Many of us have been in a work meeting that went on for waaaay too long. The same people, saying the same things, over and over again. The same people complaining ad nauseam, using the meeting structure as an opportunity to vent about everything that is wrong with the company, its policies or their co-workers.
And they don’t just state their complaint once and move on. Oh no. They state their complaint several times, often launching into long, drawn-out anecdotes to illustrate in excruciating detail just how bad things are.
And with every anecdote, the situation becomes even more dire and hopeless. Truly, this is the worst company ever! It’s days away from bankruptcy! We’re doomed! There’s no way things can get better…I’ve been thinking of looking for a new job! Yes, it’s that bad!
And then, just when some exasperated soul suggests moving on to solutions, everyone looks at the clock. “Oh, it’s lunch. Let’s regroup at this time tomorrow.”
The only things that are accomplished in a meeting like this — which is all talk and no action — are a sense of futility, deep irritation and a growing dislike of our co-workers. The longer it goes on, the less you care about solving problems or improving the workplace. All you care about is getting the hell out of that shrinking, stuffy boardroom and taking a breath of fresh air outside.
Now imagine this scenario with an unhappy couple in a marriage counselor’s office.
While counselling and talk therapy can work wonders for some people (especially those struggling with abuse, past trauma or mental health issues), many people who are having marriage problems find them to be ineffective or, worse, damaging. Too few counselors focus on moving forward toward practical, real-world strategies for couples in conflict.
Instead, some spouses attend weekly visits where they talk about their problems for an hour, digging up the proverbial dead cat and then burying it again until the following week. Sessions are often filled with anger, finger-pointing and tears, and couples often fight in the car on the ride home. All of this makes it impossible for a couple to feel that they will ever be able to bury their problems once and for all.
Infidelity is a classic case. It’s one of the most painful experiences a couple can undergo, and it is absolutely essential that spouses begin to take actual steps toward recovery instead of just talking about it. In fact, I use this “actions speak louder than words” approach quite often in my couples mediation practice and in my marriage-saving home programs for those struggling with an infidelity or an indiscretion.
Yet it isn’t just big problems like infidelity that require actions alongside (fewer) words. Even smaller issues can swell into major ones if we talk about them too much.
So what’s my suggestion? Well, it’s impossible to offer a one-size-fits-all solution here. What I can suggest, however, is that you honestly reflect upon how often you talk (and talk and talk) about your problems. Is your approach working?
If not, bite your tongue!
Instead, let your actions speak for you. Focus on improving the quality of your interactions with your spouse. Offer to pour him a cup of morning coffee. Bring her flowers. Watch a favourite film together. Express your appreciation for everything your spouse does, and praise him or her in front of your children. Share chores. Try to make your spouse’s life easier every day.
When your spouse walks by, offer him or her a warm smile. Prioritize your emotional and sexual intimacy. Have transparency in your marriage in terms of passwords and access to technology. Put your smartphones in the desk drawer when you get home and connect with your spouse instead of texting your friend.
And when you do talk, be sure to remove tones of criticism, contempt and defensiveness in your voice and replace them with tones of affection, humility and friendship.
Of course, relationship problems do have to be discussed. Every couple needs the ability to have those important “heart to heart” conversations. As a communication expert, I know the value of these. But trust me — if you improve your interactions before you talk about your problems, you’ll spend a lot less time digging up and re-burying cats (so to speak!) that should have been laid to rest a long time ago.