Someone asked me recently, “How do you know when you’re repressing a feeling or if you’re just letting it go because it’s not really important enough or necessary to bring up?”
I said, “See how you’re behaving later, in a few hours, a month or two, or longer.”
You may have heard of this kind of couple: Their relationship is fine, thinks one spouse — until the other asks for a divorce, has an affair, or suddenly moves out. Typically, the surprise happens after a long period of silence by the grudge-holding partner who opted out of the relationship.
This example shows that holding back from sharing feelings can destroy a relationship.
When to Speak Up and When to Hold Back
In order to keep the peace, many spouses try to ignore their upset feelings about their partner’s behavior. They might rationalize that it’s not worth bringing up something that could upset their partner.
Some things, in fact, are not worth bringing up. Not every little annoyance should call for a confrontation or we’d be sapping the life out of the relationship.
Yet it makes no sense to close our eyes to a really sensitive issue in order to keep the relationship “pleasant.” Doing this will lead to a building up of resentment and creation of emotional distance.
How Couples Grow Apart
People who say “we grew apart” are often those who didn’t think it was worth the risk of displeasing their partner by bringing up a difficult topic. Instead, they allowed resentment to accumulate inside, which finally resulted in their no longer wanting to be with him or her.
Couples do not grow apart; it’s more like they fall asleep.
How to Deal with Issues Constructively
Once you are aware of what is upsetting you and it’s not something you can fix on your own, it’s time to figure out how best to deal with it. If you are not conscious of what specifically is bothering you, you might realize that something in your relationship needs to be attended to by noticing changes that occur in your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and bodily sensations. You may find yourself complaining to yourself or a friend about shortcomings you perceive in him, such as by telling someone, “He doesn’t support me when his mother criticizes me.” Something else he or she is doing may result in your feeling unloved.
We can learn what to do from Lilly’s mistake. She tried to ignore her resentment toward her husband, Jonathan, for being unreasonably critical about her spending after she quit her job to become a stay-at-home mother of their baby. But she notice that her chest tightened whenever he expressed disapproval of her for buying something he considered unnecessary. Her body tensed up when he moved toward her in bed. She lost interest in sex, realizing, “I no longer feel close to him.” After a year of misery, she decided to divorce him.
Making Waves Can Save a Marriage
Lilly might have saved her marriage by asking herself these questions: “Why do I feel distant from Jonathan? What do I dislike about our relationship? What am I unhappy about in my life? What would it take to make me happy?” She might have realized, “I’m feeling angry at Jonathan for trying to control me.” She might then have opened up her world by asking herself what it would take to make her happy.
After coming up with answers to these questions, Lilly could have initiated an honest, constructive conversation with her husband about her real feelings, wants, and needs. The couple then would have had the opportunity to do the kind of creative problem-solving that can potentially result in a solution that satisfies both partners. For example, they might have agreed for Lilly to return to work part-time or to a budget that allowed some money for Lilly to spend on whatever she wanted. Unfortunately, Lilly had bought into the “keep the peace at any cost” myth until she felt desperately unhappy enough to end her marriage.
Marriage Meetings Keep Communication Good
Holding weekly marriage meetings, as described in detail in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, is a good way to keep the lines of communication open in your relationship. The meetings are gentle conversations that use positive communication skills that foster intimacy, teamwork, and smoother resolution of issues.
Note: This article is adapted from part of the chapter, “Debunking Marriage Myths,” in the book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love; 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library).
Couple at odds photo available from Shutterstock