A Therapist’s Simple Rule Transformed My Marriage
Treat your spouse with the same level of politeness you would afford, like, any other human being
My husband and I are both writers who have worked at opposite ends of our kitchen table for the past 10 years — just imagine that for a minute. Because we’ve been together virtually around the clock, we’re at least somewhat equipped to deal with our new reality of Lockdown Living.
For instance: Recently, as we were tapping away at our computers, Tom unleashed what I call a “screeze” — a nerve-jangling combination of a scream and a sneeze.
A few years ago, I would have yelled at him. I have always been the hothead in our relationship. Our fights usually followed the classic, and corrosive, demand/withdraw pattern, in which one person demands to deal with an issue (that would be me) and the other shuts down and walls off. The more Tom glared stonily into his screen, the more upset I would get, escalating from pleading to shouting and swearing.
Real (yes, that’s his real name) is famous for his exceedingly blunt language. As we nervously explained how we had become trapped in this toxic dynamic, he listened, tenting his fingers.
“Here is a rule I want you to live by,” he announced after an excruciating pause. “I would like you to make a commitment to what I call Full Respect Living.” The premise was simple, he said: Nothing you do or say to each other should drop below the level of simple respect. That was it.
I wanted to laugh (although I didn’t dare). Oh, right, of course! It’s that easy. Just treat each other with respect!
“That doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself,” he went on. “But there’s a big difference between aggressive and assertive. There is no place for harshness in a loving relationship. None. If you get nothing from today other than this one thing, you may change your marriage.”
He then gave us a list of behaviors that were off the table from that day forward. No name-calling. No swearing. No ridiculing. No shouting. No venting. No ignoring. “It ends today,” he pronounced, glaring at each of us in turn. If an argument was brewing, we were to ask ourselves: Is what I’m about to say or do respectful? If it isn’t, he said, don’t do it.
It seemed like an awfully high bar, but it was at least simple, and easy to remember in the heat of the moment. As we tried to follow our new rule, it laid bare how often we were casually disrespectful toward each other. How did it happen that I treated most people with courtesy and civility, yet not the person I loved the most?
Of course, we don’t always manage to practice Full Respect Living. But the longer we’ve tried to live by this tenet, the more unusual — and jarring — it is when someone loses their temper.
Right now, we’re sheltering in place along with our fifth grader. Research shows that it benefits her when she sees us working out problems like grown-ups, rather than preschoolers. A long-term study out of the University of Virginia found that middle school kids who regularly witnessed their parents disagreeing in a healthy way were more likely to pick up the skill themselves — and when they became teens, were 40% more likely to resist peer pressure when offered alcohol or drugs.
So I’m relieved that the most recent time Tom screezed and made me jump out of my skin, I took a deep breath instead of freaking out. I described the problem, told him how it made me feel, and explained what I would like him to do. “Your screezes nearly give me a coronary,” I said. ”I feel scattered afterwards because my concentration is broken. Please stop screezing. Yes, in fact, you can help it.”
In quarantine, I’m especially grateful that we know how to do this. As we all huddle together in close quarters, it’s more crucial than ever to work out issues quickly to prevent festering, and with as much consideration as you can muster. Sometimes, when I’m tempted to snap, I silently repeat something Terry Real told us during that transformative session: There is not one thing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.