In this country, the divorce rate for first marriages weighs in at a whopping fifty percent. But the divorce rate for second marriages is even higher: sixty percent.
When people get divorced, it’s not uncommon for them to feel a strong desire to put the past behind them and move on. This is understandable, even laudable.
But if you move on without taking stock of what went wrong, you do yourself and your new partner a disservice. Marriages rarely fall apart because one party and one party alone was at fault. Typically, a pattern emerged in which both parties in the relationship contributed. It takes courage to explore this pattern and to identify your own role in helping to create it. It’s much easer to blame a former spouse for everything. But if you do that, what are the chances that you’ll escape the mistakes of the past?
As it turns out, couples can learn skills that help them communicate better. A little pre-marital counseling, whether it's your first marriage or your second, might save you some heartache later.
I'm in the middle of a workshop by John Gottman,
surely one of the most knowledgeable marital researchers on the planet.
Gottman and his colleagues have studied couples in distress, but also what he calls master couples, couples who are satisfied with their marriage over time.
As you might imagine, these two groups differ in important ways. One of the findings that grabbed my attention was that master couples have about a 5 to 1 ratio of positive emotion to negative emotions, whereas distressed couples have a ratio closer to 1 to 1. It's not that master couples don't experience anger, hurt, sadness, and so on in the context of the marriage. It's just that they experience so much more joy, interest, and laugher when they're together.
What he's really talking about is the emotional glue that holds a marriage together. It looks a lot like friendship, but of course it's more than just being friends. Part of how master couples create this glue is by making bids for each other's attention--and getting it. Attention comes in many forms: intimate talk, emotional support, affection, and sexual connection. For instance, it's nice to know your partner cares about what you care about, and will listen to you, right? But if you make consistent bids for your partner's attention and don't get it, eventually you'll stop trying. Gottman says this is how people become lonely in marriages. And it's one of the ways marriages can die.
When master couples do have conflict, they manage it well. For instance, they do what he calls a soft start-up. When one partner presents a problem to the other, they go easy on the criticism (careful not to attack partner’s personality). And when the opposite partner listens to the complaint, they try to take responsibility for at least some piece of the problem. In other words, they are open to their partner’s influence. And when negative emotions do run high, as they invariably will during a disagreement, master couple quick to repair the relationship when damage has occurred.
There is a lot more to good marriage, of course, than what I’ve presented here. If you’re interested in knowing more, I’d recommend Gottman’s book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Often people will come to therapy when they are trying to decide if they want to stay married.
On the one hand, something isn't working, they’re not happy, they’re fed up, or they’ve lost whatever love they once felt. On the other hand, they do not want to be divorced, alone, without the kids, broke, or stressed out by nightmarish legal proceedings. The thought of staying feels unbearable, but the thought of leaving feels equally unbearable. In short, they're caught on the horns of a dilemma.
Therapists tend to have a lot of respect for dilemmas. They make people crazy. Or at least they make people feel crazy. Which isn’t the same thing.
By definition, a dilemma is when we are being forced to pick the best of bad alternatives. We study the options, but they all look bad. No matter which direction we go, we see hardship, discomfort, or emotional pain ahead. And we'd rather avoid going down that road, thank you very much.
But can we?
In a true dilemma, we can't. And that's precisely what makes us feel crazy. Sometimes we secretly hope for miracle to resolve it. Surely they're has to be an option that won't cause such distress and havoc, right? Perhaps if we try not to pick an option for as long as possible something new will pop on the horizon? Please?
Well, maybe. But I doubt it. Generally the options to most dilemmas are relatively easy to identify. The problem isn't knowing what the options are; it's that we don't like them.
When people feel ambivalent about their marriages, they will often disengage emotionally from their spouse but not leave. This can be painful for both parties, but it makes a certain amount of sense. After all, dismantling a marriage isn't easy and the stakes are generally high. Better to try a holding pattern, least you jump before you are ready.
And this will probably work for a while.
But eventually, you'll be forced to choose. Because your spouse, who is on the other side of your dilemma and is probably feeling hurt, angry, or confused, will lose patience. Oh, he or she may tolerate your ambivalence for a time. Indeed, your spouse may even try to woo you back. But if you fail to re-engage in the relationship in a meaningful way, even a patient person will eventually tire of the arrangement.
This is often the moment when people will consult a therapist. Sometimes it's person who is ambivalent, other times it's the person who’s lost patience.
No therapist should try to solve a personal dilemma for you. Dilemmas are part of the human condition; sooner or later, most of us will get caught in some form of one. This is simply part of being human. None of us is exempt from pain or hardship.
What a therapist can do, however, is help you clarify your true feelings (which is often more difficult than it sounds). And he can help you think through the ramifications of the options, whatever they are. What he can't do is make the decision for you.
I suppose dilemmas teach us not only what it means to be human, but what it means to be an adult. Because sometimes the only solution to pain is face it, experience, and bear it. This is one of the ways we become grown-ups.
Sooner or later, all couples experience conflict. That you have conflict does not make you exceptional; how you handle it, however, just might. Because there really is an art to it.
If your partner brings you a complaint or an issue, you want to be all ears. You want to hear them out. This does not mean you automatically agree with your partner’s point of view, it simply means that, out of love and respect, if something is not working for him or her, you want to know what it is.
And if you are the person who is voicing the concern or the complaint, your job is to express it in a way that your partner can hear it.
I’m convinced that if couples can master this skill, they are well on their way to having a successful, satisfying relationship. It doesn’t mean that all disputes will be easily solved--of course they won’t--but it does mean that you have a ground rule that says you will take each other seriously and do your utmost not to hurt your partner unnecessarily.
Complaints are not the same as criticisms. According to John Gottman,
a complaint addresses the specific action that your spouse or partner failed to take. But a criticism is more global; it’s an attack on your partner’s person or personality. It’s one thing to say, “Honey, it bothers me when you leave your clothes on the floor.” But it’s another thing entirely to say, “Why do you always have to be such a SLOB? Why are you ALWAYS like this?”
When a complaint deteriorates into a criticism, it’s like having somebody throw bricks at you. Either you want to throw bricks right back, duck, or run. These responses are sure to make a dispute go awry. But if your partner takes the time to think through an issue that’s bugging her, and she take pains to describe it to you in a way that you can hear it, and you do your very best to listen with your head and heart even though you may not agree; well, you’ve just given each other the gift of love.
Criticism leads to hurt feelings and aggressive responses. Complaint lead to spirited but loving discussions. Which camp do you want to be in?
P.S. Everything I know about so-called “fair fighting” comes from John Gottman’s
longitudinal research on marriage. For information about his one of this, taken from one of his excellent books, click the Resource
page. (above image credit: Ajda)