I get the bug every year about this time. The Spring Cleaning Bug. The pillow that falls in my face every time I open the linen closet, the pillow I would so casually crunch back onto a shelf without even a second thought, that pillow falling in my face, as of yesterday, caused groaning and cursing. Monday, when I couldn’t find the spice I wanted, I nearly dumped the whole spice drawer on the floor and started over again. Or that closet where I have extra picture frames, tools, tape, fabric, suddenly is unbearable to me. I walk around the house muttering under my breath about how much I hate that closet and how I seem to be the only person capable of cleaning out closets or keeping them organized. My husband usually pretends he doesn’t hear me muttering because if I am muttering I am not particularly rational or articulate. I start fantasizing about taking days off from work to clean out closets. I would call in sick, except I am the boss, and I don’t pay myself for sick days. Or spring cleaning days.
Cleaning out the unnecessary and re-ordering the necessary is a good thing, and not just in our homes and offices. It is a good time to do some spring cleaning in our relationships and marriages as well. Is there something that has been bothering you that you’ve been able to ignore but that will inevitably make you blow your stack one of these days? Or is there a something that you walk around muttering about, under your breath, that really does need some attention?
The most common serious problems in marriage, the ones labeled by John Gottman as The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse need to be addressed as early as possible in a relationship: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.
Criticism is different from a complaint. When we criticize, we are attacking someone’s character. “You never do anything around here. You are so lazy.” Or it might sound like this: “Why don’t you ever do anything with the kids? You are so selfish.” Or this. “You have no idea how to manage money. If I wasn’t around you would spend yourself into bankruptcy.” This approach usually puts the other person on the defensive, and once that happens, not much can get resolved. So, if you truly want to try and resolve some problems, and you want to be listened to, try a soft start-up and switch to a clear complaint. “I know you are tired when you come home from work. It would really help me, though, if you could chip in during dinner prep. I feel overwhelmed in the kitchen trying to get everything done by myself. Here’s another example: “I know you don’t like to talk about money. But I am feeling burdened with trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Could we agree on a weekly budget or a way of communicating about how much disposable income we really have?”
If criticism and defensiveness go on for too long, what will usually be seen next in one, and sometimes both people is contempt, that horrible, poisonous feeling of hatred, disgust, repulsion, and resentment that is cancerous in any relationship. And with contempt, stonewalling is often present, a complete tuning out of the other person. Stonewalling can look like completely ignoring the other person’s feeling, thoughts, or even presence. Sometimes people walk away from each other to completely avoid having to interact. The combination of contempt and stonewalling in a relationship is often deadly; the apocalypse has come.
Here are some ideas and skills to help you clean up your relationship.
1) Be mindful and present to yourself. Notice what you are feeling. Take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. Enlist a professional therapist if you need help in understanding what is going on inside of you.
2) Learn to listen. Truly listen. Abstain from planning your next statement. Pretend you are trying to get to know this person for the first time and ask inquiring, curious questions. And just listen until you feel like you have learned something about your partner.
3) Make “I-statements” about what you are feeling and thinking. “I have noticed that I am angry a lot. I don’t want to be like this and I certainly don’t want us to be angry at each other all the time.”
4) Practice appreciations and gratitude. As hard as it can be sometimes, most of us can find something we are appreciative of in a partner. Perhaps something as simple as stopping by the grocery store on the way home. Or feeding the pets before bedtime. Just a few simple words can help. Challenge yourself to speak appreciations and gratitude every day.
5) Play together. Research shows that play is a completely different state of being. Playing together changes our brain chemistry. It opens our hearts and accesses parts of ourselves and each other that are unavailable at other times.
6) Practice forgiveness. For yourself and your partner. If you don’t understand the process of forgiveness, and you find yourself nursing grudges, seek the help of your clergy or a professional counselor who can help you with this process.
7) Talk of the future. What are your dreams? What are you hoping for? What are some of the things you want to do together? Separately?
I hope your Spring cleaning goes well, whether it is in your home or in your relationships. Good luck.