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; we get annoyed by the same behavior in our spouse. As we get older or as our lives get busier, we can lean heavily on our routines to keep us stable and moving forward. However, this lean into routine can also 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 come into therapy with the goal to “get out of our 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 couples fight on Thursdays as the resulting anger and hurt guarantees an intimacy-free weekend).
What is this “rut?” Where does it come from and how can you move out of it? How do you even know if you are stuck in one?
A “rut” in marriage counseling terms 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 mind reading happening when a couple is stuck in a rut. There is also a great deal of all/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.
Let me show you an example of a couple stuck in a rut. 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fight has been repeating in one form or another for years: Dana canceling plans made by Susan, huge fights and then a withdrawn silence.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. 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, which 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 in all of this wanting to prove that they are right – they are not really hearing their partner.
They are stuck. The cause of the stuckness is the lack of curiosity. The cure for marital “ruts” is curiosity. You can learn to be more curious with your partner. The simple fix is to repeat back your partner’s feelings (especially the very strong feelings).
How differently this conversation would have gone if one of them had stopped and really listed 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 feeling 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 – we become curious. Is this how your 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% wrong.
Curiosity is one of the most important aspects to 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 what 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.
And as always, you can call me if you would like to talk about your rut or your feeling curious about your partner.
Ashley Seeger, LCSW is an experienced couples counselor located in Boulder, CO. She specializes in working with couples as they move through life-transitions. You can find more information about couples counseling here.