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Build Relationship Resilience With Three Simple but Important Practices

Tips for strengthening your marriage — even in tough times

Published on: March 12, 2021

husband and wife kissing in the kitchen

Being married with kids in the modern age is the perfect recipe for the occasional — or constant — experience of chaos and feeling overwhelmed.

The challenge starts with marriage. We’re faced with the daunting task of sharing our space, our priorities, our financial resources, and even our time and energy with another person — ’til death do us part.

That’s typically followed by the challenge of raising children. These amazing little beings demand our constant care and attention, and they rarely, if ever, comply with our plans, schedules or sleep and “me time” preferences.

Then comes living in the context of modern life, in which we’re perpetually barraged with text messages, emails, phone calls and the bottomless stream of social media. Not only are these digital intrusions distracting, but seeing all of those glorious photos of other couples and families offers a constant reminder of our own deepest fears and insecurities.

All that is to say that being married with kids isn’t easy. Quite the opposite. And right now, we’re navigating a unique state of affairs that threatens our connection with our partner, our ability to stay present with our kids and, let’s face it, our sanity.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s one more problem: Our habitual solution to these circumstances often backfires. Faced with such challenges, our tendency is to change everything around us. We desperately try to change our spouse — to make them more loving and engaged. We try to change our children — to make them listen and stop waking up screaming at 2 a.m.

But it’s a strategy doomed to fail. You can’t turn your partner into the “perfect” mate. You can’t coerce or cajole a 2-year-old to enter a deep, uninterrupted sleep every night with perfect precision. In fact, marriage and parenting are a testament to the inconvenient truth that the more we try to control the world around us, the more we begin to feel totally out of control.

There’s a better way to confront this challenge, and it starts with shifting our attention from the outer to the inner world. It’s the practice of building new habits of resilience. This shift is like the one advised in an age-old proverb: “You don’t have to find enough leather to cover the surface of the earth to protect your feet. All you have to do is make yourself shoes.” Likewise, you can’t alter your partner’s annoying habits, your kid’s acting out or the world itself. But you can shift the way you experience them.

That’s the shift to resilience. Here’s how to do it.

 

Shift your relationship mindset.

We interviewed more than 100 people about their marriages for our recent book, “The 80/80 Marriage.”  What we found is that almost every modern couple falls into the trap of 50/50 fairness. It’s a mindset in relationships that leads you to keep an elaborate mental scorecard of everything you do and, often, everything your partner doesn’t do. The problem with this mindset of fairness is that it destroys relationship resilience. The moment things get stressful, the moment dinnertime conversation turns tense, this natural desire for fairness leads to a downward spiral of resentment, stress and hurt feelings.

To boost relationship resilience, the key is to begin changing your relationship mindset. Instead of striving for 50/50 fairness, see what happens when you shift your mindset to what we call “radical generosity.” Try going beyond doing your “fair share.” Try striving to contribute to your marriage and your life together at 80 percent or more. We understand the math doesn’t work and that this may seem crazy. But here’s a simple way to start experiencing this shift: Contribute one radically generous act each day. Unload the dishwasher three times in a row, leave your partner a love note on their bedside table or make them a cup of coffee in the morning.

Create more mental space.

When we interviewed modern couples, we also found that you can distill the modern experience of marriage and parenting into two words: no space. There’s often no space for date nights and connection as a couple. There’s often no space on the calendar to pursue our individual interests and hobbies. There’s often no space from the demands of work and career. And yet there’s another, subtler form of space that’s missing. It’s what we call mental space or headspace. Mental space gives you the superhuman ability to experience a stinging criticism from your partner or the shock of walking into your child’s room and noticing they just projectile-vomited all over their bed without losing your cool. It’s that instantaneous mental pause that gives you the opportunity to respond rather than react, to take a couple of breaths instead of acting on your worst impulses.

To create more mental space, you might try a simple mindfulness practice. Set aside five to 10 minutes each day, close your eyes and bring your full attention to the sensations of each breath. When your mind wanders to thoughts about the past or the future, just notice and bring your attention back to the breath. The science on mindfulness is clear. It cultivates greater focus, decreases anxiety and enhances resilience to when faced with stress.

“Un-distract” yourself.

You’ve surely heard the maxim “You are what you eat.” In relationships and in parenting, it’s equally true to say, “You are what you watch, listen to and place your attention on.” In other words, when it comes to the information we take in, if we allow ourselves to constantly consume digital junk food — a steady diet of Netflix binging, social media scrolling, news addiction and more — we’re reinforcing the habits of a scattered, anxious and irritated mind. We’re also often showing up for our spouse and our children in the state that psychologist Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention,” a state in which we’re rarely, if ever, fully focused on one thing.

To boost resilience, consider how you can begin consuming information more mindfully. Here are some strategies:

  • Put away your phones after 7 p.m. each night.
  • Kick your phones and other devices out of the bedroom.
  • Create dedicated time for emails, social media, news and texting, so that these sources of digital distraction don’t consume your attention during every waking hour.
  • Before watching a show, listening to a podcast or reading the news, ask yourself, “Will this have a positive or negative impact on my state of mind?”

Marriage isn’t easy. Parenting isn’t easy. Navigating the distractions of modern life isn’t easy. And yet, if we can build some of these small habits of resilience, we can experience a modern superpower. We can cultivate the rare ability to stay calm during even the most challenging moments in life.

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