How Poirot can save your marriage
A new book has 100 ingenious tips to revamp your relationship
23:02 GMT, 29 April 2012
Like many couples, my marriage has been under increasing strain of late. Quibbling over money, work, domestic issues and even TV choices has become the norm for us.
It’s not terminal — I don’t think we need counselling or anything serious — but it does feel like something needs to change.
And according to a new book, Marriage Rules: A Manual For The Married And Coupled Up, there are 100 different ways for relationships to change. Written by clinical psychologist and acclaimed author Dr Harriet Lerner, the book details her 100 rules that can revamp your marriage.
Three isn't a crowd: Pretending you have a guest present can make you think twice about how you speak to your partner. For Kerry, imagining Detective Poirot was staying helped
I know 100 sounds incredibly daunting — but you don’t have to follow them all and, unlike counselling, you don’t both have to actively participate.
Dr Lerner says: ‘It only takes one of you to make a positive change in a relationship. But the fastest way to end a marriage is to wait for the other person to change.
‘Some people may think they are too angry or hurt to attempt change. And being your best self and accepting the challenge of these rules may feel like you’re faking it at first — especially as many of the rules are things you don’t do naturally — but just give two or three of them a go and you’ll see a difference.’
So, I put five of her rules into practice to see if I really could make the improvements my marriage needed . . .
THE RULE: Pretend you have a guest in the spare room
Married people can treat shop assistants better than they treat their partners. Couples get into endless cycles of fighting they can’t seem to stop when they’re alone together.
Dr Lerner tells of a high-powered couple she counselled who were constantly at each other’s throats.
Nothing helped until a colleague, an English professor, came to live with them for several months.
He stayed in the bedroom adjacent to theirs — and the couple were very courteous to one another because they knew they could be overheard. During his stay, they said their marriage was the best it had been.
Since then, Dr Lerner has suggested to warring couples that they pretend a respected guest is staying. The point of this is most couples have more control over themselves than they think, and it only takes one person to keep the ‘guest’ in mind to change their relationship.
MY EXPERIENCE: For me, this was the easiest rule to put into action, and I used a variety of characters in my mind’s eye.
My favourite was Hercule Poirot — Agatha Christie’s prim Belgian detective — and I imagined he was sleeping in the room next to ours. What would he think if he overheard us bickering about nonsense
I was amazed to find I would behave a little differently towards my husband if I imagined Poirot or other people were around.
It baffled me — my husband is the person I love most in the world yet I treat mere acquaintances better than him at times. This realisation spurred me on to put much more effort into my marriage and to try implementing other rules.
THE RULE: Just one criticism per day
In the courtship stage, people automatically know how to make their partner feel good. But compliments start to slip as more focus is given to criticisms. Nobody can survive in a relationship where they feel more judged than admired.
Try to bite your tongue and stop criticising — ideally restrict yourself to just one criticism per day.
You spent how much! Calm down over situations like high bills before confronting your partner about them (posed by models)
MY EXPERIENCE: In my efforts to use my daily portion wisely, I found myself feeling like less of a nag.
I let silly things slide that would usually irritate me about my husband. When the recycling I’d asked him to take out was still there a week later, I reminded myself: ‘He has a lot on his mind.’
When he left his beard shavings in the bathroom sink, I thought: ‘He was in a hurry to get to work,’ instead of berating him when he got home. I used my daily criticism to complain about his alarm-clock habits. It was too much to have alarms (set and needed by him) blaring on my side of the bed at seven o’clock every morning while he snoozed through them for an hour.
Instead of losing my temper in the moment, I waited until the evening to mention it. The exchange was quick and simple, and I now get an extra 45 minutes’ sleep in the morning.
THE RULE: Say less (The three-sentence rule)
Many men say they don’t like to talk. In truth, they’re afraid of becoming trapped in a conversation that feels awful. What often bothers men is the sheer number of sentences women can use, as well as the intensity in their voices.
Turn down the volume, slow your speech and make your point in three sentences or less.
It is hard, especially when you’re angry, to simply say something along the lines of: ‘This is the second time this week you forgot to call when you were coming home late,’ and leave it at that. It makes you think before you speak, though, and improves communication.
MY EXPERIENCE: I struggled using just three sentences or less when I was angry, although it was worth doing merely for the look of surprise on my husband’s face. ‘Is that it Really’ I saw him wondering.
Talking slowly and quietly has certainly aided me — I’ve found communicating this way less stressful than my usual rants about computer parts on the living-room floor.
Lasting love: Regularly compliment your partner and make them feel valued (posed by models)
THE RULE: Lavish him with praise (and wash the dishes)
Even if you’re feeling angry and resentful, make a concerted effort to make positive comments about your partner.
We do this with children a lot to reinforce positive behaviour — we’ll tell them they did a great job setting the table — but we forget to do this for our partners, which is just as important.
Also, do little things you know will make your partner feel loved, valued and chosen. Whether it’s washing the dishes, offering a foot rub or taking him or her on a date, you already know what will warm the heart of your spouse — so do it.
MY EXPERIENCE: The more I complimented my husband, the more I remembered how often he used his skills and attributes to make my daily life easier.
At first, I felt silly and had to stop myself from cringing when I said things like: ‘You’re so good with my computer’, or: ‘You give the best advice.’
It wasn’t natural for me and I really had to push myself to do it. But talking about the positives made me value my husband much more, and he loved the praise.
I also booked a surprise in-home massage for him after a stressful week at work.
He adored it and has shown a lot of appreciation verbally and by planning little surprises for me — for example, cooking a delicious breakfast at the weekend.
THE RULE: Strike when the iron is cold
When both parties are in a light mood, it is easier to say anything you want. When things are intense, it’s important to calm down first. Strike when the iron is cold.
Make wise, thoughtful decisions about how and when to make your point. While it can be hard not to butt-in with hot-headed remarks during an argument, or with possible solutions when your partner is describing a problem, just standing there and listening really does help.
MY EXPERIENCE: I found this difficult. I’m very hot-tempered but standing there and listening to my husband before cooling down and making my point has been way more productive than interrupting him with heat-of-the-moment remarks.
I have always loathed self-help books — I hate the idea of someone who doesn’t know me telling me how to live my life — and have secretly puzzled over friends who use them.
So I told nobody about my secret project and read Dr Lerner’s book during snatched coffee breaks or while my husband was busy in another part of the house.
It really didn’t feel like a self-help book — it was more of a direct challenge to try things you wouldn’t do normally.
At first I felt silly and self-conscious. It was hard not to criticise, I struggled to speak slowly and calmly when angry — and it felt so bizarre to compliment my husband on things he did.
But implementing a few rules has made a huge difference in my marriage. We’re happier, more affectionate and calmer — and I don’t feel like such a rotten nag of a wife. My husband has even been following suit without knowing anything about the Marriage Rules.
So can you improve your marriage by yourself Yes, you can — and once you get past the initial embarrassment, it’s hugely enjoyable.
Marriage Rules: A Manual For The Married And Coupled Up by Dr Harriet Lerner is published by Gotham Books, priced at 14.09