Apologize: Tell him (or anyone you may be having relationship issues with) you want to repair. Possible things that might be constructive to say are “I’d never hurt you on purpose. I love you too much to do that”, etc. Warning: make sure you are completely sincere. Don’t say anything you don’t feel if you’d rather not make the situation worse. Not feeling sorry? This is a time for some deep soul-searching. Ask yourself how important this person, this relationship, is to you. Look for ways you could have been mistaken in your perceptions.
- Begin repair by asking the other person this very important question: “What will it take to repair this?” Getting their input and listening carefully to their answer lets them know they’re still important to you and that you are humble enough to modify your words or actions. Focusing on the part we played in the dilemma models how we hope they will behave as well, though we should not expect them to pick up on this immediately. None of us are perfect. Practice FW principles of acceptance, understanding your limitless value, and showing greater love and attentiveness after the conflict or problem has been at least somewhat resolved. Ask for forgiveness if needed. Honestly try to not repeat what you did.
- Set boundaries if you feel that the other person has crossed the line. Let them know what has hurt or distressed you, but make sure to keep your cool. Be ready to stand by your boundaries so they know you’re serious. Never set a boundary that you know you can’t keep.
- Recognize his repair intent. This one is directly from Bob. He said that females being able to see past the rough exterior of a man and through to his heart can work wonders. He told me that a woman being able to see the good intentions behind problematic behavior can have a wonderful civilizing influence on a man. Believe the best about him as much as you can.
- Treasure Hunt. This is a great preventative measure that will keep you out of hot water a lot and hopefully prevent the need to repair as often. Practice looking for the best in the other person, in your life, in your situation, and then being grateful for what you find. Fight taking the important people in your life for granted: You’ll catch yourself quicker if you practice gratitude for your partner or loved ones daily and treasure hunt for things you honestly admire about them. Make sure you realize how much you need and respect the people closest to you. Remind yourself of their best qualities, of their value. Make a habit of pointing these qualities out to them, partly because they deserve to hear it, but also so that you can hear yourself saying these words aloud (this makes anything much more real).
- When your man has calmed down and is feeling more himself, express any hurt/invalidation you felt. Be sure to not verbalize it as an accusation, but focus more on your feelings. If you don’t verbally attack him, there’s a much better chance he’ll listen and understand. There may be times when you were the one who attacked, but if for any reason your feelings were damaged, make sure to tell him instead of bottling them up (which can cause potentially even more damage in the future if that bottle explodes).
Never forget how fortunate you are to have such a wide, strong bridge between your emotional and rational brain, and how difficult it must be for those who fear stepping onto much less reliable bridges. You have the advantage in your relationships with men, and they are looking to you (whether they’re in touch with this or not) to understand how to neutralize damage. You can show others how to keep relationships at a stable level, doing this through your own good example. Being a Relationship Leader isn’t easy, but you have the tools you need to make the task rewarding.