Here are some practical steps you can follow if you want to feel emotionally safer and more connected in your marriage.
“This is it. This is the worst fight we’ve ever had. He doesn’t understand me and never will. We’ll never move on from this. Why did we think this could work? How could he be so oblivious?” My thoughts about our marriage were pretty dire that evening. I was angry, tired, and defeated.
Suddenly, out of the blue, my husband changed the way he had been responding to me in our argument. His voice grew gentle. He seemed to be truly listening to what I was saying as he acknowledged that I had legitimate concerns. We ended the evening calmly. It was amazing. The next morning, I asked him what had changed. He said he had prayed, asking for the grace of our sacrament of marriage. I had never thought to do that, and the fact that he had really blew me away.
That is a moment I will always remember. There is one other moment, quite similar, where suddenly, my husband’s demeanor and responses also changed. He leaned in during an argument and said, “I know all your points now very well, and it is very clear that they are different from mine. We’re just repeating ourselves. But tell me, where are you coming from? How did you form these opinions?”
Suddenly, I was able to share my heart with him—what I had loved doing growing up, what was important to me. He listened and held me as I wept, finally realizing myself why I felt so strongly about this decision we were discussing.
Marriage is challenging. I am immensely grateful for the gift of the sacrament of marriage, as I attribute so many grace-filled moments (like the ones above) to the sacrament. Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson. She helped me put a name to the beautiful ways I’ve seen my husband reach out to me, and change some of our daily interactions for the better.
Dr. Johnson’s basic premise in the book is that at the root of all relationships is a desire for emotional connection. She says that we all want to feel safe and connected from the time we are born to the time we die, and that in adulthood the way most of us pursue that goal is in relationships and marriage. In order to keep that connection alive and well, she gives practical tips for creating safer, stronger emotional resonance.
Whether you completely agree with Dr. Johnson’s premise or not, I have three brief takeaways that I think can be helpful:
I was able to look at and identify the pattern that comes into play when a conflict arises between my husband and me. The specific pattern is different for everyone, but might look like one spouse attacking and accusing while another spouse retreats and becomes increasingly dismissive in response. Both spouses want to feel connected but the way each responds just makes the other feel less heard and less connected.
Having started to identify the patterns that we tend to follow when we’re in conflict, I was able to look at how we respond to each other. I was able to consider how my response exacerbates my husband’s response, making him feel more disconnected from me, and more unsafe emotionally.
3HELP EACH OTHER BECOME MORE AWARE
Finally, Hold Me Tight provides specific exercises and questions to spark discussion. I was able to use these to express what I was learning to my husband. The book gave us a script we could use to discuss what goes on in our disagreements, and how we could recognize more quickly the fruitless back and forth we fall into. Once we recognize our unhelpful responses, it is easier to be aware of them and change them next time. My husband already possessed the self-awareness and/or grace to work on changing his responses during conflict in order to help us connect better. Now, I have a way to match his efforts on my end.
Check out Dr. Johnson’s book for lots of practical examples to help draw out your blind spots when it comes to emotional connection in marriage. But, even more importantly, do regularly what my husband did that evening years ago.
Ask repeatedly for the graces you received in the sacrament of marriage as you navigate the beauty and challenges of lifelong self-giving.