One of the great things about marriage? It makes you know your partner on an incredibly deep level. One of the worst things about marriage? The same thing.
Familiarity is important. That’s where the good stuff comes from, after all — the knowing a person so well that you’re comfortable enough to be yourselves. But there’s a reason why they say familiarity breeds contempt. After years of living with someone, the comfort we feel in being our true self around someone — about displaying in plain view or good, bad, and ugly habits — can cause us to lose sight of the little things we did when we didn’t know one another that well. The simple niceties, the enthusiasm, the appreciation. All of these are important but, when things become stressful, we’re all at least a little bit guilty of letting them slide. Language becomes a bit sharper; we find ourselves criticizing and complaining about our spouse more often.
It happens. But it’s important to avoid those tendencies as much as possible, to make them tiny blips on the radar instead of entire islands. To help keep yourself in check, there’s an interesting thought exercise that therapists sometimes suggest: Treat your partner the same way you might treat a stranger.
“The concept of treating your spouse like a stranger seems slightly bizarre, but when you dig a little deeper, it makes total sense,” says Megan Harrison, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Couples Candy.
Here’s why: When we’re talking to strangers, we tend to self-regulate and exercise self-control instead. We’re kinder and more curious. We cut them slack. We don’t exhibit our frustrations that often. Unless you go the Larry David route, you’re less likely to point out their annoying habits or flaws.
Occasionally asking yourself “What would I do if I was talking to a stranger right now?” when having a moment with your wife or husband, is simply a way of keeping yourself in check. Because if you answer honestly, you’ll probably tell yourself, “No, I wouldn’t want to come across as a dick.”
Couples who have been together for some time might not think to, say, offer thanks for taking out the garbage or holding a door. But you would do that for a stranger. This also extends to the way you react to each other in stressful situations. If you’re angry at your spouse you might not think twice about flying off the handle. But, if a stranger angered you, you’d probably pause and try and find a more rational resolution or give them the benefit of the doubt.
“Most people would be mortified at the thought of ever overreacting to a situation with a stranger,” Harrison points out. “People are generally very polite to strangers to create positive first impressions.”
Some experts have likened the concept of treating your spouse like a stranger to treating them like someone with whom you’d want to have an affair. After all, if you were going to have an affair with someone, you would most likely try and look your best, act your best, and certainly treat them the best way they can be treated, right? Harrison says that, while she hasn’t heard it put that way, she can understand where it stems from.
“The same approach applies,” she says. “in that you would want to impress and be on your very best behavior. But in this sense, with regards to compliments, dressing up to look your best, and wanting to win over the heart of your lover at all times.”
Trying it Out
Anyone looking to try this thought exercise just need to focus on the basics. Showing appreciation. Saying “thank you.” Pausing before overreacting to little things.
“Being respectful and polite will encourage your spouse to treat you in the same way,” Harrison says. “This will help you and your partner to feel more appreciated and loved. It will, in turn, allow you to be kinder to yourself and enable you to have more empathy. This is because you will feel deserving of better treatment towards yourself.”
We get it: This is a strange exercise. But it’ll probably be useful. It will also likely feel somewhat awkward, partially because it brings to light things you’ve said or done that you wouldn’t have done to a complete stranger.
“This is simply because over time new habits are formed in relationships, without even realizing,” says Harrison. “Many couples are very shocked to learn how their behaviors toward each other have changed over time. But realizing is the first step because this creates a transformative shift in perspective that then allows partners to build new, positive habits.”
This isn’t an all the time exercise. But it’s helpful to try every now and then. Ultimately, the end goal is to rediscover your spouse and see him or her through a different lens.
“Treating your spouse like a stranger also reduces the tendency for either of you to take each other for granted as you will feel fully appreciated and cared for,” Harrison adds. Anything that helps us remember that is worth trying.