When your marriage starts to go in a downhill spiral because you both feel neglected and misunderstood, can you reverse that spiral?
I think you can. And today I want to share with you some insight from Dr. Ron Welch from his new book 10 Choices Successful Couples Make: The Secret to Love That Lasts a Lifetime.
Last week we were looking at how the book Love & Respect made problems between couples worse because instead of encouraging open communication and dialogue, it told women to be silent about their concerns. And many of you asked me for other books that taught families to handle things in a healthier manner.
When Revell publishers approached me about talking about their book, I took a look to see Dr. Welch’s perspective. I really appreciated what he said about how to get out of that downward spiral, and I thank Revell for sponsoring this post. All 10 of his chapters are great, but I want to focus today on his chapter that successful couples confront “unspoken truths”. There’s a lot of wisdom here, and I’m going to walk you through the story of Luke and Laura as he shared it, and then see how they stopped that downward spiral.
But first, let me lay the groundwork. Dr. Welch talks about how We develop these “unspoken truths” because of ways that our spouses may have disappointed us in the past. But then we start changing our behaviours and attitudes because of those truths, and they start to be the building blocks around which our marriage culture is formed.
You’ve probably got some unspoken truths, too:
- He’d rather spend time with friends than with me.
- He cares more about success at work than he does about the family.
- She loves the kids way more than she loves me.
- She’s only with me because of my paycheque.
They may form because of how our spouse has acted, combined with our own insecurities, but when we start to believe them, they become reality in our marriage.
So let me introduce you to Luke and Laura, whose story Dr. Welch tells in this chapter.
Luke and Laura got married just as Luke was starting medical school and working long hours. Laura was a teacher and loved working with kids. Early in her career, her teaching kept her busy, but she still noticed how much Luke was gone.
Laura’s unspoken truth: He might care more about work than me, but I’m probably overreacting.
She also had questions about his free time. How does he find time to play basketball with his buddies when he says he is too busy to go out on a date with me?
Laura’s unspoken truth: He cares more about his friends than me.
If she ever brought this up, Luke would talk about how stressful work was and how he needed to let off steam. He always had a good explanation, and she usually let it go.
Luke’s unspoken truth: She doesn’t understand how hard I work. I just need some place to let off steam. I am beginning to think Laura is pretty needy sometimes.
Their relationship problems were compounded by the pressure they had allowed to become “their life.” The pressures of finances, jobs, children, and social expectations were overwhelming.
Luke and Laura’s unspoken truth: We have to do everything. Our life is running us, and we have no control over what we do.Dr. Ron Welch
When this couple first came to him for counselling, they looked like the model family. He had a successful medical career. He played in a local basketball league. Laura was a teacher, but she dedicated her time and energy to her kids, volunteering at various activities. But they were miserable and growing increasingly distant.
To be honest, Luke was operating at almost maximum capacity. He was seeing a full load of patients every week, trying to stay in shape with exercise and eating well, and working hard to find some time most days to see his kids, even though he was tired after work. In one session, he said, “I just don’t have much energy left for Laura. I know that’s not right, but it’s true.” From his standpoint, if he had to sacrifice something, it would have to be time with her, as cutting back on work, not staying in shape, and not seeing the kids were simply not options.
Luke’s unspoken truth: If I have to give up time with her to handle work and my other responsibilities, Laura should understand…
What about Laura? She was trying to be Supermom by working a full-time job, taking care of the kids and the house, and being a part of her community and church. The phrase we’ve all heard before is “You can have it all!”
Laura’s unspoken truth: I can do it all—work, kids, marriage, church. I can handle it!
As the years went by, it became more and more clear that this was simply not true. Laura had to make choices, and not everyone placing demands on her could have everything they wanted. Laura had passed up some of the promotions and honors she could have received at work, choosing to miss important meetings so that she could take the kids to ballet or karate lessons.
Laura’s unspoken truth: I gave up opportunities in my career for our family. Luke should do the same. I don’t think he puts our family first like I do.Dr. Ron Welch
As they started counselling and dug deeper, Dr. Welch realized that they were working with two very different set of assumptions about what marriage was about and what the goals in their lives were. I really related to a lot of this story, since my husband is a doctor and we struggled with his long hours early in our marriage, too!Are you and your husband operating under different assumptions about what your marriage is? Voice your unspoken truths!Click To Tweet
Laura’s model of marriage, in contrast to Luke’s, was based on the belief that she was supposed to take care of her family and put their needs before her own. If she wanted to do something but one of the kids needed to go to a dance rehearsal or a soccer practice, she almost always put off what she wanted to do. She thought, As long as the family is happy, that is what matters most, right?
Laura’s unspoken truth: I have to sacrifice for my family. That is my job.
If Luke got upset over something, she attributed it to the fact that he had so much on his plate and was working so hard, and she let it go. Sure, he seemed to overreact at times and could be pretty critical. But how could she complain about that when he had just worked twelve hours at the clinic and visited three patients in the hospital after that? Whenever she did get up the courage to mention something, he would say, “But you knew what you were signing up for when you married a doctor, didn’t you?” She couldn’t argue with that.
Laura’s unspoken truth: No matter what the cost to the family, his desire to be a doctor trumps anything I or the kids might need.Dr. Ron Welch
Yep. Totally am sympathetic to Laura’s last unspoken truth. I still remember when Keith was called away from Katie’s second birthday party because there was no doctor on call, and a shaken baby who was dying had just come in to the ER. How could we compete with that? He had to go. (And he really did, too).
He took them through an exercise discovering these unspoken truths, and then asked them to see marriage differently.
I asked them to consider whether changing their model of marriage to one in which they thought of their partner first might transform their relationship.
The primary change I suggested to Luke and Laura was that they focus on understanding how to meet the other’s needs rather than prioritizing their own needs. Initially, they were somewhat confused by this request.
Laura responded by saying, “Are you kidding me? All I do is try to meet his needs. I have put him before myself our entire marriage. Look where that’s gotten us!”
Luke, for his part, was pretty resistant to the idea as well. “Dr. Welch, I am not a selfish guy. I’m working my tail off seventy hours a week to provide for my family and take care of everything they need. How can you say I’m putting my own needs first?”
After some pretty direct confrontation, Luke began to admit that he wasn’t working hard just to provide for his family. In fact, he was making more than enough money. Much of what he was doing was to further his career and reputation. Sure, being a doctor required a lot of time, but he was averaging about eleven to twelve hours a day and was on call many weekends.Dr. Ron Welch
He taught Luke where his desire to succeed and his feeling that “real men work hard” came from. I appreciated him leading Luke to see that he actually was choosing to work 70 hours a week; no one was making him do that, and it wasn’t necessary. He realized it was a choice.
And then he spoke to Laura:
We spent time talking about how Laura had come to believe that sacrifice and servanthood were the expectations of a good wife. Laura learned that if she never set boundaries and did not let Luke know what her needs were, there was no way he could work to help her get her needs met. She began to realize that she did not have to give up every time they had a difference of opinion. She discovered that when she used her voice and shared with Luke, he was amazingly supportive and willing to compromise.Dr. Ron Welch
They found intimacy again because they realized that they did have some control over their lives.
They were each making choices, and they could choose to make different ones. Laura could choose to open up about her needs. Luke could choose to own up to his own choices about work, and prioritize family. And that’s what stopped the downhill spiral.
What I’ve found listening to marriages is that the problems often sound so complex, like it’s a cascade, where one thing causes another thing and soon it’s all so complex and interwoven it’s hard to untangle it all. But that’s what you have to do. Go back to the beginning and ask, “why did we start acting like this?”
He has a great self-assessment tool in this chapter couples can take to try to discover their “unspoken truths” and face them. And he has many other tools in the book, too, to help you make other choices successful couples make–choices like choosing to be intimate; choosing not to take each other for granted; choosing the “us” model of marriage rather than being selfish; choosing to let go of old baggage, and more.
Let me know–did you ever have “unspoken truths” that held you back? How did you confront them? Let’s talk in the comments!