Treat Your Spouse Like a Stranger

How treating your spouse like a stranger can improve your relationship.

For decades, marriage counselors have been advising couples to go on dates. A good idea in theory, right? Get away from all the distractions so the two of you can restore the closeness you crave. Maybe your counselor set ground rules like a) don’t bury yourself in your mobile device or TV screen, and b) don’t talk about your children.

Don’t Go On Dates With Your Spouse.

Okay… so what do you talk about? The reality is that trying to restore the connection can feel a little weird. After all, you’ve now entered the tricky territory of trying to do two diametrically opposed things at the same time: How to keep enough healthy distance from your partner to make getting closer possible.

Left to their own devices, many couples simply find other more subtle ways to deflect and distract, like a) eating or drinking too much, or b) talking about other people (relatives, friends, celebrities, etc.) whose personal or relationship problems are far worse than theirs.

Meanwhile, they’re still stuck with arguably life’s most painful form of loneliness —feeling lonely in a marriage.

If you recognize yourself in any of these deflect and distract scenarios, I hope you won’t berate yourself too much. I certainly don’t judge it. I recognize it as a very reasonable response to what I think of as the catch-22 of “intimacy under pressure.”

It just means you may need some help creating the just-right balance of healthy distance and moving in closer that sparks and revitalizes your connection. So keep reading.

Don’t Double Date With Other Couples.

Some marriage counselors suggest that you hang out with happy couples with good marriages so you can learn from and emulate them. It sounds like a great idea, kind of like the sports advice that to improve your golf or tennis (or anything) game, seek out players better than you.

However, if your marriage is in trouble, you may find that being with other couples is just throwing more bodies at the problem in two ways: a) The other couple becomes another convenient distraction, especially if they’re unhappy, too, and b) Unhappy couples tend to attract other unhappy couples and reinforce toxic patterns of interacting.

The reality is that unhappy people are not much fun to be around. Happy couples consciously or unconsciously gravitate toward other happy couples. So if you find that your invitations are not accepted or reciprocated, I hope you won’t judge yourself too harshly. Take it as a sign that you may need some help in building your social capital as a couple. If your professional success includes socializing as a couple, this can actually be a great incentive to work on your relationship.

Here are three of my favorite contrarian strategies to developing this rather sophisticated skill of creating healthy distance and, at the same time, moving in closer to your romantic partner:

1. Treat Your Spouse Like a Stranger.

I’m not talking about the cold shoulder or the silent treatment. Treating your spouse like a stranger has the power to improve your relationship in three important ways:

The dynamics of interacting with a stranger or other neutral third party is that most of us automatically self-regulate our emotions and behave better. The healthy distance will help you reduce any tendency toward unnecessarily jerky, bitchy, or crazy behavior.
Treating your partner like a stranger may reduce any tendency to take your partner for granted. Think of this as a “familiarity-breeds-contempt-reversal technique” so you can avoid author and divorce coach Matthew Fray’s lament, “My wife divorced me because I was nicer to strangers than I was to her.”
The flip side of managing your own behavior better is that you automatically tend to feel deserving of better treatment yourself. This healthy sense of self-respect will not only invite your spouse to treat you better, but also help you respond more effectively when your partner happens to be the one behaving badly.

See what you can implement on your own, and don’t be afraid to ask for help in how to balance these two opposite impulses, so you can create the healthy distance required to safely lean in effectively and see the results in a “happier together.”

2. Go It Alone.

In his book The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony, psychologist Joshua Coleman notes, “Research shows that people in distressed marriages grossly underestimate how much their spouses are doing for them or for the family.”

Doctor and author Alex Lickerman has an interesting strategy for how to counteract this tendency. He suggests, “Pause on a regular basis to vividly subtract your loved ones from your life. The goal here is to produce intense feelings of gratitude. And nothing produces gratitude for something like being threatened with its loss. Studies show that we are all capable of imagining the loss of people in our lives concretely enough to evoke the gratitude that we still have for them.” I’m not suggesting that you simply put a happy face on problems in your marriage. What I’m suggesting is that you operate from a clear and balanced perspective that includes everything, the good and the bad.

Marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, found that when arguing couples take a time-out, they underestimate how long it will take for them to calm down. “Many people guess about five minutes. In fact, it takes most people closer to 20 minutes for their physiological responses to return to baseline. In fact, most people believe they have calmed down completely when their pulse rate is still a good 10 percent above their normal, resting pulse…”

Why is this important? If you think you are calm but are still physiologically aroused, you’ll be very susceptible to picking up whatever emotion is prevailing at the moment. “So if your partner is still angry when you resume your talk, you’ll pick up the anger as well, defeating the purpose of your time-out,” explains Gottman.

Gottman’s research also uncovered a gender-based difference in how men and women respond to taking a time-out during an argument. Research reveals that women are better at self-soothing than men. When men withdraw from a conflict, they are more likely to ruminate and repeat negative thoughts that keep them riled up.

In other words, it’s important to let the other person know what you’re doing and why — not just stomping out, stonewalling, or isolating yourselves into parallel lives. It’s another one of those elegant, contradictory skills — how to stay connected as you isolate, so you can eventually circle back, reconnect, and heal the rift. That’s the main point, isn’t it — happier together?

3. Don’t Be Afraid of Talking Away the Mystery.

My most interesting, inspiring, and lovely relationship insight? It comes from Dean Delis, PhD, in The Passion Paradox: Patterns of Love and Power in Romantic Relationships:

“Some couples worry that frank talk about their core problems will eliminate any chance of recovering the mystery and romance in the relationship. The truth of the matter is that mystery and romance die when couples fall into ruts of bad relating. When you explore your problems without blaming and accusing, you stir feelings of intimacy and trust. And if you’ve ever experienced such feelings, you know how exciting they can be. And when you succeed in changing your harmful patterns, the relationship feels new and fresh and, yes, very romantic.”