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The 5 Most Important Things I Learned From Marriage Therapy

Photograph by Twenty20

I didn’t start going to therapy to work on my marriage. Yet, somehow, each session with my doctor strayed farther away from the troubles of the past, and deeper into discussions of my relationship with my husband of six years. My therapist told me that before we could dig into the past, we really needed to deal with the problems in my relationship to clear the path before moving forward. So, my husband and I began marriage therapy. The process has been both invigorating for our relationship and monumentally difficult.

Either way, I can say I've learned a lot. And, of all the things I've learned, I find these five to be the most relationship-changing:

1) Using “I Feel” Statements Doesn’t Mean You’re Communicating

One of the basic, almost cliche strategies for “fighting fair” in a relationship is using “I feel” statements rather than “you” statements. I figured that my husband and I already had this down, and the therapist had nothing further to teach us about it. Wow, was I wrong.

Before therapy, when we fought, we’d always use “I feel” statements — but it turns out they were just fancied-up “you” statements. For example, “I feel like you don’t appreciate all I do around the house!” That’s basically saying “You don’t appreciate what I do around the house” but with a bow on it. You can put a bow on a pile of dog poop and it’s still dog poop.

How this technique is supposed to be used is actually quite different, and should center around how your partner’s observable behaviors make you feel. For example, “Yesterday, when I asked you to take out the trash, you left for work without doing it. This has happened several times. This pattern of behavior makes me feel forgotten, unappreciated and unloved.”

2) Result Trumps Intention

Our therapist drove home a point to us that I’d never really considered before: Whether or not you meant to do something doesn’t matter — it’s all about how your partner perceives it.

Take the above example. The husband might respond with, “I didn’t mean to make you feel forgotten, unappreciated and unloved. I simply forgot to take the trash with me when I left.” It’s good to know that Hubby didn’t mean to hurt Wifey’s feelings. However, that does not absolve him from the feelings she experienced as a result of his actions. Internalizing this knowledge helps each spouse become more mindful of the other's needs.

3) Active Listening

Listening is the most important skill a couple can have. Active listening forces you to actually absorb what your partner says, instead of just waiting for your turn to talk. How many times have you shut off your ears while thinking about a response to someone’s argument instead of really listening to what is being said? Active listening isn’t just in body language (put the phone DOWN!) but also in the ability to reflect back. “What I hear you saying is …”

4) Let Go of Resentment

One of the things that was really holding me back from working through issues with my husband was a metric ton of built-up resentment. Since we hadn’t really been communicating, I had internalized all of these dark feelings about him and his role in my life. I began thinking in absolutes like, “My life would be so much better if I’d never met him” or “He’s nothing but a tool of the patriarchy.” This shadow — this build-up of resentment — blotted out all of the good things in my life that he had brought into our marriage. Through my therapist’s coaching, I worked to break down what was really bothering me, while letting go of the past.

5) Your Partner Is a Flower, and You Are the Gardener (and Vice Versa)

I’d always believed the old adage that states that one person in a relationship is the flower, and the other is the gardener. As in, one is nurturing and giving, and the other wants to be nurtured and cared for. It turns out that’s far from healthy. Instead, each partner should take on the role of the flower and the gardener.

Our therapist taught us to think about how we can nurture each other: what things in our relationship were the soil, the water and the sun that would help each of us bloom? My husband and I are both responsible for the garden that is our marriage. That way, neither person feels as though they are putting more work into the relationship than the other.

Therapy isn’t magic. You don’t just show up, sit for an hour, nod your head and then go home, expecting your mental health or your marriage to be fixed. It takes work, and a fierce dedication to implementing the strategies suggested by the doctor. But when your garden blooms, it’s all worth it.

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