How to save a marriage when you feel unable to act is not as complicated as it seems. Feeling powerless, like anything you do will blow up in your face, is actually stopping you from thinking clearly. I understand that feeling as I’ve been there myself.
While writing various articles for this website I’ve sometimes wondered, “Even if I had known this when I was married, would I have put this into action? Could I?” Between the kind of person I was, the kind of person my wife was, and the state of our relationship, I think that perhaps I wouldn’t or couldn’t have shaken my feeling of powerlessness and acted.
And that disturbs me to no end! I’m writing this website to help you, and yet if I would have been so stuck as to not be able to put what I know now into action when I was married, I am not doing you any favor if you’re stuck, too. So I have to address this issue.
How you behave, act, and react are the products of a lifetime of living. You don’t need to understand their root causes to change them (though it might help). You do need to understand what Chip and Dan Heath say in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.”
Getting unstuck requires doing something different than what you are used to doing. It doesn’t have to be difficult or anxiety-provoking. It doesn’t even have to subvert your belief that your spouse is in the wrong, should that be the case.
It also does not mean you have to transform yourself into another person. It simply means selecting a different behavior, which is something you already do quite often. You treat your boss, your children, a policeman, a telephone solicitor, your doctor, your pastor, and your friends in many and varied ways. And you don’t necessarily treat each of them exactly the same in every encounter. You’ve learned through experience what may work and what may be appropriate for any given situation.
Though your marital situation is specific to you, the blockage that prevents any first step toward improving a relationship in the vast majority of cases is criticism.
Whether or not justified, criticism is unpleasant for the person on the receiving end. Dishing out criticism may make you feel better for having “vented” your frustration, but most of the time you won’t get the response you want, only more distance between the two of you.
Criticism in marriage has two main sources: 1. an unresponsive spouse, or 2. self-doubt. A person who does not properly and thoroughly respond to complaints from his/her spouse invites criticism. And a person who criticizes instead of using gently-worded complaints may have learned in childhood to doubt him/her-self. As John Gottman writes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “Since he has trained his mind to see what is wrong, what is missing, and not to appreciate what is there, it’s difficult for him to rejoice in what’s right [with his spouse or the relationship.] … It takes courage to be less critical of an unresponsive mate, and it takes courage to turn toward a partner who’s always harping on your flaws.”
Gottman provides an easy exercise that can help you counteract a tendency to criticize, and it’s the first step in how to save a marriage when you feel paralyzed, stuck, unable to act.
Even as you do the exercise, you will begin to see that improvements in your marriage relationship are easier to accomplish than you think, because what Gottman recommends is an example of what the authors of Switch call “shrinking the change”.
Right now, you want a big change in your marriage, which is hard to do. Break that change down into smaller pieces so you can accomplish them one at a time. These little victories will encourage both of you, and get you to a happier, healthier marriage faster. Your first victory comes in reducing criticism of one another using Gottman’s exercise. That accomplishment will suggest the next small goal, which may or may not have anything to do with feeling stuck. That stuck feeling will diminish as you gain little victories.
If you think that your inability to make a move, to get unstuck, comes from a fear of rejection, everything I’ve written above still applies. Criticism and self-doubt are components of rejection. Gottman’s exercise will still help. Doing nothing will only increase your fear of rejection and make rejection more of a possibility.
You have to do something different in order for change to happen.
Remember, your spouse has not always rejected you, not always been contemptuous of you, not always criticized you. If any of that were the case, the two of you would never have married. You can find positive things about your relationship that you can build upon.
Getting unstuck is the first step in how to save a marriage.