By Terry Gaspard, LICSW
The most common complaint of couples today is that they’ve fallen out of love. However, falling out of love usually doesn’t occur overnight. Likewise, relationship repair takes time and effort on the part of both partners and includes practicing forgiveness and emotional attunement. There aren’t any foolproof ways for couples to repair problems in their marriage but ending destructive relationship patterns is a good first step.
Put an End to Harmful Relationship Patterns
According to experts, the most common reason couples divorce is because of a pursuer-distancer pattern that develops over time. Dr. Sue Johnson identifies the pattern of demand-withdraw as the “Protest Polka” and says it’s one of three “Demon Dialogues.” She explains that when one partner becomes critical and aggressive the other often becomes defensive and distant. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples discovered that partners that get stuck in this pattern the first few years of marriage have more than a 80% chance of divorcing in the first four or five years.
Another common reason why couples split is the blame game. Dr. Johnson writes: “If we love our partners why don’t we just hear each other’s call for attention and connection and respond with caring?” In other words, instead of focusing on your partner’s flaws and looking to blame him or her, try spending your energy fostering a deeper connection. Stop assuming the worst of your partner and put an end to demanding your partner change. Instead focus on your needs and how you can communicate them in a loving, respectful way. Take responsibility for your part in a problem – none of us is without flaws.
In over 40 years of research on couples in his “Love Lab” Dr. Gottman discovered that the two leading causes for divorce are criticism and contempt. In his book Why Marriages Succeed and Fail, he reminds us that criticizing our partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. For instance, a complaint is: “I was worried when you didn’t call me. We agreed that we’d check in when one of us was running late.” In comparison, criticism might be: “You never think about me, you’re so selfish.”
Further, Dr. Gottman informs us that the reason why contempt is so damaging to a marriage is that it conveys disrespect. When we communicate disrespectfully we might use sarcasm, ridicule, mimicking, an icy tone of voice, or resort to name-calling. The goal is to make the other person feel despised or worthless, which almost always backfires or makes the situation worse.
Infidelity: Does It Have to End My Marriage?
Infidelity is all too common and when it occurs, it raises many questions. Should you stay? Can trust be rebuilt? It depends on the couple and their willingness to resolve the issues and repair the relationship.
While infidelity can be devastating to a marriage, some specialists believe that it is important to try to resolve the crisis and rebuild trust if possible. According to therapists Rona B. Subotnik, L.M.F.T and Gloria Harris, Ph.D., getting to the root of infidelity is crucial. In their book Surviving Infidelity, they write, “Because extramarital sex still plays a role in the dissolution of many marriages, and because the divorce rate continues to be so high, it is important to know more about it.” Subotnik and Harris’s goal is to keep most marriages together – even after trust has been broken by the wounds of infidelity.
Assessing the Seriousness of the Threat
Knowing the type of affair your spouse is involved in can help you determine the serious of it but does not take away the pain associated with it. Nonetheless, assessing the degree of seriousness and the threats that it poses to your marriage, can help you make a decision about continuing in the relationship. For instance, flings – which can be a one-night stand or go on for months – are the least serious type of affair and romantic love affairs –think “Casablanca” – pose the greatest threat to a marriage.
However, if you have survived infidelity, you may decide that divorce is the only option. Even if you suspected that your partner was cheating, knowing is intensely disturbing. In many cases, the decision to terminate a marriage should not be made in haste. Regardless, divorce is typically a painful process for all involved.
10 Warning Signs that your marriage is headed for divorce:
- You argue about the same things over and over (and over) again and never seem to clear the air. You both feel like you’re the loser and that you often have to defend your position.
- You feel criticized and put down by your partner frequently and this leaves you feeling less than “good enough.” According to renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, criticism is one of the main reasons why marriages collapse.
- You have difficulty being vulnerable with your significant other and when you do your worst fears are actualized – you’re left regretting that you revealed your feelings and desires.
- One or both of you put your children or others first. Many parents fall into the trap of putting their children first and the outcome is resentful, alienated parents and demanding, insecure children.
- You don’t enjoy each other’s friends or families so begin socializing away from one another. This may start out as an occasional weeknight out. But if not nipped in the bud, it can spill over into weekends – ideally when couples have an opportunity to spend more time together.
- You have ghosts from past relationships that surface because they were not dealt with. You may overreact to fairly innocent things your partner says or does because it triggers a memory from a past relationship.
- Your needs for sexual intimacy are vastly different and/or you rarely have sex. Relationship expert Cathy Meyer writes, “Whether it is him or you that has lost interest, a lack of regular intimacy in a marriage is a bad sign. Sex is the glue that binds, it is the way us adults play and enjoy each other.”
- You and your partner have fallen into a pursuer- distancer pattern – one of the main causes of divorce. Over time, it erodes the love and trust between you because you’ll lack the emotional and sexual intimacy that comes from being in harmony with each other.
- When you disagree you seldom repair your relationship and get back on track. You fall into the trap of blaming each other and fail to compromise or apologize. As a result, you experience less warmth and closeness. According to Dr. John Gottman, the number one solution to this problem is to get really good at repair skills. He tells Business Insider that you’ve got to get back on track after a fight if you don’t want issues to fester.
- Emotional, verbal, or physical abuse that causes a partner to feel unsafe. For the most part, experts agree that any type of abuse erodes feelings of security, trust, or sense of belonging in a relationship and these issues can’t be resolved in the context of a marriage.
In closing, for your marriage is going to thrive, it’s important to create daily rituals of spending time together, show physical affection, and learn to repair conflicts in a healthy way. Practicing emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. According to Dr. Gottman, this means “turning toward” one another, showing empathy, and not being defensive. Finally, be sure to pay close attention to the role you play if you are drifting apart and focus on what you can do to reconnect with your partner rather than resorting to the “blame game.”
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.