Managing Moments in Marriage
Have you ever walked away from a conversation with your significant other wondering how it escalated like that? Ever tried replaying the argument a few different ways trying to figure out why things exploded? Ever thought you were communicating something helpful but your spouse got frustrated, upset and conflict ensued? If so, welcome to the mystery that is dating and marriage relationships. And welcome to the importance of recognizing and understanding moments in the marriage.
Authors Dan and Chip Heath wrote a book called The Power of Moments exploring why certain experiences have extraordinary impact in people’s lives. They identified that people disproportionately remember two types of moments in their lives: 1. Peaks (the best and worst moments in life) and 2. Endings (whatever was done or said last). Managing these moments and intentionally creating great moments for people can create greater connection and lasting change. Much like the Heath brothers’ discoveries, I have learned that managing key moments in our relationships can either increase connection or cause further strain and disconnection. It is my belief that learning to properly manage moments may be one of the keys to success in marriage and an unknown secret in building marriages that thrive.
Let’s look at a common scenario to begin unpacking this idea of managing moments. You just finished eating some lunch and dropped your plate and cup in the sink before moving off to your next task. An hour later your spouse comes into the kitchen, sees your dishes in the sink and says something to you such as, “Could you please remember to put your dishes in the dishwasher so the kitchen isn’t a mess?” This may seem mundane but don’t fail to recognize that this is A Moment! Your spouse has made a decision to engage in conversation with you and where it goes from here will depend on your response in this moment. The thing that complicates “this moment” is that what is happening may be tied to other past moments that have been similar and themes start building upon one another. Regardless of what has happened prior, this is still A Moment and you have to decide how you will respond.
The first thought that runs through your head may be, “I have cleaned up three of your dishes this week and never said a word to you, and now I do it once and you are all over me?” Or you may be thinking, “You have no problem with your closet, your bathroom sink and your car being a complete mess, but my dish in the sink all of a sudden is causing some discomfort?” These thoughts may be factually true and you may want to present your factual defense in this moment because you feel attacked, but remember this is A Moment. And how you respond in this moment will determine what the next few moments look like, which may dictate what the next few hours and days look like!
Before you respond to your spouse with any of a number of thoughts that immediately come to mind I need you to recognize that your spouse is engaging in conversation with you for a reason and if you don’t understand what the reason is you will be more likely to respond in the wrong way which will usually take the conversation that ensues in the wrong direction. Let’s look at a couple responses in this situation and where they may lead the conversation next.
Response #1: “I cleaned up three of your dishes this week and didn’t say a word to you so I don’t know why you need to nag me about doing it once. It doesn’t kill you to put one cup and one plate in the dishwasher does it.” Of course you could also add a number of other things to the end of that statement if you really wanted to be petty such as: “It’s not like you do much else around the house so one dish won’t kill you.” Or, “When you start picking up your clothes in the bathroom I’ll start cleaning up my dishes.” I’m sure you can think of a lot more ideas of where to take this conversation in the wrong direction if you wanted but you get the point.
Response #2: “Sorry about that. I was planning on cleaning that up later but thanks for getting it for me.” Now, before you start mounting a defense of why you’re not going to respond like this and how your spouse will just think it’s okay to nag you about everything and how they don’t take responsibility for their actions and how this marriage isn’t 50/50 and you have to do all the work and always be the one to apologize and on and on and on…remember that this is just A Moment and not the whole relationship. You are simply trying to manage the moment.
I believe that 2 simple questions will help anybody Manage the Moments in Marriage with greater success, increasing and strengthening connection in the relationship. As you attempt to better manage moments in the relationship remember that your partner is engaging with you for a reason and knowing what that reason is will increase your chances of successfully responding. In order to do so ask yourself the following questions.
Why are they engaging with me in this moment?
When your spouse comes to you with a statement or question they are looking for an ideal response from you in that moment. If they didn’t want something they wouldn’t be expending the energy to engage with you. If your spouse asks you to put your dishes in the dishwasher the goal is probably not to nag you, cause tension and begin a conflict that will eventually escalate into blaming and name calling. They may be looking for understanding from you that a messy sink adds stress to their lives. They may be looking for help in doing things around the house because they feel overwhelmed and want some relief. They may simply be looking for you to listen, hear them and respond positively to a request so they know you care about their wants and desires. There could be a whole laundry list of motivations behind their request but I can guarantee you that what they are NOT looking for is to have you respond with an explanation of how they also leave dishes in the sink. Those details may be true but In the Moment all those details do is communicate to your spouse that they should not bring any concern to you because you will dismiss their concern by reminding them how they also fall short of perfection.
Managing the Moment means you quickly ask yourself why they are engaging with you and what they might be looking for from you. Could it be they are looking for: support, connection, advice, direction, solution to a problem, affirmation, confirmation, or approval?
The second question you need to ask yourself is:
What can I do to connect with them in this moment?
If you have a good guess as to why they are engaging with you in the moment then you must determine how best to connect with them in the moment. How can you meet them where they are at? How can you make them feel like they have been heard and you understand them? How can you show that you care for them and want to support them? This is the moment to do or say something that causes you to lean towards them in the relationship rather than a moment to stack bricks in the wall that divides you two in marriage. What you do in this moment will set the direction of the moments that follow so choose wisely. Let’s look at a scenario to practice these two questions in a real life situation.
Scenario: Your spouse comes to you and says they are overwhelmed at work, their boss is killing them and they barely have enough energy to eat and play with the kids. Before you respond let me emphasize that the following truths may be present but are not relevant for This Moment:
-you may not like their job
-you may have been against them taking this job
-you may have already told them to quit the job because the stress isn’t worth it
-you may have heard them complain about the job 30 times already
None of those truths will be helpful in successfully managing The Moment at hand. This is not a time for the presentation of facts. This is a time to manage the moment well by asking the two questions.
- Why are they engaging with me in this moment?
They are overwhelmed, tired and stressed out and really need their spouse’s support, encouragement and understanding. They are probably not looking for a solution, an “I told you so”, or a dismissal (“it’s not that bad”, “others have it worse” or “toughen up”).
- What can I do to connect with them in This Moment?
Keep the big three in mind: empathy, understanding, and support. How can you give them what they are looking for in this moment and create greater connection in the relationship?
A great response in this moment could be: “I’m sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. What can I do to help lighten the load?” They will immediately feel heard, understood, valued, supported and cared for, and you have done very little at this point. Now you just listen and continue supporting. It may be that they need a job change, need to make some adjustments at home, need some outside counsel or support and so on, but those discussion should occur at a later date. They do not belong in This Moment if you want to learn to manage the moments well.
Just like the dishes in sink scenario mentioned earlier. It may very well be true that your spouse leaves their dishes in the sink way more than you do and you never say a word. That would make their complaint about you feel very frustrating and unfair but in that moment bringing up how they do the same thing will only “invalidate” their request and cause them to feel like they are not able to bring a concern to you. A better time to bring those facts up would be the next day or later that night saying something like, “When you mentioned yesterday how I left my dishes in the sink I fully understand that. However, it is a little frustrating to have you get on my about it because I had picked up your dishes three times last week and never said a word. It feels like you are getting after me for the same things you do frequently. This will be better received at a different time rather than it would have been in the moment.
As you navigate conversations and conflict in your relationship, be aware of how you are managing the moments as they come. Ask yourself the two questions and look for the best ways to understand, empathize and connect In the Moment, saving solutions, rebuttals and comparisons for a later conversation.
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