How to keep yours alive and well.
I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than forty years. One of the most valuable things in our lives is a good marriage, but too many of them fall apart without the couple understanding the real reasons why. When people come to me for help they know they are unhappy, but the causes of their unhappiness are usually unclear. Here are some of the most common things people say that make them want to leave a long-term relationship:
- Sexual incompatibility
- Lack of mutual interests
- No longer in love
- Value conflicts
- Growing apart
When a woman or a man reaches the point where they call for help, three things are true. First, the problems have usually been going on for a long time. Second, what they’ve tried to do to make things better hasn’t worked. Third, they look for a simple reason to make sense of the confusion and pain over the potential loss. But the reasons given, including those above, often conceal the real marriage killer.
The One Thing That All Good Marriages Have and The One Thing That Will Destroy a Marriage
There is a scene in the movie City Slickers where the character played by Billy Crystal is talking to Curly, the rough-and-tumble old cowboy played brilliantly by Jack Palance. Although Curly is a man of few words, Crystal comes to recognize that he is quite wise. Curly tells him that the secret of life is one thing. Crystal hangs on the next words as he asks Curly to tell him the secret. After a long pause, Curly tells him he must find the “one thing” for himself.
Most of us are looking for that “one thing” that will make our marriages successful and give us the love and connection we so deeply desire. But too often our marriages fall apart and we are not really able to figure out the reason. We try again, and sometimes, again and again.
Before Carlin and I got married 35 years ago, we had each been married twice before. Being a therapist and marriage counselor hadn’t helped me keep my first or second marriages afloat.
Before marrying for a third time, I thought deeply about what had gone wrong and decided the real cause was mutual betrayal. My first wife and I married young and had two children, who we loved deeply. But the stresses of making a living and raising a family gradually took precedence over the care and nurturing of our relationship. We each built up resentments, which eventually pulled us apart. She blamed me for the problems and I blamed her.
When I married for the second time, I vowed I would make a better choice in mates.
I picked someone who I thought be better than my previous wife, but after a number of years, the same pattern repeated itself. By the time Carlin and I got married, I began to suspect that it was the small betrayals that undermined the trust in the relationship that was the real cause of the problems.
John Gottman, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading experts on marriage and family. In his famous “love lab” he has developed a scientifically sound body of information that can accurately predict which marriages will do well and which ones will fall apart. In his most recent book, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, he offers a simple, yet profound understanding that can help us all improve our relationship lives.
In working with thousands of couples over a period of more than 40 years he found that there is a single toxin that undermines people’s commitment to each other. “It is a noxious invader, arriving with great stealth, undermining a seemingly stable romance until it may be too late,” he says. “The name of this toxin is betrayal.” When most of us think of betrayal, we think of a sexual affair. And certainly infidelity is one of the most obvious and painful forms of betrayal.
But betrayals are often much more subtle and can go unrecognized by the couple until the structure of the marriage collapses under the weight of pain and confusion. Often one or both partners wonder “what the hell happened? How did it come to this?” Betrayal is a silent killer that masquerades as “the ups and downs of everyday life.” Most couples are not even aware that they are betraying their partner or that they are suffering from their partner’s betrayal.
This came home to me and my wife when we looked more deeply had how we often handled conflict. I would feel hurt and misunderstood and would become irritable and angry. Sometimes I would yell. Other times I would just go silent. Carlin would say, “You get that beady-eyed look that is frightening.” To protect herself she would often close up emotionally and withdraw her affection. Even when I tried to make up, she would remain closed like a clam and I felt lost and alone.
It never occurred to either of us that my anger was a kind of betrayal because it undermined her sense of safety and she lost trust in me. Likewise her emotional withdrawal causes me to feel that I couldn’t make a mistake without being punished by her closing down her affections. Betrayals are common and they are so prevalent in relationships we often don’t recognize them.
Gottman offers a few examples:
- If a husband always puts his career ahead of his relationship, that is a betrayal.
- When a wife keeps breaking her promise to start a family, that is also betrayal.
Pervasive coldness, selfishness, unfairness, and other destructive behaviors are also evidence of disloyalty and can lead to consequences as equally devastating as adultery.
Learning to recognize and minimize these common betrayals can go a long way towards healing the wounds that pull us apart. Trust is the glue that holds us together and provides the safety and security for love to flourish. We may imagine that what is pulling us apart are things like, boredom, lack of mutual interests, unhappiness, falling out of love, value conflicts, drinking problems, sexual dysfunction, or just growing apart. But these are all the result of a long series of betrayals that build up over time.
One of the most common betrayals is unfairness in household responsibilities. When one partner feels they are doing more than their share resentments build up. A University of Missouri study finds that marital bliss stems from sharing household and child-rearing duties.
Here’s a fable my colleagues George Pratt and Peter Lambrou tell in their wonderful book Code to Joy:
You are walking through a field, munching absentmindedly on a snack. The sun is out, the air is balmy. A light breeze at your back. Life is good.
Suddenly the earth shook.
You look up at the horizon just in time to see a gigantic plume of ash and dust volcanoing up into the sky and spreading out to form a gigantic cloud that will persist for days, weeks, perhaps years. It will blog out the sun and completely change your world.
Oh, one more detail: you are a dinosaur.
Historically, we know the dinosaurs were killed off by an asteroid strike that sent so much debris into the atmosphere that it darkened the skies. The dinosaurs probably didn’t realize that something as simple as rocks striking the earth might mean the end of their 165 million year presence on the planet.
Similarly humans haven’t recognized that common breaches of trust are actually betrayals that can undermine and destroy a marriage. The first step in healing is to recognize the “asteroid strikes” of betrayal that send up a cloud of fear blotting out the trust we have in our partner.
How have you felt betrayed by your partner? How have you betrayed the one you love? These betrayals are so common, we often don’t recognize them. Bringing them into our awareness is the first step to healing them.
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