Some years ago, a therapist named Susan, who had four decades of experience, confessed that she felt more like a divorce facilitator than a couples’ counselor because, for 90% of the couples she saw, it was already too late. She explained that she was the last stop, not the first, and that by the time most couples sat down on her couch, the patterns had been fixed for years, and it was likely as not that contempt and downright animosity had replaced whatever love and affection once existed.
Research, however, shows that this doesn’t have to be the case, and that there are things we can do to stop the downward spiral of our most intimate relationship, either with a therapist’s help or on our own. (Sexual connection will be addressed in another post.)
1. Reinvigorate your connection.
Boredom plays an important role in declining marital satisfaction, according to research by Irene Tsapelas and others finding that being bored in a relationship today can predict dissatisfaction nine years from now. It’s not just conflict that you need to pay attention to but levels of engagement.
So what are you doing to stay close?
Remember how you felt when you first met your partner, and the joy of discovering who she or he was like? Too many of us, caught in day-to-day stresses and the distractions of cell phones and email, forget the simple pleasure of conversations that bring us closer. Famously, Arthur Aron and his colleagues did a series of experiments in which they generated feelings of closeness through personal disclosure. In long-term relationships, this kind of talk—which was the basis for connecting in the first place—is often abandoned and forgotten.
Bring it back by spending time sharing. Ask each other questions that go beyond the mundane: “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?” (This question is drawn from Aron’s study.) Done right, this doesn’t have to be a parlor game.
Another study by Aron showed that doing something new together also increased closeness and commitment. Why not try it? Like gardens, relationships need tending to.
2. Stop relational patterns in their tracks.
“The same old tattoo” is what a certain someone in my life used to say dismissively, with his arms folded across his chest, whenever I brought up anything that was bothering me. This interaction actually has a name—“demand/withdrawal”—and a deserved reputation for being an especially effective relationship killer around and reliable predictor of divorce. If this is a pattern in your relationship—and anyone can play either role, although it is more common for women to be in the “demand” situation and men in the “withdraw” position—you need to recognize it and work at stopping it, ideally in a moment of calm, not agitation.
Serial arguments, according to the work of Michael E. Roloff and Rachel M. Reznik, can be tackled to the ground with constructive communication. The key is to let go of the “in it to win it” mentality that can overtake you in the midst of an argument, or the tit-for-tat responses we may reflexively resort to when we are really riled up and in pain. Roloff and Reznik focus on what needs to be done to reduce the mutual hostility that amps up fighting and keeps constructive criticism at bay, and outline a three-part process based on their research:
Stop the spiral before it starts. Be proactive. Since these are repetitive fights, they often have predictable triggers—it could be a disagreement over how to handle one of your kids, your in-laws’ pending visit, or money being tight—so talk about it calmly first. If you see signs of a brewing fight—a shift in tone or body language—stop and take a break. Yes, it’s a time-out for grown-ups, so each partner can collect his or her thoughts. Take as much time as you need to cool off and then continue the discussion.
Work on expressing yourself in ways that won’t lead to escalation. Substitute less inflammatory words and make sure you’re not launching personal attacks. As Roloff and Reznik explain, “You really made me angry and you need to change” will only put another person in defensive (withdrawal) stance; instead, phrase an invitation to talk: “I’m bothered by your decision; can you explain why you did that?”
Finally, each of you has to get a handle on your own negative emotions, and figure out how to regain your own self-control and help your partner regain his or hers. It takes two to both escalate and de-escalate a conflict.
3. Rediscover touch.
Has touch in your relationship been relegated to the bedroom? Studies show that touching each other, especially during time of stress, is not only a primal, direct way of showing compassion and feeling for your partner; it also increases your sense of connection. According to the work of Jennifer L. Goetz and others, touch is involved in two social process related to the evolution of compassion: soothing, and the formation of cooperative bonds. Compassion makes you aware of your partner—and his or her pain—and touch reinforces that awareness. While distress promotes focus on the self (“I hurt!”), compassion and touch establish connection. Since the really destructive forms of interaction in relationships include defensive and offensive behaviors—physical and emotional separation of the dyad—touch is one way of re-establishing connection. And touch here means just what it sounds like—a hand on the forearm, for example. When you reach for your partner, what does your touch convey? Does your spouse touch you or don’t you touch at all? Ask yourself honestly and discuss it.
4. Acknowledge your differences.
… and not in a blaming or argumentative way, but thoughtfully. Talking about your differences in a spirit of reconciliation can help each of you sort out what you bring to the party. For example, research shows that people with secure attachment styles who had loving and attuned relationships in childhood are unlikely to display patterns of demand or withdrawal; but insecurely attached people are. Talking about the ways in which you react and respond differently can be very constructive, as long you don’t do it in a critical or denigrating way.
In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman suggests that strong couples find “the glory” in their marriages. According to his research, such couples derive strength and meaning from the rocky times they survived and the hardships and doubts they worked through. Telling these stories in detail, Gottman notes, serves to bolster their faith in each other and their union.
5. Increase commitment.
This doesn’t mean staging a ceremony or renewing your vows but it does mean consciously cutting down on the behaviors that research shows diminish our sense of commitment to a relationship. In a series of experiments, Gian C. Gonzaga and others showed that nonverbal displays of love—the kind of smile that makes you crinkle your eyes; gesticulating; or leaning toward each other—reinforce love and commitment. How much of that is still going on in your home? (This is connected to touch as well.) Constant criticism erodes commitment, too, and a little bit of forgiveness for the petty annoyances and acts of omission that litter our daily lives goes a long way to stop chipping away at our satisfaction. If you tend to attribute the things that go wrong to your partner’s personality or character—“Forgetting that is so typical of you”; or, “Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?”—you are in toxic territory and need to pay attention. As the research shows, happier and more satisfied couples generalize about the stuff that goes wrong; they don’t personalize.
6. Gratitude helps.
Expressing gratitude, one study found, doesn’t just enhance the recipient’s concept of the relationship; it also expands that of the person expressing gratitude. While there are limitations to the study, as its authors admit, there is still some valuable insight. The authors point out that the expression of gratitude is both a communication with the other and the self; it reduces dissonance and cements our feelings about the good parts of our connection. Of course, a partner who feels appreciated is more likely to feel encouraged to be even more loving and supportive in the future. That too is a good foundation.