Get Your Marriage Out of the Roach Motel

Couples who come to me are often torn: they cherish their life together, even have a sense that they’re soulmates, but argue so often and so bitterly that their relationship feels toxic. How does this happen? Can you fix it? In his new book What Makes Love Last? (written with Nan Silver), John Gottman offers research-based, practical help.

After decades of videotaped research of couples in his Love Lab studio apartment at the University of Washington, Gottman builds on his previous findings that certain communication patterns — criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt — can fatally damage a relationship. Gottman, a mathematician, starts out using game theory to describe couple interactions. It’s a heady analysis, but I perked right up when I read his description of the ways couples get trapped in an “absorbing state of negativity.” Some partners, he says, end up “imprisoned in a roach motel for lovers: They check in, but they can’t check out.” What keeps them there?

“Betrayal,” writes Gottman, “is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship — it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.” Betrayal doesn’t refer only to extramarital affairs. It includes any breach in the trust between partners, such as putting career ahead of relationship, ongoing coldness, and selfishness.

Sometimes, Gottman writes, a betrayal is a single, damaging event when one partner is not there for another at a crucial time such as a family illness or a job loss. The result is an attachment injury, he says, “a wounding experience that leaves one partner feeling vulnerable and unsafe. An attachment injury destroys the implicit contract between partners to be there and nurture each other, to impart the feeling of security that attachment figures (usually parents) often provided during childhood.”

Because partners tend to remember negative and unfinished emotional experiences more vividly than positive ones, an attachment injury or a betrayal tends to leave them stuck in the roach motel. “The past is never dead,” writes Gottman, quoting Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”

How to get out of the roach motel? Gottman offers a blueprint for moving forward that includes specific steps to repair from those moments when you’re in what he calls “the Nasty box” and focus on emotional attunement to each other. With daily practice, you are prepared to work on being close and caring — to get to the “Nice box” — when especially stressful (“sliding-door”) moments arise.

I’m happy to see that many of the Gottman materials I’ve shared with the people in my practice over the years are assembled in the pages of What Makes Love Last? You’ll also find a variety of helpful questionnaires to help you understand your relationship at various stages: “Is This the Real Thing?” “What Is Your Trust Metric? and “When to Bail.” This is a very human book that admits that all couples have tough times, nobody is in the Nice box all the time, and yet with attentiveness — and more than a little humor — we can build a relationship that grows and heals over a lifetime.

Since 1990 I have been helping busy people in the New York area recover from pain and stress, gain confidence, and enjoy more trusting, fulfilling relationships.

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