Relationships rarely come to an end out of nowhere. Dr. Jed Diamond shares 5 ways that often burn the fuse.
I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than 40 years. When I talk about marriage, I mean any long-term-committed relationship. According to Dr. Eli Finkel, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, marriage satisfaction goes downhill over time. We tend to be highly satisfied during the “honeymoon period,” but things decline afterwards. Many thought that once the honeymoon period ends, our satisfaction plateaus. But according to Dr. Finkel it’s pretty much a straight line decline, “At least for the first fifty years that have been studied.”
I’ve seen that in many of my clients. Often within a few years after the relationship began they were feeling overwhelmed with such things as PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, and irritable male syndrome. They know something isn’t right, but they missed the warning signs and weren’t aware that their psyches had been booby-trapped with time bombs.
Let’s look at these time bombs so that we can defuse them before they blow up our most precious relationships. Our overall happiness and well-being are closely linked to our marital happiness. If our relationship is joyful, generally our lives are as well. But if our relationships go down-hill, so do our lives.
- Our social networks are getting narrower.
According to Dr. Finkel a major research study asked people “Looking back over the past 6 months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” In other words, who were your close confidants that you reached out to for support? Between 1985 and 2004 there was a large decline in the numbers of people who listed a friend, a sibling, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a group.
- We’ve increasingly put all our “emotional-support eggs” in a single basket.
While we reached out far less to our social networks, we put more emphasis on getting our needs met with our spouse. In the past I would ask the audience who came to hear me talk, “How many of you have more than three people who you can confide in?” Most all the women raised their hands. But few men did. Many had no one outside their marriage who they could count on for emotional support. Now both men and women are increasingly relying on their spouse to meet their needs for love, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
- We are expecting more and more from our spouses in meeting more of our needs.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, describes the increased pressure we are putting on our spouse, particularly the men. “It’s not enough that you have this sort of decent relationship with this person. He also has to be your best friend. He also has to be your only romantic partner. He also has to be someone who inspires you every day. He has to be somebody who is going to help your career. He has to be somebody who co-parents with you. He has to meet you on 25 different levels of intersection.”
No wonder so many men tell me, “I feel like a failure. I can’t ever seem to please the woman I love.” No wonder so many women feel disappointed in marriage.
- Our brain’s negativity bias causes us to over-emphasize the negatives in our partner.
No matter how much good we have in our relationships, over time our brain tends to focus on the negative. Why is that? Research from the emerging field of “affective neuroscience” demonstrates that our brain is hard-wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive. During our evolutionary history focusing on all the negative things that could threaten us kept us alive.
This focus on the negative tends to make us more unhappy with our marriage as time goes on. As neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “When the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else.”
- Our brains are Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive.
Our brains seem to be wired to glom on to the negatives in our lives and our relationships, while the positives easily slip away. Over time we seem to be inundated by negative memories while the positives are forgotten. “In a relationship trust is easy to lose and hard to regain,” says Hanson. “Something bad about a person is better remembered than something good.”
Unless we do something active, the default setting of the brain seems to incline us towards dissatisfaction and unhappiness as time goes on.
Defusing the Time Bombs and Bullet-Proofing Your Marriage
We don’t have to be passive victims and watch our marriage happiness decline or look forward to a nasty divorce and hope against hope that things will be better the second or third time around. In 7 Secrets for Saving Your Marriage And Living Joyfully Ever After I described the things we’ve learned from the new science of love and the work of Dr. Rick Hanson, Dr. Sue Johnson,and Dr. John Gottman.
They emphasize that there are things we call can do to strengthen our relationships. We don’t need to wait until things get bad or think the only hope is for expensive and time-consuming marriage counseling. There are some simple, yet effective things that we can all do. We can keep our social networks alive and well. Even if we have a good marriage, we still need friends and neighbors who we can count on for emotional support. We can increase the way we see our marriage and look at the positives.
One way to accomplish that, according to Dr. Finkel, is the “marriage hack.” It’s a play on the term “life hack” which is a simple procedure or “work-around” that can have a profound effect on your productivity or happiness. He says you can improve the quality of your marriage if you’re willing to invest just 21 minutes a year. Finkel says, “I don’t want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention.”
He found that if couples spend 7 minutes reflecting on a time they had a major conflict and thinking about it from a different perspective, they could change the tone of their relationship. In his study couples would spend a total of 21 minutes a year thinking about a conflict, then writing a response to these three simple prompts.
- Think about the conflict from the perspective a third-party who wants the best for everybody.
- What obstacles will you confront trying to adopt this perspective?
- How can you surmount these obstacles?
These short writing exercises changed the way the couples saw themselves and their conflicts and enabled them break the downward spiral. When they could take the perspective of a third-party who wants the best for everybody, they could see that they were doing the best they could and so was their partner.
A little “marriage hack” got things moving in a positive way. Here’s a short TED talk by Dr. Finkel describing the process. Check it out and try it. You’ll be glad you did.
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