“Keep the shiny side up.” This is sage advice given to professional race car drivers. It’s a humorous, yet serious way of saying “make sure you stay in the race.”

Now, I’m not a big racing fan, but even I can figure out that once the shiny side is down the race is over. Sadly, there are many voices out there that distract us from keeping the “shiny side up” when it comes to marriage.

Grab for the gusto! Just do it! You only go around once! These voices tap into our fears and tell us we’re missing something wonderfully fulfilling. We might pursue careers with abandon, hobbies with intensity, or worse, we may even delve into an extramarital affair. Then we wonder why there’s nothing left in the tank when we dutifully arrive home. Careers or hobbies aren’t bad, but when life gets out of balance we’re given warning signs, and our response to them might well determine whether we lose control and wake up with the shiny-side down.

As a counselor and a marriage coach most of the people I counsel are engaged in ineffective relationship strategies. In fact, I’ve never received a call from someone saying “Hi, Chuck, things are going pretty well for us – can you stir things up and make life more interesting?” But let’s go ahead and stir things up to help you or someone you love keep the shiny side up.

When in conflict one ineffective strategy couples use is to do nothing. If you ignore the problem, it will go away. Yes, the problem will go away, but not with the result you were hoping for!

Let me ask a question. Have you employed the DO NOTHING response to deal with conflict in your marriage? If you answered yes – you are not alone. Many people, including this author, have tried it. But the more important question is this – DID IT WORK? Has the conflict subsided in your marriage for no apparent reason? If so I have two words for you – uh – oh!

In The Divorce Remedy, author Michele Weiner-Davis defines the “walk away spouse” syndrome. This is when a spouse decides that the effort to improve the marriage has become futile. The spouse begins to plan an exit strategy with a target event in mind: when the last child graduates, when a debt is paid off, or when a career goal is met.

The energy that used to be spent fighting for the marriage is now focused on the target event. The problem here is the other spouse thinks the DO NOTHING strategy has actually worked – because everything seems quiet and peaceful. Then the bomb is dropped!

Have you ever heard people say that they had no idea their spouse was so unhappy? That is an example of the “walk away spouse” syndrome. If your strategy is to DO NOTHING your shiny side may be precariously close to ground zero. It’s time for a change while there is still hope.

So what can you do? First, get ready to address conflict through healthy dialogue. Initiate dialogue on issues you know were buried instead of resolved. If you and your spouse regularly disagreed over finances, childcare, or goals, it may be time for you to step behind the wheel and resolve, instead of avoid, issues that are important to the health of your marriage. The fact that you took the initiative may mean the world to your spouse and give you both hope for the future.

Second, practice listening. Don’t begin any dialogue without improving your listening skills. When your spouse opens up with the same complaints that were buried, you must have a better response than defensiveness and avoidance. Be prepared to hear and affirm the hurt and anger your spouse may be carrying. Practice some helpful responses, like, “I’m sorry you felt that way – that’s not what I intended. What can I do to help?” In my marriage, it is often the fact that Jan and I are both willing to face issues and listen to each other that defuses the spark of heated conflict.

Finally, treat yourself and your spouse with dignity. By beginning to dialogue about important issues and listening well, you can make progress toward a healthier and more rewarding relationship. Make a commitment to keep your conflict calm and respectful. Set rules: We will not escalate the conflict into screaming matches, play blame games or retreat to stonewalling silence; we will take breaks as needed, and return to our dialogue as many times as we need until our goals are accomplished.

It may take some practice before you and your spouse enter conflict in a healthy way. Don’t give up! Statistics show that healthy couples have a fair amount of conflict, it’s how conflict is managed that makes the difference!

Make sure you stay in the race: I actually recommend that you DO grab for the gusto, by feeding the passion in your marriage. There is nothing on earth more needful then preserving the most important relationship you will ever have. And since we only go around once, why not take deliberate steps this week toward a healthier marriage and a happier you. Just do it! And, if you need help, don’t hesitate to give me a call.