Seeing danger signs in your marriage

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When a couple is stuck in a negative pattern, even the slightest action can turn into an explosive eruption. For most couples who come for marriage therapy, they realize that they are not able to get out of it on their own. This acceptance is a first step to identify the problem behind the pattern, and then develop a plan for change that involves creating a new way to connect with each other.

Patterns in marriages are similar

The ingredients of a conflict are mostly similar with most couples in a negative pattern. In most cases, one partner criticizes or blames, and another defends or withdraws. For some couples both partners go into an attack mode, with one or both eventually retreating. In the worst cases, both partners stop attacking, but in a withdrawal state, the relationship is on life support.

In effective marriage therapy, we help couples stop the damage, reverse it, and build a new pattern. Ultimately, we want both partners to learn how to manage conflict effectively. The more intimate you are with your mate, the more likely you are to have conflicts—but the conflicts don’t spiral out of control. Instead, both partners see them as opportunities for growth. You can learn more about yourself, and about your spouse, during and after a conflict, if you both know how to navigate the fight.

Communication skills can help

I work to help couples learn how to address each other better, and how to respond to needs that are often under the surface. While it is true that criticism and contempt don’t work in a relationship, a couple needs help to get out of that negative pattern, and telling them not to follow the same pattern is not enough. I help partners manage their conflict more effectively, in realistic and practical ways. Couples need to learn more than conflict management skills, but some skills are useful.

For instance, instead of criticism, masters of relationships start their conversation with a complaint. “I’m getting overwhelmed because the garbage is piling up” is a lot easier to hear than the critical counterpart of “Why can’t you even take the garbage out!” The more inviting start of the conversation could be followed by invitation that lets a partner know how much he or she is valued, basically communicating how the spouse can be a superhero. “If you could take the garbage out, you would really help relieve the stress that I’m in right now.”

Seeing the warning signs that can doom marriages

A pattern of criticism and contempt signal major warning signs in a love relationship, and should be addressed before a couple spirals into negativity. We have more warning signs to be aware of, including defensiveness and “stonewalling,” when a partner ignores and tunes out the other. These patterns combined, without an effective intervention, lead to separation or divorce in over 90% of couples, as John Gottman found in his research with thousands of couples. Considering how high the damage can be, if you and your partner can’t get out of your negative pattern, effective marriage therapy can turn the tide, even for relationships in severe distress. So often couples feel overwhelmed with hurt and pain, and don’t realize how quickly these patterns can change when both partners are motivated to make their relationship better.

 

Is Your Spouse Voting for Trump?

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Can the election lead to divorce or separation? Do partners or spouses need to both be Democrat, Republican, or Independent for a marriage to survive? Marriage and relationship research tells us that while partners who belong to the same affiliation are more likely to match, once they are in a relationship, political differences themselves don’t have to derail a marriage.

A love relationship breaks down over many factors, but they are quantifiable and predictable. When a couple enters a relationship, often the chemistry that attracts them can paint the partner in the most positive light, and blind them to negative aspects. For instance, one partner’s “lack of expression” in the beginning of the relationship is experienced as calming. As the relationship continues, the spell can turn to a surprising awakening that the partner is “cold” and dismissive.

The dynamic in the relationship shifts from romantic notions of connection to feelings of loneliness. The couple is headed toward a negative sentiment override, John Gottman’s term for a couple seeing more negative than positive aspects in their partner. With this shift, suddenly the support for Clinton or Trump from one partner becomes an elephant in the room, yet another reason the other partner is viewed as “selfish” or “too sensitive.”

When a couple enters negative sentiment override, the choice of a political candidate isn’t the real issue that is harming the marriage. A couple needs an effective intervention to help them regain mostly positive feelings toward each other. A healthy dynamic includes a couple being able to discuss and honor the similarities and differences of each other. This does not mean necessarily agreeing with your spouse, but you can see where he or she is coming from, and understand why he or she believes what he or she does.

Whatever the outcome of the elections next Tuesday, a marriage does not have to be threatened by differences. Can you understand your partner, and appreciate his or her perspective? Perhaps creating a “we” in a relationship means appreciating and making space for two “I’s.”

Does political party disrupt your marriage or love relationship? Share your experience, and join the conversation.

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What Are Your Relationship Deal Breakers?

Did your man or woman pass your love test?

Did your man or woman pass your love test?

When you met your partner or spouse, did he or she pass your "deal breakers" test? If you are like many couples, the chemistry that drew you to your partner may have been nature's way of cementing the bond between you, and many of the items on your "deal breakers" list may have been tossed to the side. Perhaps the next question may be, how much do "deal breakers" matter down the road, and if the person you fell in love with passed your test without any deal breakers on your list appearing, are you more likely to stay together over the long haul, happily?

Elizabeth Bernstein writes in the November 2, 2015 Wall Street Journal that partners in love relationships focus more on the negative qualities of a partner than positive attributes when considering a deepening of commitment. The potential for risk can outweigh the potential for rewards. Studies published in October of this year show that women have more deal breakers than men, perhaps related to evolutionary factors influencing the survival of raising a child. Participants in the study with higher self-esteems were much more choosy than those with lower self-esteems, having more items on their deal breaker list.

Both men and women in the studies scored a potential mate being "unclean" as a deal breaker, followed by "lazy" and "too needy." Women ranked a partner not having a "sense of humor" as a breaker, perhaps because humor is associated with higher intelligence (men did not score this as a high factor). For men, "low sex drive" and "talking too much" were higher deal breakers (women rated "bad sex" as a breaker). For a long-term mate, the top deal breakers were "anger issues," "dating multiple partners," and "untrustworthy." Shorter-term relationship deal breakers topped off with "health issues--like STDs," "smells bad," and "poor hygiene."

Were you too picky? Or not picky enough?

Were you too picky? Or not picky enough?

Was your list overly picky, or not picky enough? The studies show patterns in mate selection, but may have a more difficult time reading in-between the lines to explain the patterns. My observations as a marriage and couples therapist in New York using the Loving at Your Best plan are that partners usually have high sexual chemistry when they meet, and emotional chemistry builds over time. Initial deal breakers that stop the possibility of a relationship from forming are usually apparent from the start: desire for children, religious or political affiliations, smoking habits, financial and social status, and pet preferences, to name a few filters.

However, the factors that matters the most related to long-term happiness in a marriage or love relationship doesn't include any of the qualities mentioned so far on the "deal breaker" list. The key element for a couple's happiness boils down to two words: emotional responsiveness. This may seem simple, but a lot goes into whether a mate can turn to his or her partner and share even the most vulnerable parts of him or herself, and trust that his or her partner will respond in a way that can help him or her feel better. I have seen many couples where one partner started couples therapy determined not to have a child. After some hard work in the relationship, the couple is able to frame the real block as a matter of trust: can I trust you to still be there for me, that I won't get lost in your eyes if we bring a child into this world together? Usually key relationship experiences in this person's background give them every reason to be wary of having children, and once those reasons are understood and validated, an opening can occur to help the couple identify what is needed to take a leap together.

What are key questions we ask in love relationships?

What are key questions we ask in love relationships?

Reading between the lines of the long-term relationship deal breakers, they all involve key questions we all ask in love relationships: can I count on you to be there for me when I really need you? Can I trust that I am in your mind, that you would not purposefully hurt me? The top deal breaker in the studies of "anger issues" usually is related to how a partner manages his or her emotions in the love relationship, and how the other partner responds to him or her. What some on the outside see as purely an "anger management" issue usually reflects more on a disconnection occurring between the partners that leads to protests in the form of anger: what does it take to get through to him or her? This is a breakdown in the couple's connection. "Dating multiple partners" and "untrustworthiness" are probably related to the same issue of mistrust. A lot of factors influence infidelity, though for most caught in its painful web, a couple has experienced a series of disappointments or even emotional betrayals, and a partner chooses to cope with the hurt by seeking validation or support outside the primary relationship. Certainly there are times when this is not the case, such as a partner who comes into the relationship with a sexual addiction, or a person who is challenged by limits and feels entitled to act however he or she chooses to, though these are the rare cases that I have seen.

What initially drew you to your partner can develop into an allergic reaction

What initially drew you to your partner can develop into an allergic reaction

Couples also often identify that the qualities that initially drew them to their mate can become the things that drive wedges between the two in a marriage or love relationship. For instance, Jan claims that Chris's calm demeanor was very attractive, instilling a sense of safety that felt like a reprieve from Jan's childhood growing up with an alcoholic parent. However, as time and experiences showed, this "calmness' that Chris showed became a way to dismiss emotions, and brought out anger and resentment in Jan. The root problem was how the couple connected, not an inherent flaw in Chris. Fortunately, the couple was able to identify the problem, and make strides so that Jan could feel that Chris was safe to go to when feeling vulnerable, and Chris could feel confident to know how to respond in a way that helped Jan feel better. 

The studies also show the notion of a couple magically being sexually connected. We have all seen this in Hollywood movies, and plenty of couples have not recovered from sexual challenges that involve deep emotional themes. Satisfying sex in a marriage or love relationship over time requires the safety to communicate wants, needs, desires, and fears. When the safety is lacking, one or both partners start to withdraw, avoiding sex and intimacy, or becomes overly demanding, which ends up pushing the other partner away. Sex and intimacy that is satisfying and fulfilling in a love relationship requires a safe connection between both partners.

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Are you in an unpredictable marriage?

Can you count on your partner?

Can you count on your partner?

The cost of being in a marriage or love relationship when you do not know whether you can count on your partner or spouse may surprise you. Tara Parker-Pope writes in the October 26, 2015 issue of the New York Times about new research from Brigham Young University showing that relationships where one or both partners can’t count on his or her spouse for love and support affect that partner’s health negatively (NYTimes). This is not a surprising finding in my twenty years of experience working with couples as a marriage therapist in New York City. The body can easily be flooded with adrenaline during a conflict, especially when high levels of anxiety are present. When partners are distressed, anxiety can take over every element of the dynamic. Research shows that after two minutes of adrenaline being pumped into the nervous system, cortisol is released, a damaging hormone that lowers the immune system. Distressed partners have a lot of cortisol releases, and a lowered immune system takes a toll on overall physical health.

Some key findings from marriage and couples researchers include:

  • Harsh startups almost never end well: 96 percent of the time the outcome of a conversation can be predicted by the first three minutes of a 15 minute conversation
  • When all four ingredients of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are present in a relationship, the chances of the marriage or love relationship ending increase to 94%, unless there is an active intervention to change the dynamic
  • Criticism boils down to: what is wrong with you?
  • Defensiveness sends a message to a partner that “the problem isn’t me, it’s you”
  • Contempt is feeling disgust toward a partner or spouse: it is the result of a repeated pattern of negativity in a relationship. The recipient of contempt in a relationship is physically ill 33% more than a partner in a healthy relationship
  • Stonewalling involves tuning a partner out, emotionally. The partner often sees this pattern as a way to stave off the worst affects of a conflict, without realizing how stonewalling escalates most fights—until both partners enter this stage, usually when a relationship is hanging by a thread)

A Happy Heart: Calming Effects

Additional research backs up the findings from the Brigham Young University study, including observations of couples having a conflict showing that marital fights lacking warmth or including a controlling tone were as predictive as smoking or high cholesterol for poor heart health. A University of Virgina study by James A. Coan showed that couples in satisfying relationships had a calming effect on the brain similar to pain-relieving drugs, while couples in distressed relationships did not show the same calming benefit. In some ways, being sometimes supportive and sometimes not is more difficult for our brains to accept than knowing the response won’t happen.

Problems in a Marriage Can Become Intractable

Get help before the problem becomes intractable

Get help before the problem becomes intractable

As the lead researcher in the University of Virgina study, James Coan, suggested, even couples in distressed relationships could seek counseling before the problems in the relationship became intractable. This is echoed by John Gottman’s findings, warning that the average couple enters marriage or couples therapy after a disconnection has become nearly insurmountable. Yet, dramatic change in love relationships can happen, and often relatively quickly, when both partners are motivated to make their relationship better. As long as one or both partners have not “checked out” of the relationship, couples can shift from distress to happiness in a relatively short time period.

A Clear Path to Positive Predictability in a Marriage

From my experiences with couples seeking marital therapy, they have gotten stuck in patterns that are all too familiar in their life histories, and just need to first understand how they got into the pain, and find a way out through experiencing each other differently, repeatedly. This is the dynamic couples focus on in therapy: understanding negative patterns, and creating new ways of connecting that can be healing and securing. Although painful at times, the reward of couples therapy can far outweigh the discomfort when often years of hurtful experiences get supplanted by positive responses in a marriage or love relationship--changes that help both partners feel the other is predictable in a positive way.

Are you in an ambivalent relationship? Take the online quiz: AMBIVALENT?

Sources: the New York Times, October 26, 2015, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman (Harmony, 2015).

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