Family life

Marriage tune-up

You're not desperate for help - yet. Here's what marriage counsellors can teach you about preserving your marriage, starting now

By John Hoffman
Marriage tune-up

Ten years ago, I was happily married (still am), but I noticed a couple of things happening around me. For one, about half the couples my wife, Holly, and I knew — all of whom had children — had separated. Plus, I kept meeting younger (late 20s and early 30s) parents who were in a relationship with someone other than their children’s biological mother or father. As a long-time married couple (we celebrated our 27th anniversary last March), we were almost starting to feel like oddities.

But we’re not — not yet, anyway. According to Statistics Canada, the divorce rate has changed very little in the last 20 years and, in 2005, StatsCan reported that only 38 percent of couples would divorce before their 30th wedding anniversary. But among couples who do split, the average length of a marriage is about 14 years. So if you and your partner have been together half that long, it’s probably time for a little relationship maintenance. We picked the brains of marriage counsellors for tips on how to keep the love alive — and stay out of their offices!

May I have your attention, please

Here’s the good news: According to Seattle-based marriage-therapy guru John Gottman, one of the keys to staying together is to do something you’re probably already doing, some — if not much — of the time. Gottman’s research has shown that a couple’s happiness often hinges on how well they respond to each other’s “bids” — the gestures, big and small, people make many times a day to get attention, affection or mere acknowledgement from their partners. Some bids are obvious: hugs, kisses and direct requests, such as “Can we talk?” But bids can also be more subtle: “What’s a six-letter word for perseverance?” or “This hangnail is really hurting today.”

Why are these bids so important? They reveal a lot about a couple’s long-term stability. In the early 1990s, Gottman studied 130 couples in a special apartment lab. (This research did not include any same-sex couples, but Gottman believes his findings would be relevant to them as well.) He videotaped the partners’ interactions for 24 hours, and then analyzed the data. Six years later, researchers followed up with the same couples. Those who were still happy were dubbed the masters. Couples who’d divorced or who were still together but miserable became known as the disasters.

The analysis revealed that the masters noticed and responded to their partners’ bids 87 percent of the time. Not every interaction was mushy or effusive; often, it was just a quick answer, a look or a nod that conveyed interest — what Gottman calls “turning toward your partner.”

What’s more, says Darren Wilk, a Langley, BC, therapist trained and certified in the Gottman method of marriage counselling, the masters typically remained attentive to one another even when they were discussing a problematic issue, whether by listening, not interrupting or saying things such as “I see your point.”

On the other hand, the disasters were just as likely to ignore as they were to answer each other, no matter what the topic. “They weren’t necessarily fighting or being mean to each other constantly,” says Wilk. “But they didn’t respond to their partners’ bids nearly as often.” None of the less successful couples were really aware of the little ways they were shutting their partners out. “They rated themselves as happy in their relationships and didn’t think they were in trouble,” Wilk says.

“The take-home lesson here: Pay attention to your partner and be mindful of how negative you are during conflict,” says Wilk. “This is something we do really well when we’re in the courtship stage of a relationship.” But once couples become very comfortable with each other — and very busy with jobs and child care — they tend to pay less attention to these little moments of connection.

Share the load

Another sign of potential trouble down the road, says Ottawa marriage and family therapist Kathryn Guthrie, is when couples aren’t working together as parents. This happens frequently when one partner — usually mom — becomes far more involved in the care of young children than the other, and starts feeling overloaded and resentful, while the other — often dad — feels out of the loop.

“Fathers who feel their partner isn’t paying enough attention to them should ask themselves, Am I pulling my weight? Am I as involved with the children as I could be? Am I making more work for her?” says Guthrie. Many men don’t realize it, says Wilk, but taking on more of the mundane tasks around the house can be a big investment in your relationship. “The biggest bang for your buck is initiative,” he says. “See what needs to be done, and do it without being asked.”

Women, for their part, need to make room for daddy. Guthrie suggests women ask themselves: Am I doing anything to exclude him? Am I being critical of his efforts, expecting him to do things — be it snack time or bedtime — exactly my way? “Mothers sometimes need to remind themselves that putting energy into being a wife and partner doesn’t take anything away from their kids,” says Guthrie.

Beware of the communication busters

Few if any marriage counsellors would say that partners should never fight, but they do suggest that you try to “fight fair.” That’s because some ways of dealing with conflict tend to make it worse. Three of the biggest culprits are criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling.

We’re all critical at times — it makes us feel superior, Wilk says. But criticism tends to breed defensiveness and when people feel defensive, they often make excuses, deny responsibility and fire back counter-criticism. Couples end up arguing about who is more wrong rather than trying to understand the other’s point of view.

Gottman’s research revealed that, typically, women are criticizers and men are stonewallers. Guys get flooded when dealing with conflict or criticism, says Wilk, “and they just want to leave.” That may turn off the criticism momentarily, but it also frustrates the heck out of the other partner, and the conflict can become more entrenched. What men need to do, Wilk says, is find ways to convey that they want to deal with the problem. “So say, ‘I’m overwhelmed and upset right now, but can we talk in half an hour?’”

Meanwhile, the antidote to criticism, says Wilk, is complaining without blaming. This means talking about yourself — how something about your partner, or something he is doing, affects you. It also means asking for his help. So instead of saying “You never call,” try explaining your position: “I need to know when you’re going to be late.” Guthrie notes the importance of remembering that every story has two sides. “Be curious about where your partner is coming from, rather than just relying on your interpretation of his actions or motives,” she says. And it never hurts to acknowledge what your own part in the problem might be. “It’s probably not all you but, in most cases, it’s not all your partner’s fault, either,” Guthrie says.

Deal with it

We all do it: skirt around a significant, recurrent issue that causes tension with our partners. Maybe we fear what will happen if we bring it up, and just keep hoping it will go away by itself. But Guthrie advises that couples address these “wedge issues,” rather than let them fester. “When you’re avoiding a problem, your closeness can become more awkward, and over time it takes a toll,” she says. One partner needs to take the risk of saying “We have a problem here and we need to talk about it.” Let the heat of the moment pass and set up a time when you can both be on your best behaviour.

But be realistic. Gottman’s research found that trying to change things can actually be a major pitfall for some couples. “They concluded that 69 percent of the problems that couples were dealing with weren’t really solvable,” says Wilk. People would keep discussing them, all the while becoming increasingly frustrated with each other. The better approach, says Wilk, would be to accept that certain problems (and, ahem, attributes of your partner) must simply be lived with. Wilk, for example, admits he is seldom on time for anything. And my wife will never understand my way of giving directions. “Realize that you may be talking about such issues forever, so put some energy into developing gentler, less demanding, more productive ways of discussing them,” says Wilk.

Sometimes couples do need outside help to work through issues. A word from the wise: If you think you and your partner should be in counselling, don’t put it off. “Research shows that most people wait too long — six or seven years from the origin of their problems — before they go for therapy,” says Guthrie. “Seeking help is definitely not a sign of failure. It’s actually a positive way to invest in your relationship and the well-being of your family.”

Suggested reading to keep the love alive

The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work by John Gottman, Three Rivers Press
And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Crown
Conscious Loving by Gay Hendricks and Kathlyn Hendricks, Bantam
Undefended Love by Jeff Psaris and Marlena Lyons, New Harbinger Publications
• Darren Wilk’s website, which offers articles and tools to assess your relationship

This article was originally published on May 11, 2009

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