Marriage is a give-and-take relationship. It succeeds when two people balance their own desires with those of their partner. If you have been married for a while, you know that this balancing act is not easy. It’s not easy because it requires regulation of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and when this self-regulation takes too much energy, the person collapses and so does the relationship.
Regulation is a science. To understand why people reach this point of “no more” and consider separation or divorce, you need to know how to prevent yourself and your partner from reaching break point and how to separate external and internal regulation (self-regulation).
Regulation is the ability to control thoughts, feelings and behavior, instead of doing things on impulse. The more we practice, the stronger it gets, like a muscle. Once it is strong enough, it’s much easier to resist temptation and function according to a plan, rather than going with whatever comes our way or whoever applies more pressure. Just think of a baby that needs to hold his pee until he gets to the toilet. He needs to regulate his impulse to pee in his pants (or diaper).
Here are three research conclusions about self-regulations.
Research #1: Self-regulation increases with practice
Three groups of researchers got self-regulation tasks. One group had to focus on sitting up straight, another had to change their mood from negative to positive and the third had to keep a record of their eating habits.
Within only two weeks, all three groups did their tasks much better and their self-regulation ability rated higher.
Conclusion: two weeks are enough time to strengthen our self-regulation.
Note that the researches regulated themselves.
When couples have a challenge with each other and form a new behavior plan, they need to give themselves two weeks to practice their self-regulation. Otherwise, they might fail and need another new “let’s be kind to each other” plan.
Research #2: Our capacity for self-regulation is limited
Participants were invited to what they thought was a tasting experiment. Both groups had to sit in front of a plate of chocolate cookies and a plate of radishes.
One group had to eat the radishes and resist the chocolate cookies, while solving an extremely difficult puzzle. The other group had to eat the chocolate cookies and solve the puzzle. Those who ate the radishes quit the puzzle much faster than those who could eat the chocolate cookies.
Conclusion: When we need to resist temptation (i.e. self-regulate), coping with other things becomes harder for us.
Resisting one temptation leaves us less energy to resist another. It is as if the energy of our self-regulation muscle cannot be divided into too many areas at once. That is why we find it hard to focus on our partner while we struggle to make ends meet, diet to regain our shape or deal with our kids’ sickness during winter. Our energies are so focused on other sources of stress, we do not have the energy to self-regulate in our marriage.
When there are many things to regulate in a relationship, we will collapse, and our relationship will suffer greatly.
Research #3: Self-regulation increases with planning
Two groups of students were asked to write an essay. One group was asked to think in advance about when and where they will physically be while writing the essay. The other group was left to write the essay without being given any instructions.
Of the group that got the instructions, 75% completed the essay, as opposed to only 33% of the other group.
Conclusion: By creating a vivid image of the outcome, we can regulate ourselves better.
Planning makes it easier to self-regulate and saves us energy. That is why parents and kids need to know the science of goal setting, planning and time management. It can work magic on our self-regulation ability.
The success of a relationship depends on the partners’ ability to imagine the future, particularly to imagine a positive outcome, and plan. On the other hand, inability to plan can drag the relationship down.
For a good and happy relationship, both couples need to have strong self-regulating “muscle”. The self-regulation “muscle” has three ranges: weak, medium and strong.
You do not really think ahead. You mostly think about your current situation. Your goal is to feel something, have something or be something right NOW.
You are not very good with planning for next week, not to mention next month or next year. You are quick to make decisions and quick to say what you think. You are easily tempted and often feel out of control.
You can think ahead, but not too far. You have rough goals with a vague sense of direction.
Small things can easily distract you and push you off balance. You take a bit of time to make decisions and do not say everything that comes to your mind. You are not easily tempted, but when things appear in front of you enough times, you give in.
You are in control when things are running smoothly, but when things are not happening the way you want, you find it hard to keep yourself motivated.
You can think ahead and can plan a long time in advance. You have goals and they are clear.
Even though things can shake you, you recover quickly. You are back up on your feet and back on track in no time. You take time to make decisions and calculate your words.
Once you have decided to do something, you are not tempted to do other things. You are mostly in control of your life and if things do not happen the way you want them to, you dust yourself off and keep moving forward.
It’s called “self-regulation” for a reason
The problem with regulation and relationships is that most people don’t focus on SELF regulation. In many relationships, one partner or both are trying to regulate what the other one does, say or feel, which creates resentment, the relationship poison.
We are programmed to be able to regulate ourselves and perceive every attempt to regulate us as external pressure. When this external pressure reaches a critical mass, the resentment accumulated poisons the relationship. Such a relationship will need lots healing or end.
Many people don’t understand this concept, because they were regulated externally most of their early years. We are regulated at home, we are regulated at school and we are regulated by the norms of our society.
You won’t believe how many people I’ve work with who are externally regulated as adults. Theoretically, they should be able to make choices on their own, but they can’t. When they are externally regulated by their partner, their marriage suffers so much it affects their ability to regulate their work, their health and other relationships, e.g. with their kids.
To heal the resentment in your relationship with your partner, you need to work on your self-regulation first and then, ease the pressure to regulate your partner. When things are not working in the relationship, it is an illusion that if she/he will do the things you expect them to do, the relationship will flourish again. No, if you get what you want out of pressure, you will only get more resentment.
Think of self-regulation as the opposite of impulsive behavior.
How to strengthen your self-regulation
Here are some tips to work on your self-regulation “muscle” and ease external pressure.
List what not to do
Make a list of the things you want your partner to do differently. Make a huge list! The bigger the better. This will be your bible of what not to do!
Do not use any pressure on your partner to do those things. Remember, anything that came from you, not out of your partner’s free will, will yield resentment.
Talk less and listen more
We all like a microphone for our thoughts and feelings, but that only weakens the self-regulation muscle, because it supports impulsive behavior. When trying to regulate a partner, people usually express their desires more than listen to the partners’ side of things.
Remember, those two things need to be in perfect balance. If you talk more and listen less, you tip that balance.
Avoid “brain farts”
The fact you are in a relationship for a long time does not mean you can say everything that goes on in your mind. If you feel like saying kind things, go for it. Say them any time you like.
However, if you feel like saying things that your partner has not accepted well, even once, keep them to yourself.
Think of the toddler who needs to regulate his stool. If he can do it eventually, you can too!
We call them “brain farts” because you think you will feel better after you say them, but you and your partner both end up with bad smell.
Plan acts of kindness towards your partner
Some call them random acts of kindness, but they should not be random. We should plan and execute them deliberately. Count them and make sure they dominate your daily interaction.
When there are weeds in the garden and you want to see flowers, stop planting weeds first. Then, start planting flowers, and they will take over.
Write a gratitude journal regarding your marriage
When we have a challenging relationship, our brain impulsively comes up with complaints, anger and resentment. Our pain distorts our focus. Writing a gratitude journal will help your mind focus on the good things you have together as a couple, rather than think of the negatives of your relationships.
Write down your thoughts and feelings every day for two weeks
Writing has been found to be a very good strategy for self-regulation. You can write down the good things that happened to you during the day, what you want to achieve in your relationship, what you have learned today about yourself, etc.
Hold back criticism
Whenever you feel like criticizing, hold yourself, count to 10 and think of something good to say instead. Everyone criticizes, and it is normal, but when criticism becomes a big part of a relationship, it creates a problem.
Criticism is an impulsive behavior, a strong desire to express your own opinion about someone or something. In a relationship in crisis, the best way to overcome this impulsive behavior, which only weakens the self-regulation muscle, is to follow this rule: If you have something good to say, say it! If you have nothing good to say, shut up!
Do it for a while. Some people ask me how long this is going to take. My answer is that it is the same speed as building a house. Months and years to build it and only a day or two to destroy it! If you are in a marriage crisis, you are rebuilding. Give yourself time!
Help around the house
If any of your crisis is connected to helping around the house, check your timetable for a week and find out how much time you dedicate to TV, web surfing or games, smartphone, hobbies and going out on your own with your friends. Some of those things are impulsive behavior to satisfy a need.
Remember that a third of all divorced couples had conflicts over housework. Realize that prioritizing TV, hobbies or computer games over your relationship will give your partner the message that… some things are more important to you than your relationship with him/her.
Schedule time for doing nothing
Your brain will be tempted to say “what a waste of time”, but do it anyway. Use this time to relax. The more relaxed your body is, the easier it will be for you to self-regulate at other times. Think of it as “charging” time. Everyone needs it!
Your partner needs it too!
Look at the bright side
Play a game: When you are in a bad situation, try looking on the bright side of it. Ask yourself what good has come, can some or will come of it. By regulating your immediate reaction, you change your focus.
If you do this enough, it’ll be easy to see good things even in situations with your partner that you think are not fun.
Could it be something else?
When you are in a conflict, try to find an alternative explanation as to why your partner is acting the way he/she is. Remember that what people say is not a reflection of what they feel.
There is ALWAYS a reason why people behave the way they do and sadly, they don’t always realize this. It can be a result of an event in their childhood that left a sensitive scar. When we touch that scar, it starts bleeding and takes a long time to stop.
The alternative explanation is for YOU to stop yourself from saying or doing things that will make things worse.
When you find yourself in a conflict, find a way to relax. Exercise to blow off steam, distract yourself by going outside for a walk, watching TV or whatever calms you down.
No matter what, if the conflict is too emotional, step away. Do not try to sort things out while you are angry. Getting angry is a sign that you cannot regulate yourself. Relax and come back when you have the strength to control yourself.
Choose your battles
It is important to remember that there is a limit to how much you can regulate yourself. Dieting, moving to a new house, starting a new job or having sleepless nights will make working on your relationship harder.
The same is true for your partner, of course, so you cannot expect him/her to be able to discuss issues when in pain or hungry. Focus on relieving as much of the need for self-regulation before adding any more.
For the tips above to work, both partners need to strengthen their self-regulating muscle and avoid trying to regulate the other person.
This post is part of the series Save Your Marriage:
- Self-Regulation in Your Marriage
- How to Save Yourself from Divorce
- Marriage and Divorce Statistics
- The Marriage Institution
- Marriage is the Foundation of Families
- The Unpleasant Side of Divorce
- How to Get Things Wrong in a Marriage
- Marriage and Self Talk
- More About Self Talk
- Facts vs. Meaning in Marriage
- All Men Are… All Women Are…
- When Two Do Not Become One
- Marriage and Money
- Be Your Partner’s Best Friend
- Relationship Between Two Onions
- The Greatest Gift: Staying Married
- Marriage of Singles
- The "Right" Trap
- The Intention Trap
- Best Marriage Quotes
- 10 Rules for Civilized Dialogue
- 10 Tips for Re-Building Trust
- The King and His Servants
- The Nitpicker
- Expressing Feelings in a Marriage
- Don’t Be On Guard
- Don’t Clam Up
- Have Good Sex to Save Your Marriage
- Trust (or The Boy Who Cried Wolf)
- Emergency Relationship Coaching Essentials
- Save Your Marriage with Better Time Management
- Choice Theory Can Save Your Marriage