Are we going to break up? Is there any hope for us? Can you tell me whether or not my relationship will be okay?
If I had a dime for every time a client asked me these questions, I’d be a wealthy woman. You see, many years ago, I trained with John Gottman, the father of modern-day couples therapy and a world-renowned researcher on marital distress. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He’s that guy that can predict the likelihood of divorce with over 90% accuracy, and he was featured in the #1 bestseller Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Gottman studied couples in his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. He monitored everything from their heart rates and the stress hormones in their urine to the minute details of their micro-interactions. He watched and listened to the couple for as little as five to fifteen minutes, and after that short window of time, he made his prediction with, on average, 93.6% accuracy. Scary, hah?
One of the main advantages of being a Relationship Expert is seeing couples through all stages’ — the good, the bad, and the ugly. After fifteen years of specializing exclusively in couples therapy, one of the most important things I’ve gleaned is that the level of crisis you are in at the start of couples therapy does not predict whether or not you are heading for divorce. The truth is, many couples recover from marital crises and go on to thrive, and other couples who seem relatively fine end up divorcing. Go figure.
This means that even if things seem really, really bad, it’s quite possible you cannot see the forest for the trees.
So what gives?
The simple answer is that your memory is not static; that as you live your life, you are constantly adding new information and experiences to your understanding of who you are, who your family and friends are, and who your partner is. Think about it. If I met you and your spouse one year after falling in love and asked you questions like: What do you love about this person? Why did you choose them of all people? What was it like in the early days of being together? Chances are, you’d have a different story than you would five years into your marriage, or more significantly, fifteen years down the road. The reality is that it is inevitable that you and your partner will hit some rough patches and struggle over time. And how you navigate these challenges — whether you resolve problems successfully or they are left untended to — will have everything to do with how you feel about your partner and your relationship in the present.
According to Gottman’s research, one of the hallmark signs of a relationship in trouble is bad memories, or, as Gottman calls it, a “negative story of us.” This means that even if your relationship was solid and rewarding once, your ability to recollect this becomes impaired when you are in crisis or dealing with years of unresolved hurts.
To make matters worse, bad memories are often further confounded by our brain’s wiring when dealing with stress. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and the author of Buddha’s Brain, is fond of saying, “the mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Hanson is referencing a phenomenon called “the negativity bias,” a term that describes our brain’s tendency to lock onto the bad stuff and keep us in a hypervigilant state so that we are prepared for the worst (and more likely to miss the best).
The negativity bias often skews our perspective so severely that we are likely to make poor decisions if we take it for its word. And just like it’s not a great idea to try and operate a vehicle while drunk, it’s also not a great move to make significant life decisions (like filing for divorce) when steeped in negative sentiment informed by stress and gridlock.
Experience has shown me that many couples decide to separate and divorce when they hit what Gottman calls “the cusp of catastrophe,” that final tipping point that leads to the downward spiral culminating in divorce or one partner leaving. The reality is that the pain of hanging out in relationship-limbo-hell can feel untenable, so people often pull the trigger prematurely. And I get it; hanging out with the unknowables and doing the hard work that couples therapy often asks of you is agonizing. You feel hopeless, tired, confused, enraged, and then some. I’ve had clients often tease me that they would rather get a root canal than do couples therapy despite their fondness for me personally.
However, my experience has also taught me that increasingly, many couples are willing to do the hard work and reap the benefits. They are open to various options: relationship classes, self-help books, private retreats, and weekly marriage counseling sessions. These couples get that marriage often requires one to grieve the partner they thought they married, embrace a new reality, and build a new foundation. They opt not to push the Big Red Divorce button as they understand that it’s challenging to get off the divorce treadmill once they are on it.
I want to emphasize that there is a decent chance you are missing something if you are steeped in self-righteous indignation or swallowed by fear and hopelessness. That there is a good possibility, you are at least partially wrong. I cannot overstate the importance of slowing things down when your marriage is in crisis, getting professional and competent help, and not making any big decisions until you see therapy through. There is so much more to lose in jumping ship prematurely than there is to gain. Like bringing unresolved issues from one relationship into another, and the impact of contentious divorce on your children. Deal with your problems now and use your relationship as a practice field; see what you learn and what’s possible in turn.
Heartbreak is inevitable when you risk loving; there’s no way around that whether you stay or leave. But when you lean into heartache and show up as your best and most skillful self, when you sign up for the hard work of loving well, there will be much to gain regardless of which trajectory your relationship takes. Remember, it’s not should you stay or go that matters; it’s how to stay or go.
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Are you on the fence about whether to stay or leave your marriage? Do you feel you have tried everything but still feel trapped in relationship-limbo-hell? Join me for my free webinar, Is My Marriage Worth Saving? I will be offering it on three different dates in March and will be available to answer all of your questions, including options for working with me.