The #1 Solution If Your Marriage Is Stuck In A Rut

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All couples want a good marriage but in order to achieve that, they may want to apply this one piece of relationship advice: be curious about your spouse. 

Human beings like routine. We like to be able to predict what is going to happen next; it allows us to know that we will be safe. We like to go to the same coffee place each morning, we like to buy the same brands we are used to, and we get annoyed by the same behavior in our spouses.

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When you got married, you were given plenty of marriage advice from various family, friends, and even strangers. For the most part, you tried to follow it. But, as you get older and your life gets busier, you start leaning heavily on routines to keep you stable and moving forward.

However, these routines can result in rigidity.

The routines in our marriages can lead to comfort and added intimacy but the potential rigidity can also lead to what some call "a rut".

I work with many couples who come into therapy with the goal for me to help them "get out of their rut." They feel strangled and silenced by the routines that their intimacy, meals, and even fights have fallen into. Some clients state that they can set their watch by their Thursday evening fight because it happens with such regularity.

(One side note: many married couples fight on Thursdays as the resulting anger and hurt guarantees an intimacy-free weekend).

What is this "rut?" Where does it come from? How can you move out of it and figure out how to save your marriage from it? How do you even know if you are stuck in one? 

In marriage counseling terms, a "rut" is when a couple stops being curious about each other’s emotional or internal lives. They stop questioning why their partner is acting or reacting in an emotional manner and instead believe they know exactly why they are acting this way.

They not only know why they are acting this way but are also certain that it is because their partner is angry and out to annoy/anger/enrage/embarrass/shame or just get back at them. There is a lot of mindreading happening when a couple is stuck in a rut and a great deal of all-or-nothing thinking happening.

One partner is "all right" which means that the other partner has to be "all wrong."

"I am right and therefore, you have to be wrong."

For example, Susan and Dana have been together for 13 years and they describe having the same fight over and over again. Susan sets up plans with friends for dinners, movies or shows and Dana cancels them at the last minute or chooses to skip the event. Susan gets angry and rages at Dana for making their lives small and isolated. They fight and then Dana withdrawals.

What follows is a sulky, silent weekend. This fight has been repeating in one form or another for years: Dana canceling plans made by Susan, huge fights, and then a withdrawn silence.

When asked about the repetition of this argument, Susan replies that she knows that Dana wants to punish her for engaging with others by canceling their plans. She feels hurt and resentful that her social life is shrinking.

Dana states that while he is angry about Susan making plans for them both without asking, his main reason for canceling is due to his back pain and exhaustion from a long week at a construction job.

While it seems easy to unravel the "rut" at this point — Susan becoming curious about Dana’s pain and exhaustion and Dana being curious about Susan’s need for community — many couples are not able to make this shift into curiosity.

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Instead of becoming curious, Susan exclaims loudly that the back pain is not real and that it is just an excuse to stop her from seeing her friends, whom he never liked anyway.

Dana then withdraws, rolling his eyes, and muttering about how Susan always gets so dramatic and makes a big deal out of nothing.

You can see how this argument can easily escalate as it slides from topic to topic, each partner’s stance getting more and more extreme until they feel they are completely disconnected, not heard, and alone. Both are left feeling wronged and wanting to prove their "rightness" — and wanting to prove that they are right — they are not really hearing their partner.

They are stuck. And the cause of that stuckness is the lack of curiosity.

To be straightforward, the cure for marital "ruts" is curiosity.

You need to learn to be more curious about your partner and the simple fix is to repeat back your partner’s feelings (especially the very strong feelings).

How differently would this conversation go if one of them had stopped and really listened to the other — maybe even repeated back the feeling that they heard?

Perhaps Susan might have said, "You feel tired and your back hurts after your long week." Dana might have repeated Susan’s feelings to her, "You feel sad when you can’t see your friends."

Repeating back our partner’s words causes them to feel heard. We don’t feel heard just because someone says, "I hear you." We feel heard when our thoughts and feelings are mirrored back to us. When we stop and really actively listen to someone else, a wonderful thing happens in the human mind, and we become curious.

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Is this how you feel? And more importantly, why do you feel this way? 

Mirroring leads to hearing which leads to curiosity. Once you add curiosity into your marriage the extreme positions we take in our arguments shift to the center.

The "I am right and you are wrong" stances go away and what is added are all of the shades of gray that exist in our emotions and our thoughts. No one is all right just as no one is 100 percent wrong. 

Curiosity is one of the most important aspects of a successful relationship. It is also very easily lost when we are busy, stressed or going through a life transition.

We can get so caught up in our own thoughts, feelings, and coping skills that we forget that right next to us is our partner also struggling with their unique thoughts, feelings, and coping skills. We forget to be curious about their experience.

The good news is that you can add curiosity back into your relationship. 

If you are struggling with your relationship and feel like you are in a rut, try this one small change.

The next time your partner expresses a feeling simply repeat it back to them. This simple repetition will most likely lead to them opening up about what they are feeling and thinking. This one simple action will most likely lead to you asking a few more questions about their feelings and you might just be surprised by their answers.

I imagine that you will find yourself curious about more of their life and feelings.

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Ashley Seeger, LCSW is an experienced couples counselor who specializes in working with couples as they move through life transitions and can be reached at Couples Counseling Boulder.

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This article was originally published at couplescounselingboulder.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.