Winifred M. Reilly wasn’t unhappy in her marriage, but she wanted the constant squabbling between herself and her husband to stop.
“I didn’t want to spend this life being in this frequent, ridiculous combat,” said Reilly, a marriage and family therapist who tied the knot nearly four decades ago.
Instead of trying to get her partner to change, she took a look at herself. Reilly, author of “It Takes One to Tango: How I Rescued My Marriage With (Almost) No Help From My Spouse – and How You Can, Too,” started breaking out of her own destructive patterns in hopes of changing the trajectory of her marriage.
And, it worked. Her husband changed once Reilly tweaked her behavior. The Tribune asked Reilly for advice on how to help a troubled marriage with minimal help from a spouse. The following has been edited for space and clarity.
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1. Recognize bad patterns. Paying attention to your own shortcomings after being so fixated on your partner’s missteps can help you gain valuable insight, Reilly said. Maybe you'll come to realize that you are actually the one who starts most fights. By becoming aware of these patterns, she explained, you will realize how much power you hold over the relationship’s well-being.
“It’s empowering,” said Reilly. “It’s getting you out of that feeling of discouragement that you can’t change anything.”
2. Choose one problem to work on. Do you have a hot temper? Next time you catch yourself blowing up over something your partner did or said, take a breath and try to calm down. Do you tend to interrupt your spouse midsentence? Hone your listening skills.
For Reilly, it meant that she had to physically leave the room to cool off. Change didn’t happen overnight. But, she writes in her book, “one day, a year or so after I’d launched my campaign, we were in one of our typical idiotic go-rounds, and to my astonishment, I didn’t need to leave. I was a curious bystander, calmly listening.”
3. Fully accept your partner. “We pick a person who is introverted or who is messy,” said Reilly. “And then we think, ‘I can’t live with this.’” Making peace with those traits that annoy you in your partner, she said, will reduce frictions and boost your overall happiness.
So how do you learn to tolerate something like chronic lateness if you like being on time? One tip: Put your pride aside. “People say, ‘Oh, that makes me a doormat.’ No, it makes you a leader,” Reilly said. “If one person is hopeful, it’s worth putting in the effort.” However, she said, you shouldn’t put up with horrible things, such as an abusive partner.
4. Get vulnerable. Be the first to address sensitive issues you both avoid discussing – topics like a dull sex life or an alcohol problem. Reilly suggested saying something like, “I don’t want to live in a sexless marriage. Let’s do something about it,” or, “I think we drink too much, and I’m going to stop.”
5. Have patience. A particularly stubborn spouse can be slow to adjust to the new, positive dynamic you’re trying to create, Reilly explained. It took her a year to get in sync with her husband. “He started saying constructive things,” she recalled.
You know you’re making progress when, for instance, you’re taking turns stopping fights in their tracks or you’re pausing to search for gentler words during an argument.