I recently published a blog on the "Care and Feeding of your Island/Avoidant Partner". Since one of the main principles of successful relationships is that they are fair and equal it only makes sense to talk about how to take great care of wave-ish partners. So here goes...
Wave-ish folks, like the rest of us, are subject to becoming more wave-ish once married. This has to do with breaching that final level of commitment to where our partners are now also family. We all carry around inside of us memories of how we were treated in childhood, and how we observed our family members treating each other. These templates are more flexible and less evident in our relationships with our friends and co-workers. Once someone enters into the realm of true family these templates are often re-activated in powerful ways and they tend to amplify our natural tendencies learned as children.
So as with Islands, once Waves are truly committed you may see the following tendencies emerge more strongly:
Fear abandonment, even in ways that seem more minor. Wave-ish folks experienced inconsistent parenting, such that they were sometimes coddled and given lots of attention but then sometimes unexpectedly rebuffed or pushed away and even shamed for being "too needy" or "too much". They intuitively expect the other shoe to drop and expect to be rejected. This gets worse with commitment for the reasons mentioned above. Your wave-ish partner may start reacting to you leaving, even if you are just running some errands, leaving you feeling bewildered and frustrated. Know that departures can be triggering for them and depart with an extra dose of love. Let them know that you are leaving but will be thinking of them while you are gone and look forward to seeing them when you get back. Give them a hug before you leave. Send them a text (doesn't have to be fancy, a heart or smiley face will do) while you are out. Think of them as a kid who gets nervous when their mom or dad are suddenly unavailable. They need reassurance around both departures and reunions.
Can get prickly when you reunite after being apart. Again this can be VERY confusing for their partners, who have no idea that the separation was stressful. They come home from running some errands to a wave-ish partner picking a fight. Crazy, I know. But remember that they fear you leaving and when you do they may feel a surge of anger at being left. Since they tend to have trouble letting go of the past they may think about this the whole time you are gone. Then when you get back, wham! they let you have it. THEY DON"T DO THIS CONSCIOUSLY OR ON PURPOSE. Please, please, keep this in mind. It is no picnic for them either. No one likes to feel upset, so if your wave-ish partner is being cranky or downright mad remember that what is underneath that is emotional pain. They are hurting. One of the most fool-proof ways to soothe a wave-ish person is to hold them. They usually melt under touch. They also tend to love eye-contact. So hold them, gaze lovingly into their eyes and tell them that they can depend on you to never leave them.
Can ramp up their emotional intensity, especially if you are island-ish. Remember the opposite styles amplify each other. So if you are island-ish, after marriage or deep commitment you will tend to move away a bit. This is likely to bring about protest behavior from your wave. It may be more clinging or it may be more frustration and accusations about how aloof you are. Or both. Try to remember that a wave-ish person is like a fussy baby. They make a lot of noise and you may be inclined to simply leave rather than deal with the fuss. But just like a crying baby they need your help, love and soothing. They tend to calm down MUCH faster than their partners think. So moving in, using touch, soothing words and eye contact can usually get a wave-ish person to get some emotional equilibrium pretty quickly. Even if you are not an island your wave-ish partner may get extra emotional after the deep commitment. Be prepared for this and don't blame them or tell them they are crazy. They are expressing their fear that you are not going to connect to them. Waves need a lot of connection and get more dramatic and emotionally messy when they don't get sufficient connection. Sadly they often unconsciously drive people away with their "fussiness", depriving themselves of the connection they need to get calm again. So know this and help them. It will pay you back tenfold in that you will not only have a more calm partner but you will have a partner who is eternally grateful to you for knowing what they need and giving it to them. Like islands, waves are often misunderstood. Your job is to not fall into that trap, to know them and take care of them.
May "spoil" things you try to do for them. This one is bound to make you feel crazy but remember they are not doing it intentionally. They want to be happy, just like any person does. However, since they have a childhood history of having the other shoe constantly dropped they anticipate being disappointed. So if you do something nice for them they may just turn around and "spoil" it somehow. If you take them out to dinner they may complain about the restaurant. If you buy them a gift they may tell you it's not their style, or the wrong color, or whatever. While the natural reaction to this would be to tell them to take a hike, you need to remember that they are acting from childhood pains. Tell them how much you love them and that you know they have been disappointed in the past. Tell them you don't want to disappoint them and you are open to hearing what they need from you. Don't take it personally when they try to spoil a gift or kindness. I know it's a tall order but you will be healing a deep and very painful wound from their childhood. Which is really, in my opinion, what marriage is all about. And that's a two-way street, so when you heal your wave's painful childhood issues they will do the same in return. Everybody wins, which is why marriage is so great!
Tend to respond with a negative a lot of the time. So if you propose a vacation to the beach they are likely to tell you the five reasons that's a bad idea. Don't bite. Just let them know that you know that they tend to find "what's wrong with the picture" before being willing to see what might be right. Tell them you are going to overlook their first response and give them another chance. If your partner is good with humor, you can say something like "OK my beautiful nattering naybob of negativity, now that you have gotten all the no's out of your system, can we revisit the idea?". Then flash them a loving smile. When used with love and kindness humor can be a great way to re-boot an activated wave.
May get really preoccupied with being "too much" or "too needy". Remember that wave-ish folks had childhoods where people alternately showered them with attention and told them they were too much and rebuffed them. So they are naturally afraid of overwhelming people. Paradoxically this leads to a lot of anxiety, which can make them more emotional, more clingy and more negative. Which has the unintended consequence of making their parter get exasperated with them! Be on the lookout for your wave-ish partner feeling judged as too needy or rejected. A wave-ish partner may misinterpret signals like you looking away during a conversation or sighing when they tell you something they need. Be careful to let your wave-ish person know they are NOT too much for you and that you have no intention of leaving them. Help them feel safe and secure and you will find their wave-ishness will actually diminish!
May have trouble ending an argument or letting it go afterwards. Wave-ish folks have trouble with endings, even arguments! They may keep it going because closing up something feels in a way like loss. They may also hold on to hurts from the past to act as a bulk-wart against being vulnerable towards you in the future, which they fear will be rewarded with more hurt! Help your wave let go in an argument by reminding them that while there may be a part of them that tends to hang on their body and mind deserve relief. Hold them tight at the end of a rough conversation and reassure them that if they let go they are not going to be setting themselves up for additional injury.
May not look out well for their partner in social situations. If you go to a party or event your wave-ish partner may wander off and socialize and "drop" you. This is because their parents dropped them (emotionally) as kids. Don't take this personally and remind them before you go out to social events that you would like for them to keep track of you and circle back at predetermined intervals to keep you feeling connected.
Waves are not any more difficult than islands. And like islands they do not do these things "on purpose" or with the intent of making their partner crazy. Learn to love your wave and help them to manage their emotional reactivity. They will greatly appreciate your help in containing some of their intensity and you will feel calmer knowing you are not about to be plowed under by a tsnumami!
Wishing you happiness and health,
One of the clearest definitions of love addiction I have seen is "a compulsive, chronic craving and/or pursuit of romantic love in an effort to get our sense of security and worth from another person." Or, if you prefer something more pithy, author Ethlie Ann Vape calls it "affection deficit disorder". She goes on to say that "Every woman with an absent father-- whether through divorce, death, disease or distance-- is going to associate feelings of affection with feelings of abandonment" and therefore "confuse love and longing". That also seems pretty on target to me in terms of how people end up here. And men can be love addicts, too, and often have the same route to getting there-- a distant relationship with a parent that they desperately craved love and attention from.
Of course it's normal to gain a sense of security from being in a romantic partnership and we tend to feel especially good about ourselves if our partner occasionally tells us how great they think we are. Those are good and normal things. But in love addiction those normal aspects of being partnered become turbo-charged in an effort to prop up our inability to actually feel good about ourselves without a romantic connection. And unfortunately our culture is all to quick to provide is with totally unrealistic ideas of what love is. Sofo Archon, in his article "The Trap of Romantic Love", states that "Just like pornography fools us into believing that perfect sex exists, the romantic tradition fools us into believing that perfect relationships exist." We are fed a steady diet of Rom-Coms and images of celebrities falling madly in love and swimming off into the sunset on their private Caribbean island. It all seems so AMAZING and, insanely, we think that we too can have that and it will last forever...
Since our culture is obsessed with both sex and romance so it's no wonder that many of us are confused about what is healthy. I remember after my daughter was born walking down the aisles of Toys R Us acquainting myself with what little girls may want to play with. I was absolutely stunned when, in the aisle for 3-6 year olds I came up on a giant box about 3 feet tall that contained a mini wedding dress, tiny white plastic shoes, a veil, plastic flowers and a fake diamond solitaire ring. Yes, folks, it was a bride-in-a-box. The only thing needed was the poor hapless groom. I remember asking myself "what are we teaching our girls?" and noting that there was no corresponding "groom-in-a-box" option in the boys 3-6 aisle. While boys were busy being introduced to fake power tools, fireman's outfits and play lawn mowers girls were being trained to get hitched up and knocked up all before the age of 6. Sadly it was not the last of those surprises Then came all of the princess movies. The ones where princesses are cast into spells only to be awoken by a handsome prince. This was before the days of Frozen. And while Frozen is great, I still don't think it's enough to stem the tide of images that our girls absorb about the importance of romance and sex. Cosmopolitan magazine still has images of nearly eating-disordered young women scantily clad advising you on "how to give your man the best orgasm of his life" or "how to make him never forget you". The emphasis is still on a woman in relation to a man rather than as a stand-alone person. It's no wonder that MORE girls don't grow up to be love or sex addicts.
So what is love addiction? Is it a "real" addiction? If so, what does it have in common with other addictions? How can you tell if you suffer from Love Addiction? And if you do, what can you do about it?
One way to investigate whether or not the concept of Love Addiction might apply to you is to take an online test. The Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, California has an online questionnaire that you can fill out. Love Addicts Anonymous (LAA) has their own version which may also be useful. I have worked with clients who used the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) program and found that helpful also. SLAA has their own questionnaire that you can download as a pdf.
Once you decide whether or not you think you have a lot in common with this form of addiction what can you do? There are many ways to approach treatment. A qualified therapist can help you figure out what is unhealthy about how you create and participate in your romantic relationships and then format goals for what you would like to have with a partner. The therapist can help you develop a plan to achieve that goal which may involve therapy, support groups, readings and "homework" exercises to retrain your brain to relate romantically in a healthier way. Untreated love addiction, like any addiction, can create years or even decades of misery. By placing the love object at the center of your universe you lose the ability to know what is best for YOU and how to make decisions that will be equally beneficial to your partner AND yourself. This can result in a life that is woefully unfair and unfulfilling. The goal of treatment is to help you place yourself at the center of your priorities so that you can enter into a balanced relationship with others in which you enjoy them and value them but don't need them to plug holes in your self-esteem.
This year (2018) at the SXSW Film Festival a movie entitled Unlovable got rave reviews. It was written by, and stars, a woman who is a love addict. It is not yet available to rent but keep a lookout for it. I am betting it is going to be moving and funny and a great insight into one person's personal experience in looking to fill that "affection deficit" in all the wrong ways.
In the meantime if you feel like you may have a problem with love addiction I strongly encourage you to take one (or more) of the tests mentioned in this blog. The first step to fixing a problem is diagnosing the problem. Many resources exist to help those with love and/or sex addictions (by the way they are different but can co-occur). Like most emotional disorders this pattern can be changed and the result can be a much more balanced, fulfilling and peaceful live.
Wishing you health in your relationship to yourself as well as others,
With divorce rates in some social strata continuing to rise and many of us bemoaning the loss of true intimacy in an age of Snapchat and Facebook, Bruce Feiler has found an unlikely source of inspiration to help us navigate the modern waters of love-- the bible. Yes, folks, that ancient text with all of the "begat"s and such. Feiler writes quite convincingly that Adam and Eve may have had it right from the very beginning. Stay together, even when the proverbial applesauce hits the fan. Even when it might look like one of you has made an uber-big mistake and put both of you in jeopardy. Even when one of you outpaces the other in knowledge, life experience or situation. Even when you get evicted from the only home you have ever known. Even when one of your offspring kills the other. Stay together. Learn, grow and circle your wagons when necessary. Don't give up on each other. Don't turn on one another in times of strife. Forgive each other.
Feiler makes some startling points. He says that the message of the story is not "disobeying God", it's "about obeying the larger message [of God], which is making the relationship work". God made these two to be companions for life. God calls upon them to "succeed...Go forth and multiply" according to Feiler. He argues that the only way Adam and Eve can do that is to continue to turn towards each other in hardship and, unlike so many of us in our baser moments, not vilify one's partner. To forgive the shortcomings of one's partner and re-commit to the relationship. He states that love is "not a choice we make once; it's a choice we make multiple times." Eve chooses to return to Adam after eating the fruit and Adam chooses not to reject her. They chose to make a new life together. They chose to stay together even after one of their children kills the other. They even chose to recommit to the marriage by having another child-- a sure sign that each believes in the relationship.
Feiler calls love "an act of imagination, an act of commitment and ultimately an act of love to re-choose someone after a difficult time." He adds, "That choice is much harder than the first." I can't think of a more poetic way to describe what it takes to succeed in marriage. To continue to re-choose at every turn. To doggedly, even when one's own hope is waning, re-choose to be "all in." This is what we mean when we talk about putting one's partner first in PACT. Protecting the "couple bubble" and nurturing it.
Many years ago I met an older couple who had been married several decades. As is my practice I asked "what's the secret?". The man replied "my wife is not the same person that I married all those years ago. She has changed many times, and each time I fall in love with the new version of herself." He smiled as though he were the luckiest man alive-- to have been able to love different versions of the same woman for nearly half of his life. I think most of us would hope to be so lucky. He continued to choose her. That's love. Not the easy kind of love you see in Hollywood or that we grew up with in our princess and prince charming fantasies. The real kind where you double down and recommit, knowing that come what may you have each other.
Wishing you health, happiness and connection in all of your relationships,
This is, by far, the most accurate account of marriage I have ever read. Alain de Botton's most recent novel is not for those who want to maintain a fairy-tale version of marriage. It is certainly not for anyone who wants to cling to the idea of a soul mate, someone born to understand your every wish without you even uttering it. It is for those of us who seek to understand why so many marriages fail. Who seek to understand what marriage is really, truly about. (I say here marriage but really I am talking about any kind of long-term coupling). It is not a sad story by any means. It is a realistic story of two flawed people who build a life together. That life includes romance, but also children, mess, affairs, work and heartache. But in the end they continue to "choose each other" as Bruce Feiler would say in his recent book.
The book follows two characters as they meet and fall in love and continues on through their lives for the first few decades of their union. During this time they struggle, sometimes together and sometimes privately, with just what to expect of marriage. In the end they come to understand that with all its flaws marriage offers us something unique and valuable-- the opportunity to truly put another's needs first, over and over, which can only be done by growing as a person.
Of course like the rest of us the characters in de Botton's book had no idea what marriage was at first. The soon to be husband reflects on his desire to propose and concludes that "He hopes through the act of marring to make an ecstatic sensation [falling in love] perpetual." (p. 40) Not to be cynical here, I have been happily married for nearly two decades, but to think that by marrying as an act itself you can seal in that feeling of falling in love would be quite misguided. One has to work at continuing to fall in love like one has to work at staying in shape. Sadly if not properly guided many of us will eat too much cake, go to the gym too infrequently and then not recognize that person in the pictures from our 20 year high school reunion. Marriage is much the same. Many of us come to the institution poorly trained and somehow expect that following our instincts will lead us to the habits that build and sustain this marvelous partnership. Years or decades later when the union is on its last breath we wonder what happened.
The main characters also find that being coupled sheds light into areas of our lives that previously we had happily been spared. As de Botton puts it "The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy...[our] tendency to tidy obsessively when ...feel[ing] chaotic inside, [the] habit of using work to ward off...anxieties, the difficulty...in articulating what's on [our] mind when...worried, [the] flurry when [we] can't find a favorite T-shirt---these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see [them]." (p. 42) How beautifully this captures our own self-serving bias-- that how we are, what we think, what we feel, what we prefer, how we operate, is normal. Forgetting all the while that we are just as weird, conflicted, inconsistent, hypocritical, defensive or even downright crazy as the next person. This self-serving bias leads us to the problem that "Without witnesses, [we] can operate under the benign illusion that [we] may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around." (p. 42) Ah, the illusion that we are right and our partner SO wrong! That if only they would come to their senses and agree with us! Be like us!
De Botton also touches on the potentially tragic tendency of humans to move towards familiarity. We think we are searching for that perfect person who will complete us, who will overlook our bad habit of leaving the milk out or staying up until 3am on Facebook only to be obscenely grumpy the next day. But alas what we are actually searching for is a relationship "that it will be reassuringly familiar in its pattern of frustration." (p. 44) He muses that when we do, accidentally, run into a person who is healthy and not inclined to replicate our painful childhood wounds we find ourselves "rejecting [them] not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right-- in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable-- given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearnt." (p. 44)
This is where in working with couples I think it is important to point out the opportunities of what might seem like an unfortunate union. For when we partner with this person who is inclined to hurt us in ways that are similar to our original caregivers we also open up the possibility that these new attachment figures (our partners) can HEAL those old wounds. This is the type of work promoted by Dr. Stan Tatkin in PACT. Dr. Tatkin explains why relationships are so "hard" in his brief Ted Talk and helps us to understand how the things we bring to our relationships-- our childhood wounds, our attachment styles, our nervous systems, can undermine our hopes for a perfect union. In working with couples using the PACT style I try to help partners heal each other's wounds from childhood, which has the nifty benefit of not only freeing up more resources in the now-healed-person but also creates immense gratitude, love and appreciation for the partner-who-healed. It's a beautiful gift that pays forward.
The characters of de Botton's book also experience the sad phenomenon pithily described as "if it's hysterical it's historical". Meaning, when you partner reacts hysterically (i.e. going WAY overboard) they are probably "triggered" into some childhood feeling being brought up by the present situation. This has the misfortune of causing a person to react like a lunatic given the current circumstances. When triggered by our spouse, de Botton says "we lose the ability to give people and things the benefit of the doubt; we swiftly and anxiously move towards the worst conclusions that the past once mandated." (p. 84) The spouse that is 20 minutes late is confused with the father who abandoned us; the wife who circles the room chatting with everyone while her husband is left at the punch bowl becomes the mother who never had time for him. And on and on. These are the circumstances that, if misunderstood, can tank a marriage. But often it takes a professional to help the two lost souls embroiled in these patterns to see what is really going on.
And much to my surprise in reading de Botton's book, his couple actually finds themselves in the office of an attachment-based couples therapist! I swear de Botton did not consult with me on this. Although if he had it's certainly what I would have recommended. And as has been my experience for the past decade of using PACT, de Botton's couple is able to heal what had previously been fodder for battles enumerable. They learn to see the wounded child inside of each other and minister to it. And their love grows immeasurably. It would sound like a fairy tale if I did not see this exact narrative play out so many times in my own practice. His couple learns that "Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species." (p. 182) De Botton goes on to show us how "The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the 'right' person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the 'right' person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn't be its pre-condition. " (p. 216).
It's a beautiful book with a real and honest look at marriage, warts and all. Some people ask me how you know if you are ready for marriage. My usual response is that no one can be ready for marriage because it calls you to be someone you are not yet ready to be. Your fullest, highest, most evolved self. But perhaps from now on I will recommend as an alternate answer that you are ready for marriage if you can read this book and still believe in love. If you can see it not as a tragedy but as a testament to the power of two people's desire to overcome who they were and become better people within the bonds of a partnership that will push their every button. If you can see that as love, then maybe you are ready.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
Ever wish when you were staring down a big decision that you could consult with thousands of people who have successfully navigated those waters before? Well one smart fellow did just that when preparing to pledge himself to another person for the rest of his life. Mark Manson has a website and used it to crowd source his very own guide to a happy marriage. He solicited people who had been happily married for at least 10 years to give their best perspective on what made their marriages work so well. Below are some of the things people said. You can view the full list at MarkManson.net.
"By itself, love is never enough to sustain a relationship." I tell this to my clients ALL THE TIME. And believe me, as a hopeless romantic, I am not crazy about having to admit it. But it's true. Love is not enough. There must also be trust, respect, compassion, compromise, humility, tenacity and sometimes a bit of insanity to just keep trying even when things are looking pretty bleak. I will admit that I don't recommend marriage (or a long-term committed partnership) without love, but I hope you have a lot more than that going for you when you take the plunge.
Mr. Manson's readers also agreed that it was important to "Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance." This follows love not being enough in my opinion. A reader named Paula went on to say that " You are absolutely not going to be absolutely gaga over each other every single day for the rest of your lives, and all this 'happily ever after' [stuff] is just setting people up for failure. They go into relationship with these unrealistic expectations. Then, the instant they realize they aren’t 'gaga' anymore, they think the relationship is broken and over, and they need to get out. No! There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, 'Ugh, you’re still here….' That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce."
Paula's comments remind me of a friend in graduate school whose mom told her "there will be days...weeks...months....well, sometimes years....where you really don't like the person that you married. But then it gets better!". I recall hearing this and not knowing whether to feel relieved since marriage sounded so much more do-able given this caveat or whether I should go join a convent and just give up. Now that I have been married for 19 years (and counting) I think it is very sage advice. Setting the expectation that you may not really enjoy the person you are with all of the time and that in and of itself is not a problem leaves you free to continue to enjoy the rest of your life (your work, your friends, your kids, your hobbies) while you wait things and and eventually start liking your spouse again. This is NOT a reason to be mean to your spouse or give up on the marriage. Just to realize that sometimes our partners go through things that we don't fully understand and that sometimes this requires us to give them a wide berth. I am thankful that in my own marriage I have never gone more than weeks not enjoying my husband's company, but I am prepared for longer stints if necessary.
Manson echoed the work of Helen Fisher in saying that "Love is [like a drug, it]... makes us highly irrational... It’s nature’s way of tricking us into doing insane and irrational things to procreate with another person—probably because if we stopped to think about the repercussions of having kids, and being with the same person forever and ever, no one would ever do it...Romantic love is a trap designed to get two people to overlook each other’s faults long enough to get some babymaking done. It generally only lasts for a few years at most. That dizzying high you get staring into your lover’s eyes as if they are the stars that make up the heavens—yeah, that mostly goes away. It does for everybody. So, once it’s gone, you need to know that you’ve buckled yourself down with a human being you genuinely respect and enjoy being with, otherwise things are going to get rocky. True love—that is, deep, abiding love that is impervious to emotional whims or fancy—is a choice. It’s a constant commitment to a person regardless of the present circumstances. It’s a commitment to a person who you understand isn’t going to always make you happy—nor should they!—and a person who will need to rely on you at times, just as you will rely on them."
Manson elaborates "That form of love is much harder. Primarily because it often doesn’t feel very good. It’s unglamorous. It’s lots of early morning doctor’s visits. It’s cleaning up bodily fluids you’d rather not be cleaning up. It’s dealing with another person’s insecurities and fears and ideas, even when you don’t want to.But this form of love is also far more satisfying and meaningful. And, at the end of the day, it brings true happiness, not just another series of highs."
His reader Tara writes "Happily Ever After doesn’t exist. Every day you wake up and decide to love your partner and your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Some days it’s a struggle and some days you feel like the luckiest person in the world."
Another thing that Manson's readers agreed upon was that "The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect." His reader Laurie said "What I can tell you is the #1 thing, most important above all else is respect. It’s not sexual attraction, looks, shared goals, religion or lack of, nor is it love. There are times when you won’t feel love for your partner. That is the truth. But you never want to lose respect for your partner. Once you lose respect you will never get it back."
Now, as a couples therapist I can say that I don't believe that it's always as black-and-white as Laurie reports. I have seen couples lose respect for each other, such as during the throws of an addiction or affair. And I have seen those same couples rebuild respect. I think what makes the difference is if the respect was there in the first place and how hard the partner who has lost the respect is willing to work to get it back.
Manson noticed another interesting trend. He said that "People who had been through divorces and/or had only been with their partners for 10-15 years almost always talked about communication being the most important part of making things work. Talk frequently. Talk openly. Talk about everything, even if it hurts...But..people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked... most [about]respect." He goes on to say that he feels that these long-termers "through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt." I could not agree more. Research has shown us that all couples, happy and unhappy, fight. And that the amount of fighting is not predictive of marital satisfaction or divorce. The ability to recover from a fight is predictive. Another astonishing thing is that about 2/3 of your conflicts will have no permanent resolution. My husband hates that I clutter up the house with piles of stuff-- work papers, laundry that has not been folded yet, magazines I plan to read. He is a neat freak. He has lived, begrudgingly on some level I am sure, with my piles for 19 years. I have tried to reform myself (really I have!) but I am just as messy now as I was as a teenager. This is not going to be resolved unless we agree to live in separate houses (which neither of us are interested in). Does this mean we can't be happy? I certainly hope not.
Manson's readers went on to tell him that "the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got. Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear."
His reader Nicole offered "My husband and I have been together 15 years this winter. I’ve thought a lot about what seems to be keeping us together, while marriages around us crumble (seriously, it’s everywhere… we seem to be at that age). The one word that I keep coming back to is 'respect.' Of course, this means showing respect, but that is too superficial. Just showing it isn’t enough. You have to feel it deep within you. I deeply and genuinely respect him for his work ethic, his patience, his creativity, his intelligence, and his core values. From this respect comes everything else—trust, patience, perseverance (because sometimes life is really hard and you both just have to persevere). I want to hear what he has to say (even if I don’t agree with him) because I respect his opinion. I want to enable him to have some free time within our insanely busy lives because I respect his choices of how he spends his time and who he spends time with. And, really, what this mutual respect means is that we feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other."
Manson also offered that "Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined." One of his readers, Olov, stated, “Respect yourself and your [partner]. Never talk badly to or about [him/] her. If you don’t respect your [partner], you don’t respect yourself. You chose [him/] her—live up to that choice.” This sounds a lot like what Stan Tatkin teaches about having your partner's back and never throwing them under the bus, in public or in private. Manson says " NEVER talk [badly] about your partner or complain about them to your friends. If you have a problem with your partner, you should be having that conversation with them, not with your friends. Talking bad about them will erode your respect for them and make you feel worse about being with them, not better. Respect that they have different hobbies, interests, and perspectives from you. Just because you would spend your time and energy differently, doesn’t mean it’s better/worse. Respect that they have an equal say in the relationship, that you are a team, and if one person on the team is not happy, then the team is not succeeding."
Echoing the work of Stan Tatkin again Manson also cautions "No secrets. If you’re really in this together and you respect one another, everything should be fair game. Have a crush on someone else? Discuss it. Laugh about it. Had a weird sexual fantasy that sounds ridiculous? Be open about it. Nothing should be off-limits." Partners need to tell each other everything and be the go-to people for each other.
Manson elaborates "Respect goes hand-in-hand with trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any relationship (romantic or otherwise). Without trust, there can be no sense of intimacy or comfort. Without trust, your partner will become a liability in your mind, something to be avoided and analyzed, not a protective homebase for your heart and your mind." Your relationship, I tell my couples, should be where you go home and "plug-in" at the end of your day to get charged up and refueled. Where you heal the wounds from slaying dragons all day. If you can't trust your partner, and feel the need to keep things from them, then how can you let down you guard and really fall into their arms for comfort?
Of course this will require that, as Manson's readers advise, you "Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts." One of his readers Ronnie says that he and his beloved "always talk about what’s bothering us with each other, not anyone else! We have so many friends who are in marriages that are not working well and they tell me all about what is wrong. I can’t help them, they need to be talking to their spouse about this, that’s the only person who can help them figure it out. If you can figure out a way to be able to always talk with your spouse about what’s bugging you then you can work on the issue.
Manson says that he has always advised his readers that "If something bothers you in the relationship, you must be willing to say it. Saying it builds trust and trust builds intimacy. It may hurt, but you still need to do it. No one else can fix your relationship for you. Nor should anyone else. Just as causing pain to your muscles allows them to grow back stronger, often introducing some pain into your relationship through vulnerability is the only way to make the relationship stronger."
Manson points out that trust in the context of a decades long relationship can get into some very deep and possibly life-or-death places. "If you ended up with cancer tomorrow, would you trust your partner to stick with you and take care of you? Would you trust your partner to care for your child for a week by themselves? Do you trust them to handle your money or make sound decisions under pressure? Do you trust them to not turn on you or blame you when you make mistakes?" He makes a great point that "Trust at the beginning of a relationship is easy." We don't know the other person yet and so don't have much to lose. We haven't invested years of our life, created children with this person, come to rely on them when we are sick or infirm.
He says that "the deeper the commitment, the more intertwined your lives become, and the more you will have to trust your partner to act in your interest in your absence."
Manson's readers told him that "The key to fostering and maintaining trust in the relationship is for both partners to be completely transparent and vulnerable: If something is bothering you, say something. This is important not only for addressing issues as they arise, but it proves to your partner that you have nothing to hide. Those icky, insecure things you hate sharing with people? Share them with your partner. Not only is it healing, but you and your partner need to have a good understanding of each other’s insecurities and the way you each choose to compensate for them. Make promises and then stick to them. The only way to truly rebuild trust after it’s been broken is through a proven track record over time. You cannot build that track record until you own up to previous mistakes and set about correcting them."
Another great point offered by Manson's readers was that the person you marry is not going to be the same person you are with 20, 30, 50 years from now. Humans have an interesting habit of changing and evolving. One of his readers "commented that at her wedding, an elderly family member told her, 'One day many years from now, you will wake up and your spouse will be a different person, make sure you fall in love with that person too.'" That reminds me of a friend whose father told him "Your mother has changed many times over the course of our marriage and I have fallen in love with each new version of her". What a lovely way to go through life, having numerous love affairs with numerous versions of the same person you committed yourself to all those years ago.
A man named Michael wrote to Manson " When you commit to someone, you don’t actually know who you’re committing to. You know who they are today, but you have no idea who this person is going to be in five years, ten years, and so on. You have to be prepared for the unexpected, and truly ask yourself if you admire this person regardless of the superficial (or not-so-superficial) details, because I promise almost all of them at some point are going to either change or go away."
Another one of his readers, Kevin, offered "Two years ago, I suddenly began resenting my wife for any number of reasons. I felt as if we were floating along, doing a great job of co-existing and co-parenting, but not sustaining a real connection. It deteriorated to the point that I considered separating from her; however, whenever I gave the matter intense thought, I could not pinpoint a single issue that was a deal breaker. I knew her to be an amazing person, mother, and friend. I bit my tongue a lot and held out hope that the malaise would pass as suddenly as it had arrived. Fortunately, it did and I love her more than ever. So the final bit of wisdom is to afford your spouse the benefit of the doubt. If you have been happy for such a long period, that is the case for good reason. Be patient and focus on the many aspects of her that still exist that caused you to fall in love in the first place." So again, even if our partner does not change we may go through periods where our feelings do. Don't jump to conclusions and call the divorce attorney. Ride it out and assume that they are still lovable you are just having a hard time finding the connection.
Manson's readers also agreed on the idea of fighting productively and fairly. As Ryan Saplan stated "The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage." Personally I would love to do without the arguments but in my opinion they are just inevitable. You have two totally separate brains, nervous systems, histories, preferences, triggers, personalities, temperaments and all of that. How on earth would you never disagree, even passionately so? So whether you feel like the arguments increase the depth and strength of the marriage or you regard them as an unavoidable part of being human you still have to figure out how to get through them as gracefully as possible.
Manson goes on to talk about some of John Gottman's research. He summarizes that Gottman "spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up....Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously. [Gottman] has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are
Manson said that many of the 1500 respondents to his invitation to opine on marriage agreed with Gottman that these 4 habits were very destructive to relationships. They cautioned "Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner." Manson went on to make the point that" Gottman’s research found that 'contempt'—belittling and demeaning your partner—is the number one predictor of divorce." He added "Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?" I assure you this both harder and more important than it sounds. I work very hard with couples to learn to fight clean, resolve fully and then leave the past in the past. Too often, however, fights are done dirty and not fully resolved, and then the past cannot help but to intrude in a very ugly way into the current conversation.
Manson suggested that "If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit." This is a big one for me personally—sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block two or three times and let myself seethe for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone." I agree but would also add that if you are going to walk away from your partner in the midst of a fight you still need to let them know that 1) you still love them and 2) that you are going to go calm down and come back in ___ minutes (and make sure you keep track of time and come back when you said you would). This helps to reduce feelings of abandonment in case your partner is sensitive to that.
Manson also offers to "Remember that being 'right' is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner." Or as some people say, it's better to be close than to be right.
Of course if you are being honest, telling each other everything and not avoiding fights, then there will be some forgiving that might have to happen. Manson's readers covered this as well. A fellow named Brian wrote that "When you end up being right about something—shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a battle sword." That one is going up on my refrigerator. Seriously. And then there was Bill, who concisely reminded us that " In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument." Agreed.
Manson opined "When an argument is over, it’s over... When you’re done fighting, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, it doesn’t matter if someone was mean and someone was nice. It’s over. It’s in the past. And you both agree to leave it there, not bring it up every month for the next three years. There’s no scoreboard...When your partner screws up, you separate the intentions from the behavior. You recognize the things you love and admire in your partner and understand that he/she was simply doing the best that they could, yet messed up out of ignorance. Not because they’re a bad person. Not because they secretly hate you and want to divorce you. Not because there’s somebody else in the background pulling them away from you. They are a good person. That’s why you are with them. If you ever lose your faith in that, then you will begin to erode your faith in yourself."
A reader named Fred wrote that he has "Been happily married 40+ years. One piece of advice that comes to mind: choose your battles. Some things matter, worth getting upset about. Most do not. Argue over the little things and you’ll find yourself arguing endlessly; little things pop up all day long, it takes a toll over time. Like Chinese water torture: minor in the short term, corrosive over time. Consider: is this a little thing or a big thing? Is it worth the cost of arguing?" I often ask my couples-- in 10 years, will this matter? What about in 20?
Readers also wrote that it is important to stay connected through every day things. Brian advised that partners "meet for lunch, go for a walk or go out to dinner and a movie with some regularity....Staying connected through life’s ups and downs is critical. Eventually your kids grow up, your...parents will die. When that happens, guess who’s left?...You don’t want to wake up 20 years later and be staring at a stranger because life broke the bonds you formed before the [drama] started. You and your partner need to be the eye of the hurricane.
Mason added that "This seems to become particularly important once kids enter the picture.The big message I heard hundreds of times about kids: put the marriage first." One of his readers, Susan, said that "Children are worshipped in our culture these days. Parents are expected to sacrifice everything for them. But the best way to raise healthy and happy kids is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. Good kids don’t make a good marriage. A good marriage makes good kids. So keep your marriage the top priority." Dr. Stan Tatkin teaches the same. Dr. Tatkin advises that partners keep each other in a "couple bubble" and that all other entities, whether they are kids, careers, hobbies, parents, etc., be lower status than the relationship with your spouse. I have seen this advice save many marriages that were strained nearly beyond repair by kids, step-kids, ex-spouses, ailing parents and demanding careers.Keeping each other as the first priority is essential to a happy partnership.
Manson's readers also agreed that "Sex matters… a LOT". Readers said that when the relationship was ailing the sex lagged. And that it was important to make time for it, even if there are kids, jobs, chores and whatnot imposing on your time. His readers echoed what Helen Fisher cites in her research, that sex bonds people. "That when things are a bit frigid between them or that they have some problems going on, a lot of stress, or other issues (i.e., kids), they even go so far as to schedule sexy time for themselves. They say it’s important. And it’s worth it.
A few people even said that when things start to feel stale in the relationship, they agree to have sex every day for a week. Then, as if by magic, by the next week, they feel great again."
And again Manson and Stan Tatkin agree that creating rules or agreements in the relationship is essential. One of Manson's readers, Liz, stated that "There is no 50/50 in housecleaning, child rearing, vacation planning, dishwasher emptying, gift buying, dinner making, money making, etc. The sooner everyone accepts that, the happier everyone is. We all have things we like to do and hate to do; we all have things we are good at and not so good at. TALK to your partner about those things when it comes to dividing and conquering all the [stuff] that has to get done in life."
Manson talks about "The fact is relationships are imperfect, messy affairs. And it’s for the simple reason that they’re comprised of imperfect, messy people—people who want different things at different times in different ways...The common theme of the advice here was “Be pragmatic.” If the wife is a lawyer and spends 50 hours at the office every week, and the husband is an artist and can work from home most days, it makes more sense for him to handle most of the day-to-day parenting duties. If the wife’s standard of cleanliness looks like a Home & Garden catalog, and the husband has gone six months without even noticing the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, then it makes sense that the wife handles more of the home cleaning duties. It’s economics 101: division of labor makes everyone better off. Figure out what you are each good at, what you each love/hate doing, and then arrange accordingly. My wife loves cleaning (no, seriously), but she hates smelly stuff. So guess who gets dishes and garbage duty? Me. Because I don’t [care]. I’ll eat off the same plate seven times in a row. I couldn’t smell a dead rat even if it was sleeping under my pillow. I’ll toss garbage around all day. Here honey, let me get that for you." I often tell couples that their differences are a net strength for the relationship. One person is great with finances, the other can work a crowd and schmooze the new neighbors. Together they can benefit from the things the other person is better at.
And finally Mason offered the advice of a sage reader named Margo "You can work through anything as long as you are not destroying yourself or each other. That means emotionally, physically, financially, or spiritually. Make nothing off limits to discuss. Never shame or mock each other for the things you do that make you happy. Write down why you fell in love and read it every year on your anniversary (or more often). Write love letters to each other often. Make each other first. When kids arrive, it will be easy to fall into a frenzy of making them the only focus of your life…do not forget the love that produced them. You must keep that love alive and strong to feed them love. Spouse comes first. Each of you will continue to grow. Bring the other one with you. Be the one that welcomes that growth. Don’t think that the other one will hold the relationship together. Both of you should assume it’s up to you so that you are both working on it. Be passionate about cleaning house, preparing meals, and taking care of your home. This is required of everyone daily, make it fun and happy and do it together. Do not complain about your partner to anyone. Love them for who they are. Make love even when you are not in the mood. Trust each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt always. Be transparent. Have nothing to hide. Be proud of each other. Have a life outside of each other, but share it through conversation. Pamper and adore each other. Go to counseling now before you need it so that you are both open to working on the relationship together. Disagree with respect to each other’s feelings. Be open to change and accepting of differences. Print this and refer to it daily."
Thanks, Margo, I think I will. Because even couple's therapists need reminders from time to time.
Wishing you health and happiness in your connections to others,
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I get this question a lot. Usually framed as "you can't do that, CAN you?" I hear a strong wish underneath the prohibition. "PLEASE tell me I am allowed to ask my partner to change!!" Many of us have absorbed the popular culture myth that we should not ask our partner to be different from who they are. Which sounds very loving, very accepting and very... unrealistic in my book. What if how are partner is acting is hurtful to us? What if it's damaging our relationship? How do you make the distinction between things you can ask to have changed and things that are supposed to be off limits? Is anything off limits?
PACT teaches that the real issue here is not changing your partner. It's changing how your partner is WITH YOU. How your partner treats you (and vice-versa). If my partner is a shy, introverted type, I am not going to change that. Introversion is one of the most stable personality traits researched. So even if I wanted to change that, even if my partner wanted to change that about him/herself, it's not likely to happen. But if part of how I get my emotional needs met is to have friends over every few weeks my introverted, shy partner may need to learn how to support that for me to some degree. This does not mean that s/he necessarily enjoys these social situations. But s/he does learn to support this need I have to connect with others by inviting them over every so often. Likewise if I am a strongly extroverted person my partner is not going to change that about me. But s/he can expect that I am going to not bowl him/her over with my need to have people at the house every day of the week. S/He can expect that I will allow him/her some "alone time" to recharge at the end of a day where s/he has had to talk to a lot of people. And that I won't take that personally or shame him/her about it.
In this scenario no one is actually changing. I am still an extrovert. He or she is still an introvert. But we respect each other's needs enough to BEHAVE in ways that take care of each other. And yes, you can "ask" for this. I would argue if you don't ask for it you may not get it. And if your partner is not acting in ways that support your deepest needs then they are not doing their job and you are not getting the benefit of being partnered. And over time, this lack of support for your deepest needs may begin to erode the positive feelings towards your partner. The relationship will no longer feel like a place where you can get important needs met.
Where many of us go wrong is in confusing how we want our partner to ACT and who they ARE. We feel disappointed that our partner is not a certain way and forget that we can ask for behaviors that feel good to us, and that our partner can behave in those ways even if it's not their personal default. Of course we need to learn to ask in ways that are respectful and kind and still honor our partner's own needs and wiring.
For an excellent in-depth explanation of how your partner is wired and what is likely to come naturally to them (or not!) see Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program Your Brain on Love or his bookWired for Love. Or for those of you who are not yet partnered see Dr. Tatkin's book Wired for Dating. Learning how your partner's brain is set up will help you appreciate why they do what they do (and don't do), how to ask for what you want and need and how to take excellent care of them in return.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
Shame, embarrassment and self-interest are powerful motivators. They can keep us from letting others truly know us. We tell ourselves that "what they don't know won't hurt them" or "it's not relevant" or "they wouldn't understand". But if you truly examine why you don't tell those close to you these difficult truths it usually comes down to the trifecta of secrecy: shame, embarrassment and self-interest.
Why share? How harmful are these undisclosed bits of ourself? Isn't everyone entitled to their own private lives?
In a recent post on the blog "Mirror of Intimacy", Alexandra Katehakis and Tom Bliss wrote of disclosure that "Keeping secrets from, or telling lies to, your partner can be an enormous burden that will ultimately get in the way of your sexual intimacy. A guilty conscience is not sexy, but making yourself vulnerable is". They went on to say that "Exposing your true self means facing your shortcomings and any accompanying shame you feel about your actions. Speaking the truth about things that make you feel bad about yourself can be scary or painful, but is essential if you want to build your relationship on honesty. Living a life of secrets and lies doesn't allow love and sexuality to flourish but, instead, suffocates them."
Katehakis and Bliss recommend that we "Take time today to think about what an act of courage it would be for you to disclose any secrets and lies you're holding that separate you from your partner. Are you ready to face yourself and stand up as an adult? Keep current with your partner by banishing secrets and lies from your relationship, and experience what it's like to live in honesty every day."
That's a tall order for many of us. Especially if you grew up in a dysfunctional family where secrets and lies were the norm. Many of us were taught that being vulnerable would be met with blame, punishment, shaming, teasing or attack. Certainly this would train us to keep anything difficult or potentially self-incriminating to ourselves. And to those of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes not only does this secrecy seem normal, it seem smart! Why make ourselves open to the slings and arrows of those around us? Haven't we suffered enough?
If only that strategy worked. I often tell those who work with me that I am a huge pragmatist. I really am. I aspire to do what works because in the end I just want the desired result. If lying or keeping secrets or sequestering parts of ourselves away from our loved ones worked I would have no issue with it. If it did not ultimately cost us, if it did not ultimately lead to loneliness and damaged relationships, I would encourage it. Whatever road leads to health and happiness I am fully prepared to not only walk myself but lead others on.
Unfortunately keeping secrets, lying (by omission or otherwise) and partitioning off parts of ourself so that no one knows the true us really doesn't work. It may serve to keep us safe in the moment, but ultimately it keeps us apart from those we yearn to be close to. It leaves us feeling that existential angst of "born alone, live alone, die alone". Which I firmly believe is NOT true! In fact, of all living organisms, humans are born to need others MORE, not less. We are inherently pack animals, desperately in need of connection to maintain our own mental and physical health.
When I work with people on trying to deepen connection to others I am fond of explaining the concept of "laddering intimacy". Relationships deepen when each person reveals something to the other that represents an emotional risk. This prompts the other person to respond with their own escalating level of emotional risk. The process builds on itself, giving each person the feeling that they are being trusted with important information. This bonds people together. When we fail to disclose risky material to our partners or loved ones our relationships wither and become flat. We drift apart. We no longer have that feeling of being tightly bound together. What we do to protect ourselves ultimately cuts us off from the very relationships that we need to survive emotionally.
I encourage you to take stock of your intimate relationships. How vulnerable have you made yourself? Are there parts of yourself that you keep hidden? Do you lie by omission? Keep secrets? Revise the truth? If so, what toll do you think it has taken on your relationships? Are you truly close? And what are you really afraid of?
Many years ago while still in training a wise supervisor (Dr. Marc Rathbun) told me "marriage isn't about having fun, it's about growing up". I think those words are true for any deep relationship, not only marriage. I think that being close to someone is about growing up and realizing that we cannot continue to protect ourselves while expecting others to be vulnerable. We cannot be halfway invested and yet reap the full benefit of intimacy. Part of being an adult is moving past one's fear, past one's selfish desire to protect oneself at the expense of another. Withholding, lying and secrecy leaves the relationship inequitable. We hold cards the other doesn't. This is the currency of childhood, of a time when self-centerdness is the natural phase of our development. But it holds no place in adulthood and cannot lead to truly deep bonds with others. And circling back to my pragmatism, the good news is, if you practice disclosure and put all of your cards on the table, you will be rewarded with the same. In this way you create the intimacy we all need. The price, I would argue, is worth the benefit.
Wishing you health, happiness and closeness with those you love,
I'm a big podcast fan and today I was listening to the Moth podcast and found some great stories I wanted to share. The first is about falling in love but then finding that what was needed to move forward was too much to ask. The second is about a man who falls in love, marries the woman of his dreams, loses her and then gets her back. The last is about a man who loses his marriage but finds meaning and purpose in helping another.
I particularly like the second story because it touches on what not do to in a marriage (drift apart and ignore the drift until it's too late) and what TO do in a marriage (pay attention to each other as though you are still courting, never losing site that this is the one person above all others you want to please and yes, even serve).
I hope you enjoy!
The Moth Radio Hour: Mismatch, Marriage, and a Marathon
One of the most surprising things about being married can be the fights. I think most people figure that in a good marriage there isn't much fighting. Or at least if there is fighting that things get resolved. Neither are necessarily actually true. Dr. John Gottman, a famous couple's researcher, put couples in a research lab that was set up like an apartment and videotaped their interactions for an entire weekend. He collected lots of data on couples and followed up with them years later. Some of the things that he learned are that most couples fight, that fighting does not predict happiness in the marriage (or divorce) and that about 2/3 of what we fight about never gets resolved.
If you had told me that before I got married I might not have made it down the aisle. It just doesn't sound that encouraging.
But in the end I think for those of us who want to stay married we need to face up to these facts. That fighting doesn't have to be bad. It doesn't have to hurt the relationship. It also doesn't have to, nor should it, go on for hours and hours and ruin the rest of our day/night/weekend/vacation. And in the end there cannot, I repeat there cannot, be a winner and a loser. In a properly conducted marital fight there can only be a compromise on both sides. Anything else is heading for dark waters and eventual Splitsville.
I recently came across a great article in Esquire Magazine in their "Hitched" section (yes, I read everything, even Esquire). The article, entitled A Philosophy of Fighting, by Tom Junod, talked about how fighting is inevitable in relationships. Now, being nerdy I feel the need to point out that there are relationships in which people don't fight. Some of those relationship are healthy and some are not. Remember fighting does not indicate health or un-health or staying together or getting divorced. It's HOW the fighting is done that predicts those things. Fighting dirty = misery > divorce. Fighting fair = 50% misery + 50% bliss > celebrating 50+ wedding anniversaries.
Junod says "You never fail to be surprised by [the fights] and you never fail to be amazed that your marriage has survived them." I would add that you also never fail to be surprised that you are having the same dang fight about the same dang thing yet again. But, as Junod points out, if you are committed to the marriage you stay the course. "You know couples who called it quits after the first big fight, because they didn't like what they saw in the other person when they were fighting, and they particularly didn't like what they saw in themselves....Now you see their point. The first fight is the same as the second fight, and the second fight is the same as the last. If you want to stay married, you don't have to be able to stop fighting; you have to be able to keep fighting, in the same way. When you see elderly couples, you are amazed by the durability not only of their love but also of their animus — because from what you know of marriage, you know they are still fighting." So it's about changing our perspectives on what that long-term bliss looks like. When you see that elderly couple sitting on the park bench together and they seem so serene just picture her throwing his dirty socks at him because he's been leaving them on the floor for the last 50 years. Or picture him chastising her for riding the breaks or not using her turn signal. You get the picture.
Junod also points out something that is too often overlooked. If you were to conduct an autopsy of a deceased relationship it might surprise you to see the actual origin of the demise. It often happens long before "the big one" where someone drops the Divorce bomb. It starts with the small ones, the ones that don't seem too serious. As Junod puts it, "You think that some fights are trivial, because they are over trivial matters....[but] there are no trivial fights, because each fight has the potential to grow into the kind of fight that ends your marriage." I often find that people don't understand the care that relationships need to stay afloat. They feel free to dig deep into each other during fights about things like chores or vacation locations, really letting the nuclear warheads deploy over things that simply should not be worth that kind of damage. People seem to forget that our relationships need care and love and nurturance and that they cannot survive continued bombing and plundering. Each argument needs to be conducted with the rules in mind. No winners, no losers, no prisoners and no nuclear weapons. Period.
Here Junod and I agree again "A fight to the finish is what finishes a marriage. That's because over the course of married life, people supply their spouses with precisely what's required to finish them off. The question is not who can win, because anyone can win if they're willing to go far enough — if they're willing to win at the cost of love and respect. The question is who can abstain from winning, who can resist the temptation of winning, which, like any other marital temptation, is always there."
Or, as I try to tell couples that I work with "you can be right or you can be close". When being right takes precedence over being emotionally close and happy with your partner it may be time to re-evaluate your commitment to your marriage. You really can't have it all in that department. But hopefully you can discover that being close feels so much better in the long run than just being right in that moment. And remember, if you are anything like those couples studied by Gottman you are going to have that same argument over and over again anyway. So even if you "win" this time, you may lose the next. In the end it's just not worth it. Play nice. Follow the rules. Give ground. And stay close.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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