The 69%

John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along.  One of Gottman’s insights – and onedifferences I find of, perhaps, the greatest value – is this: Of all the couples he has studied – with those who separate after a brief time together to those who are together for 60 years (and through all those years others marvel at what a strong, enduring bond they display) – among all of these couples, roughly 69% of their conflicts are perpetual.  They will never be resolved.  Put another way, if each person is waiting for the other to just compromise (“If they’ll move a little toward me, I’ll move toward them.”) each will be continually disappointed, irritated and estranged.  It’s just not going to happen – for either person.  The areas of conflict  are myriad and examples provided by Gottman include differences in: Approach to finances; Preferred love-making style or frequency; Approach to child-rearing; Sociability; Relationship to extended family or in-laws; Emotional expressiveness; Work before play vs. Play before work; Neatness/Organization; Private time vs. Alone time; Punctuality; Activity level; Religious observance and Approach to conflict.

Think about it.  Of these differences (and others) about 69% will be there on the first day of the relationship and remain until the 60th year.  “Why, then, don’t all relationships blow apart?” you might ask.  Excellent question.  The couples who endure and thrive are those who are able understand and appreciate the underlying values that support the other’s approach.  Also, it is so important to understand that the other’s persistence in making their way through the world in their way is not a rejection of us or a statement that we are not important (after all they are probably feeling that they are not important to us because if they were, we would not be so upset about them being the way they are).  I have seen many people sigh with relief, and lower their shoulders in relaxation at the understanding that this difference is not a toxic and irredeemable flaw in their relationship, but, rather just something that comes with all connections between two different people and which is shared by long, long term relationships.

The Moment I Knew

doneRecently, Huffington Post put a slideshow on their “Divorce” page that was very enlightening.  They asked readers to respond with “the moment I knew my marriage was over.”  There are over 150 responses in  that slide show and, boy, do they range far and wide!  Yet they do tend to fall into a discrete number of set categories.

One category is the “I just woke up one morning and knew.”  That’s a hard one to work with, as I often liken the decision that the relationship is over to a campfire (appropriate image for the Northwest).  At the end of the night, after staring at a brilliant, dancing flame hovering over intense, glowing embers, we turn in – and upon awakening, sometimes the logs are still there, charred, but partly intact.  If you lift one up you may see a bit of life that, if blown upon intensely enough, will start to smoke and a flame may emerge.  However, other times, it may have rained overnight and in the morning, we emerge from our tent to find a dead fire.  No amount of effort will revive anything.  The fire is simply……gone.  That’s like the woman who responded, “when I took my wedding ring off and couldn’t bring myself to put it back on.”

There’s another category which Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy calls, “relationship traumas.”  Infidelity is, of course, a leading (and searing) relationship trauma.  It is difficult, but by no means impossible, to heal from this, but that’s another story for another day (post).  There are others, however.  Some people responded that they were facing a health crisis and their spouse was unresponsive or disappeared.  An example is, “The moment I knew was when I went into the hospital for emergency surgery and nearly died.  I was in the hospital for 6 days.  He didn’t visit once.  I got no calls and all of two texts.  People I barely knew at least called.”  Others describe an incredibly demeaning statement or attitude, like the one respondent who said, “”when I was picked for a prestigious conference in NY – he didn’t congratulate – asked who would watch the kids.”  Others relate statements made by their partner that just floor them, like one who replied, “When he said he’d divorce me if I went to console my best friend (who is like a sister) after the passing of her mother.”  For sure, these are all blows and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done if the marriage can overcome the trauma of one spouse’s sense of utter abandonment at a moment of deepest need.  Yet, when I read these kinds of posts, I don’t automatically think, “Well that marriage is over!”  Actually, that’s the way I found myself responding to many of these posts.  Many of the wounds that people describe are sharp and deep and they absolutely need to be talked about.  Honest remorse and forgiveness are necessary and entirely possible, but, again, I don’t think people are able to do this on their own – or for that matter in an office of a couples counselor who acts as an umpire and decides who is right and who is wrong.  It’s really fascinating and heart-full work.  That’s why I love it so.

Vive la Difference

Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venumanandwomans.   Between its hardcovers (and I recall it being in hardback for a long, long time – well after most personal growth/self help books had gone into paperback) Gray talked about the many fundamental differences between men and women.  For years after its release, I listened to experienced marital therapists dismiss him and his book as overly simplistic.  While there may be some truth to that, I think it’s hard to ignore the reality that the two sexes do seem to process the world differently……as a general rule.  There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, but some things do seem to be gender related.  One example is the way women often prefer to talk things out.  If something has happened in her life, she wants to be able to talk it through, being pretty confident that she can come up with a solution herself as she airs out the experience.  He, on the other hand, likes to drive for solutions.  Any problem raised is an invitation to come up with a solution.  When one person interacts with the other, the solution-seeker may get frustrated by the continued recounting of the problem, while the problem-discusser is frustrated by the other’s quick-cut to a solution.  It feels like she’s being shut down.  Well, we are lucky to have this problem described and solved in a two-minute YouTube video.  If you have not seen this yet, enjoy.

In or Out

As the New Year dawns there are those among us who are now facing the deepest question and ultimate personal challenge.  Do I stay in my relationship/marriage or do I leave?  The uncertainty is hugely destabilizing – but then, how can it not be, with so much on the line and no clear answer?  I want to share a conversation I had recently with a man seeking couples counseling to get out of his marriage (to get help breaking the news).  He was sure that he wanted out, but when he talked about the reasons he had come to this conclusion, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow!  I’ve worked successfully with couples to overcome that issue.”  I often tell couples I am counseling, who are in distress, that when people get swept up in their continuous cycle of conflict and frustration, if left to their own devices, they will probably blow apart.  I realized in the conversation that I feel pretty confident about helping distressed couples turn a corner to reconnect and deepen their bond.  So I asked him, “If I could tell you with complete confidence that if you worked on your marriage with me you could reconnect with your partner and have the kind of relationship you long for….would you want to do that with this person?”  I have asked that question before and sometimes I receive an answer along the lines of, “I’m excited about that….though doubtful.”  That’s something to work with…even if the person is very doubtful.  However, if you sleep on that notion and conclude that you don’t want to have that with this particular person, even if it can be achieved, that seems like a pretty telling answer.

In a way, it’s a “trust your gut” question.  I have written an earlier post about the divorce decision and viewing it as an impermeable barrier that, once you cross it, you really can’t return.  This is another view of the question from a different angle.  Asking yourself the question above may help you know.  I hope this is of some small help because I know the limbo of uncertainty is a dreadful place to be.

The Weight of Depression

Those of us who have suffered with depression isolate.  We cannot bear contact with others.  It’s as if our brains are exquisitely sensitive to touch.  Nobody can understand the depth and the utter truth of our dark, endless despair.  When we are in an intimate relationship the complications can magnify.  We can’t really isolate.  In the depth of a depressive episode, we maintain such a focus on our horrible inner pain that the very notion that we have an impact on another is hard to fathom – well, we easily see ourselves as a burden on others – but we don’t understand the depression as something other than ourselves.  Depression is an illness that challenges the relationship.  It is not the depressed person who challenges the relationship.   A good web article on this subject may be found here:    Depression and intimate relationships  My wish for all depression sufferers who struggle in your marriages is that you embrace the reality that this darkness is not you and that with treatment you can come to know that the pain is not permanent – it can pass and you can recover a life that allows kindness, peace and joy to touch your heart.  Having a loving partner who will join with you is among your greatest gifts.

Guys and Letting It Go

man.letting.goOne of the big goals in relationship work is to help shift people who are intimately bonded from a place of defensiveness and anger to one of connection and safety.  It’s a process and requires patience, but it is a goal many have achieved.  One of the steps along the journey occurs when one partner will shift, if just for a moment, from that hard, self-protective, space and reach out to the other.  The gesture may be a glimpse of vulnerability, or word of tenderness.  It is what Gottman calls a “repair attempt” and when a couple is clicking, these repair attempts are acknowledged and reciprocated and the temperature lowers to safe levels.

However, one thing I have noticed over time is that men, more than women, tend to respond to the softening from their partner with a continued recitation of old hurts and past insults.  I often wonder at this tenacious grip on earlier pains in the face of (what seems to me at least to be) ardent attempts by their partner to reach out.  It seems to me that what these men are saying is that they still don’t think their partners really, deeply, understand the pain they experienced (and if my partner doesn’t understand the depth of the pain I experienced, how can I believe and trust that they will not strike out again).  This dilemma points to one important goal in any successful couples therapy, which is to help the partner understand that when he brings up these old wounds it is not because he wants to continue fighting.  He just desperately needs assurance that his partner is safe for him and she gets how their conflict just knocks him off his feet.  He needs to hear that she does not want to hurt him so deeply and will be very careful – even if she is, herself, hurt or frightened.   It may be a slow, halting process, but once that trust begins to settle in he will almost always find himself free to be who he has always wanted to be in this complex, rich, intimate dance.

Couples Counseling and the High Funtioning Woman

Many (most) women who come into my office with their partners  to work on their troubled relationships are quite high functioning.  At least from my observations, these woman really display a skill in multi-tasking.  Sometimes, this remarkable functionality keeps her busy – so busy that I get the impression that she’s racing to keep ahead of something.  While I am not a fan of long dissections of our childhood to get at what is going on now, I also believe its impossible to understand that now without some flavor of the past.  Our families of origin are where we learn our earliest and most indelible lessons.  True or false – here is where we first learn about ourselves in the world.   Are intimate relationships safe?  Am I worthy of love?  How do others really see me?

The highly effective woman will often come into my office with the most poignant, powerful dilemma.  On the one hand, she has gotten it done throughout her life – often in the face of an utter absence of love and support from her important caretaker(s).  She grew up believing that there was nobody she could ever really lean on.  In fact, the idea of really leaning on anyone is so frightening – What if they can’t or don’t want to be there for me.  What if my need is an imposition or a reason for them to judge and dismiss me as not worthy of love.  Better I take care of myself.

Yet that is exactly what a close, bonded, adult attachment relationship is – Knowing that you will be there to catch me if I fall.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of.  There are lots of ways that can happen for us.  Guys need it in their ways.  He may think of it in terms of sex or as being okay and still loved even if he screws something up.  She may just need to know that she can collapse every once in a while – to be exhausted or overwhelmed or scared and it’ll be okay.  She will be okay.  She will still be seen as strong, worthy, desired – still be loved.

Adult Attachment

How comfortable are we being close in our intimate relationships?   Do our internal alarm bells go off frequently as we feel our partner pulling away from us?  Or is it the opposite – we begin to sweat when they seek to be too close.  Do our partners describe us as “clingy” or “aloof?”

Many of us struggle to one degree or another with connections.  We often repeat the same dramas and frustrations in our relationships, if we allow ourselves to get close enough to risk the pain or aggravation to begin with – a risk that we willingly take for the love, comfort and companionship we gain.  As with so much in life, there is nothing inherently wrong with our tendencies in one direction or another.  The trouble, and pain, often arise when, as we so often will, find ourselves bonding with someone who has a contrasting style.  Our need for space will feel to our partner like heartlessness and even contempt.  (It’s hard to feel contempt from our partner and not freak out.)  On the other side, our need for assurance will feel to our partner as clinginess. (It’s hard to feel that intensity and not close up and withdraw.)  However, as is usually the case one person is not contemptuous and the other isn’t clingy.  It’s the terribly painful cycle that gets triggered.  There is an interesting test available on the web here:   Adult Attachment Style which can give you and your partner some insight into your tendencies and where the gaps may be which you can fill in with understanding and compassion.

In Praise of Naps (and other couples therapy verites)

I have frequently said that a turning point in my marriage came when my on-the-go wife accepted my naps.  For the first couple of years my afternoon fade into crankiness bucked up against her “How can you waste perfectly good day time,” plea.  Eventually, to the blessed relief of my amygdala and the balance of life in the cosmos, weekend naps were accorded their rightful place in our home.  I came across another confirmation in Slate today – an article which describes how lack of sleep contributes to heightened couple conflict.

Fatigue isn’t the only other stressor that may tax a couple.  I have worked with couples who have no time with each other and haven’t since their first of three children came along or who have suffered with financial setbacks that have necessitated pulling back on a previously comfortable lifestyle or who have opened their home to one’s parents.  While the heart of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is the exploration and calming of attachment-related anxieties and wounds inflicted in the whipsaw-like cycle which grabs the couple, we can never ignore the presence of stressors which attack and challenge connection we all hope to maintain in our relationships.  Many years ago, Holmes and Rahe engaged in a study which attempted to identify and rate the intensity of various life stressors.  A review of these events is an excellent summary of the kinds of external “psycho-social stressors” which can put pressure on a relationship and result in conflict over repeated issues – which may just be seen as symptomatic of the stress as much as (or more than) anything else.  These include: trouble with the law, bankruptcy, illness, trouble with in-laws, beginning or ending a job, a child leaving home (or hitting adolescence), change in residence, change in work situation and loss of a close friend, among others.  This is why, in any assessment of intimate stress, we must always ask, “What is happening now in your lives?  Has anything changed recently?”

Therapy Metaphors from Movies

In Emotionally Focused Therapy, we speak of a cycle which captures the couple in distress.  Often there will be a partner caught in the cycle who will experience deep, visceral anxiety over being left alone.  That feeling of utter isolation has brought to my mind an iconic scene from Kubrick’s classic 2001 – A Space Odyssey.  Frank, one of the two astronauts on the craft which is run by the malevolent computer, HAL, is performing repairs outside.  HAL manages to cut Frank’s life-line and we see this desperate figure floating out into nothingness.  The spot we see on the right is Frank, struggling for air….unmoored……lost.  This is the image that strikes me when I hear of the desperation of the partner who feels emotionally abandoned in the relationship.  She (not always, but often she) will struggle against this panic.  It is Frank’s panic as he disappears into a vacuum.

So often, when one partner experiences the panic of isolation in the void the response will be heightened protest – a very intense effort to achieve some connection….some oxygen.  This may be experienced by the other partner as attack.  His (not always, but often his) experience brings to mind the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan.  The thousands of landing craft approaching the beach.  Reinforced steel doors shield the soldiers from any assaults.  Then, with a spin of a locking-wheel, the door swings down to create a ramp for the the soldiers to disembark.  However, many of these men are decimated by machine gun fire before they can move a muscle.  It is a violent assault and you want to swing those doors back up to protect the men.  People who experience themselves to be the target of the anger and desperation  of their partners, tend to (emotionally) curl up in a self-protective ball.  Often, withdrawal to “safety” is the only conceivable step.

Thus, begins the cycle of pursuit/protest and withdrawal/protection that so many couples bring with them to couples therapy.  The task we face is to slow down this rapdily spinning cycle.  Over time, if we can slow it down, we can begin to create some safety in the couple’s interaction.  One will feel less dismissed/abandoned/despised and the other will feel less attacked/demeaned/despised.  Slowly we begin to incorporate a positive momentum in couples interactions.  We create a positive cycle.  I imagine a propellor on the Titanic.  The scene from the movie can be accessed on the web.  In a panic, the watchmen phone down to the engine room.  These people have no time to reverse the course of the great ship.  We watch the propellers slow to a stop and then reverse themselves.

The hope of the work we do, is to support couples in their passage from propellers spinning in their cycle at full speed  – slowing to a stop – then picking back up at full speed, supporting a positive cycle.

Thank you James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick – marital theorists all!