Loving – and liking – your spouse

I love my husband, but I don’t like him.” That’s a comment I hear quite often in my couples mediation practice. Over the years, I discovered something: Many people are nicer to strangers than they are to their spouses.

The “liking” feeling tends to disappear as everyday job stress, parenting decisions, financial woes and child-induced sleep deprivation start to bring out the worst in us.

When overwhelmed by life, small things may seem like “the last straw,” and you might even wonder if you are married to the right person.

People assume I must have a perfect marriage. The truth is, I have a happy marriage and I love my husband, but still, we have good and bad days that strain the liking feeling. Conflict is normal, especially for parents, but how we choose to respond to it either will strengthen or weaken the relationship.

One day, my husband told me he’d be home from work earlier than usual.

I put his early arrival time into my afternoon schedule so my then-2-year-old son and I would be home to greet him, and enjoy some playful “Daddy time.” When my husband’s designated arrival time passed, each additional minute pushed me into a worsening mood. At 50 minutes past his planned arrival, I was furious. Why wasn’t he here? Why wasn’t he answering his cell phone?

My husband showed up more than an hour after I expected him, displaying a freshly trimmed head of hair, acting like nothing had happened.

“So you got a haircut?” I asked.

“Yes, I had time today, so I figured, why not?”

That was it. I ripped into his thoughtless selfish behavior and the fight began.

But minutes later, reality hit. In our pre-child days, I would have been more understanding and explained how I felt about his late arrival. Now, with my energy drained, I acted as if his haircut was akin to finding out he cheated on me with his hairdresser.

Our best selves

We are our best selves early in our relationship. We show each other empathy, respect and patience. As time passes, we come to expect those things from our partner, but we tend to deliver them less and less. Use of the words “thank you” and “please” become sparse, replaced by comments like “You have to…” and “Why didn’t you…,” which are set-up comments for a fight. So what can a person say to prevent such unnecessary battles?

The answer is to stop and ask yourself one question when you feel your blood beginning to boil: “What do I want my spouse to do differently next time?” In my situation, I wanted him to call me in advance to tell me that his plans had changed.

As soon as I realized my short-tempered mistake, I apologized and asked for what I wanted. Interestingly, my husband was flattered to learn that I was looking forward to his coming home early and was disappointed by his lateness. Our five-minute talk ended with the agreement that if his plans changed, he would call immediately. So my advice for couples who want to love-and like-their mate for a lifetime is: Don’t focus on the problem. Do focus on the solution. A little wisdom makes a big difference.

Laurie Puhn is a Harvard-trained lawyer, couples mediator, relationship expert and bestselling author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In. Find her online at fightlesslovemore.com.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Chicago Parent.
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