Marriage Hack #7: Say it in Writing

Good communication is the key to a solid, connected and happy marriage. So, what do you do when there are topics you and your partner just can’t talk about? Every couple has those “hot button” topics that become impossible to discuss without ending up in a huge fight. Over time, you start feeling scared to bring them up because you know you’ll end up talking in the same circle, so why even bother?

Warning Bell: This pattern of avoiding difficult topics is how resentment builds. When we hold our feelings in, inevitably we find ourselves screaming at our partner for not making the bed or forgetting to take out the trash when what we’re really upset about is their repeated dismissiveness toward our anxiety or their inability to stick to the monthly budget. We blow up over small things because we aren’t dealing with the big ones.

Two years ago, my husband and I were stuck. Our hot button issues - money (his) and emotional attunement (mine) - had become strictly off limits due to their volatility. We were at a standstill. Our judgment, anger and resentment toward each other were at an all-time high. After a particularly tense therapy session, our therapist recommended that we come up with some kind of “ritual” to release the tension.

A ritual? Ooooohkayyyyy. Still fuming at each other, A and I sat in silence while we processed this suggestion. What the hell kind of “ritual” could we possibly do? Walking barefoot through a fire? Dancing naked in a forest during a full moon? Not likely.

Then, it hit me! Since we were having such a hard time talking about our issues, what if we wrote about them instead? We’d write each other a letter expressing our anger, frustration and resentment. We’d exchange letters, read them and then narrate back what we read. Once we both felt heard, we’d tear up the letters to signify letting go of our past grievances. A fresh start.

A letter writing ritual! Yes! My ingenious idea combined two of my favorite things- dissecting my feelings and writing. Yay! This was going to be great! A, on the other hand, was not quite as enthused, but he reluctantly agreed. Exploring his feelings is most definitely not his favorite thing to do, so having to delve into them and put them in writing was a daunting task.

Skeptical and unsure about my idea, A requested some specifics about the letter, so I laid out some guidelines:

  1. We’d start our letter by telling the other person what we loved and appreciated about them.
  2. We’d write about our role in the marital conflict. We’d own our part.
  3. We’d write about our issues with the other person trying our best to “stay on our side of the street”...more “I feel,” and less “You ____”.
  4. We’d end with three specific things we could do for the other person to address their issue and three specific things they could do for us.

Two weeks later, we apprehensively exchanged letters. There was no telling how this ritual was going to play out and we both felt vulnerable. Halfway through reading A’s letter, I had tears streaming down my face. I looked over at A and saw that he did too, probably because he realized that while he’d already read four pages, he had ten more to go! (Did I mention that writing and delving into feelings are two of my favorite things?!).

A’s letter blew me away. It was thoughtful, introspective, sensitive and illuminating. As I finished reading it, I broke down bawling. A reached for me and we held each other and cried. We took turns describing what we read, making sure that we each felt heard and understood. Then we dramatically ripped up the letters- goodbye old hurts and disappointments! That felt good. Really good.

Luckily, my parents were watching our boys, so we were able to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening together. We held hands and walked down the beach, then decided to grab an early dinner at our favorite spot. We laughed, flirted, and enjoyed each other with a lightness we hadn’t felt in years. It was if we were young and dating again. Wow, I thought, we should do this ritual more often! Even A was impressed by the outcome.

If you and your partner are stuck on a particular issue or issues, I encourage you to say it in writing. It’s an incredibly powerful way to release the tension that’s threatening your marriage.

Here’s another look at the specifics:

  1. Start by expressing what you love and appreciate about your partner.
  2. Write about your role in the marital conflict - challenge yourself to own your part (Easier said than done, but absolutely crucial).
  3. Write about your issues with your partner- stay on your side of the street by using “I” statements.
  4. Write three things you can do to address your partner’s issues.
  5. Write three things you would like your partner to do for you.

After you exchange and read the letters:

  1. Take turns reflecting back what you read - remember, you may not agree with your partner’s take on things, and that’s ok. Your job is to understand their feelings, not necessarily to agree with them.
  2. Reiterate the ways you can each make an effort to move toward the other’s direction.
  3. Once you both feel heard, rip up the letters and throw them away - bonus points if you add some theatrics to the ripping process!
  4. Kiss like you used to, then go out and enjoy each other over a nice glass of wine.

If you give this a try, I’d love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment and let me know how it went.

For more tips on how to improve your marriage, click here.


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