The One Rule You Need to Know to Protect Your Marriage
We are a generation of sound bites and short attention spans.
I’m a marriage counselor, and I often have to sell people on the idea that change is going to take longer than they want, and that it’s going to happen in small steps, not in epiphanies and revolutions.
Personal growth and relationship development tend not to be electrifying, special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters (that wrap up all problems in 90 minutes or so). But they do tend to be a lot more satisfying in the long term than your average motion picture.
That said, I’ve come to recognize over my years in the marital distress business that there is one primary rule, a single shift that people can make that will radically alter the quality of their relationship.
Ready for it? Here it is.
Strike while the iron is cold.
When you are angry at your partner, that is the worst time to try to deal with whatever made you angry. One of my rebbeim, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, taught me that “you can get angry, or you can solve the problem, but you can’t do both.” (I believe he cites his own rebbe, Rav Simcha Wasserman on that, and I know he’d want me to mention it.) If you would like to resolve a problem in your relationship, and to make your relationship better, not worse, then you must avoid tackling an emotional problem in the heat of the emotions.
The Ramifications of Anger
So many of the couples I have worked with have done serious damage to their relationships with things they’ve said in the heat of the moment. As we all know, once something has been said, it can never be taken back. Maybe you didn’t mean it; maybe you were just fuming at the moment and you threw out the first thing that came to your mind – but you can never un-say it.
Of course, you never start out intending to say the thing you shouldn’t have said, or to yell at, put down, or berate your partner. But as emotions rise, so does the volume and temperature of the conversation.
When things get hot, you need to get out. Strike while the iron is cold.
It’s a scientific fact that the functioning of your brain is impacted by the state of your body. When your heart rate hits about 99 beats per minute, the mature frontal part of your brain shuts down and the lower, reptilian brain takes over. This is the part of the brain that does fight-or-flight. This is the part of the brain that launches the nastiest comments it can think of, and it doesn’t matter that the recipient is the person you love most in the world. This is the part of the brain that lives only in the moment and does not, cannot plan for the future.
When you are emotionally ramped up, your entire decision-making mechanism is working differently. You cannot make good decisions in that moment. You simply don’t have a machine up there at the time that can assess the situation appropriately and come up with a good response.
The upshot of this is that when your partner says or does something that really bothers you, that is not the time to talk about it. Bite your tongue (hard, if necessary). I confess that I am human, and I know very well how compelling that feeling is in that moment to say something, to put them in their place, to make a sarcastic remark. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. I promise you that the satisfaction of a secure and loving relationship far outstrips the satisfaction of a good dig.
Press your lips together, and go to a different room. Do something else. Distract yourself, calm yourself down. You can write down what’s bothering you if you’re worried you’ll forget. A day or three later you will be in a much better position to discuss it in a way that builds rather than breaks the relationship.
Another important implementation of this principle is as follows: when a conversation begins to heat up, when it starts to turn into a fight, that is when action must be taken to avoid get taken over by your reptile brain. This is called, in fancy psychological parlance, a time-out.
Take a time-out when you need it. It’s not copping out. It’s not “avoiding the problem.” It’s being responsible. It’s allowing yourself, and your partner, to strike when the iron is cold.
When you notice a conversation starting to go sour, it’s time to say, “you know what, this conversation isn’t going very well. Let’s take a break and we’ll come back in half an hour.” It’s not an invitation though, it’s a declaration. You do not need your partner’s agreement to go ahead with this plan. In fact, if your partner is the type who says, “OOOOH no, we’re going to solve this right now!” – especially in that case you would be wise to unilaterally withdraw.
It is important to discuss this with your partner in advance so they know what you’re doing and why. This is not abandoning your partner – this is leaving a bad situation in service of the relationship. It’s also very helpful to state when you will come back and resume the conversation – whether it’s in half an hour from now, or tomorrow at breakfast, or at 7 PM tonight (ideally somewhere between 20 minutes and 48 hours). Then you must come back at that time. It is this trustworthiness that will allow your partner to allow you to leave in the future – because they know you’ll come back to discuss it later. When they come to believe you are not blowing off an issue that is important to them, they will have less of a need to press you to deal with it in the moment.
When you’re away, don’t stew on the problem. Think of something else. Get involved in an activity you like, whether it’s yoga or a sudoku or walking the dog. Clear out our mind and calm down.
Come back when you said you would, and bring up the issue that was causing trouble. If one or both of you are still not calm enough to discuss it, prolong the timeout (but come back, or at least call, to do so – don’t no-show the return time).
This strategy will allow you to deal with the issues that come up in your relationship far more effectively than trying to do so in the moment of emotional upheaval.
You know that advice that says “never go to bed angry”? That’s terrible advice. You actually recognize this already, because if you’ve ever tried resolving an emotional issue at midnight so as not to go to bed angry, you know that what happens is you end up arguing for three hours and then you go to bed angry at 3 in the morning instead.
If you’re angry, you’re not in a position to resolve the issue. It’s okay not to try. Calm down first. It will work much better.
Look, we’re all human. We get angry from time to time. It’s normal. It’s understandable. The point I want to drive home is that you have a choice. Until the point when you’ve hit 99 beats per minute, changing course is very achievable. (It’s not impossible after that, but it’s so much more difficult that it’s worth throwing all your weight behind stopping the train before it barrels past that point of no return.)
You can feel angry and still behave decently to your partner. You don’t have to deal with it in the moment. In fact, you can’t.
Strike when the iron is cold, and you will save innumerable injuries small and large to the most important relationship in your life.
One act of will, one expression of courage, can make all the difference.