Relationship masters or disastersDear Dr. G.

My husband and I were very much in love when we got married, but after 12 years together, it seems like we don’t even like each other anymore. Discussing anything usually ends up in a fight. He drives me nuts, and he doesn’t listen when I tell him what I want him to change. He is always criticizing me about the way I do things. When we are out with other couples, they all seem to be happier than we are. There haven’t been any big issues to cause problems for us, but it feels like we don’t seem to have anything in common, and I can hardly be nice to him some days. How can I be in love again?

What a great question. I’d say it is one that has been asked by just about every person who has ever been in a long-term romantic relationship. Let’s start from a general perspective. Feelings come and go in every aspect of life. You probably like different food now than you did when you were a child. Your style in clothing is most likely different today than it was five years ago. Perhaps you have made new friends in the last 10 years and let go of other friendships during that same time; people tend to change their social circle about every seven years. It is very probable that any intense emotions you may have felt about a given situation last week have changed and are almost difficult to recall this week. It is natural that as we mature physically, intellectually, and socially, our likes and dislikes change as well. It can be nerve-racking to think that at one particular point in life we choose someone to have an intimate, lifelong relationship with and then hope we will stay in love and want to be with them every day for years and years. Scary as it seems, it can be done, but not without conscious effort from both partners.

You mentioned there have been no big issues in your marriage, which is great to hear; however, it is usually the little things that end up causing break-ups and divorce. Communication is key in any relationship. Great communication tends to produce great relationships. With fault-finding on both sides, it sounds like there may have been a breakdown between the two of you in that area. There are a plethora of ways to respond when interacting with someone, but all responses can usually be put into two groups: nurturing or nasty (and I don’t mean that in a good way). How do you typically respond to or interact with your spouse? John Gottman, a relationship expert, categorized people as relationship masters or relationship disasters. As you can imagine, those who are relationship masters usually communicate with each other in a nurturing way whereas those who fall into the “disasters” category tend to respond to each other in a nasty way. The good news is that it is wholly possible to become a master, even if you are currently a disaster!

Since our experiences with other people in the world are highly reflective of how we see ourselves, most situations mirror back far more truth about us than we would like to admit. In serious discussions it is easy to not feel heard, but if we ask ourselves if we are really listening the way we want to be listened to or responding the way we would like to be responded to, the answer is often “no.” Usually the irritation that we feel for someone else shows up when we see in them what we don’t like about ourselves. Furthermore, if there is some underlying discontent, it is easy to get into a habit of only interacting when things aren’t going well. You might find it helpful to switch up your typical communication style. Ask your spouse interesting questions rather than only discussing problems. You mentioned being very much in love when you were first married. Do you remember why? Does he? When we recount stories, we recreate those feelings. Rekindling a spark could be that simple.

Very few people (like zero) need to have their faults pointed out. Most of us are very aware of the things we do that fail to match up to our expectations or the expectations of those we love. It has been said that we are lucky to have a partner who supports us when the chips are down, but research shows that relationship masters are those who support each other even more when things are going well. When we spend time dwelling on the positive aspects and the successes of our partner, those are the things that stand out in our mind. I’m not a fan of hanging overly positive quotes on the walls or telling people to just “be happy,” but there is evidence showing that we really do see what we are looking to see, be it negative or positive.

John Legend has the perfect lyrics in his song “All of Me”: “Love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.” Believe it or not, the things that bug you about your spouse now more than likely existed when you first met. You just weren’t bothered by them because you were busy focusing on the things you loved. As far as falling in love again, a simple solution could be for you to set a goal where for an entire week you verbalize the good things you notice and stifle the irritating thoughts. Being happier (in any situation) doesn’t mean that everything is exactly the way you want it to be. It means that you’ve decided to accept and enjoy people and things as they currently exist in your world.

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