Julia and Jack (all name and details disguised here) looked like a couple with a bright future: two attractive, successful thirty-year-olds who had been thoroughly enjoying their engagement when they came to my Manhattan office for premarital counseling. We worked on communication and conflict-management skills and I sensed that they were eager to learn and willing to listen to each other. Later they sent me photos of their storybook Hudson Valley wedding and a magical honeymoon in Bali. Once they got home to New York, though, the stress of living in their tiny Tribeca studio while saving to buy a one-bedroom in the West Village was getting to them, and a year later they came back to my office. They’d been fighting a lot.
Sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, they were staring away from each other, arms crossed, big frowns. I encouraged them to talk about their most recent argument and they took turns telling the story of a battle over the purchase of a shower curtain. After a while Jack shrugged. “I don’t actually give a crap about shower curtains,” he said. “I don’t even know what we’re doing here.” Julia pulled out a Kleenex and wiped her eyes.
I started a quick refresher on conflict-management tools but Julia shook her head. “Thanks, but we remember those,” she said. “I guess we just forgot to use them.” She scooted across the sofa toward Jack, who put his arm around her. Something had changed just then, as they’d told their story to a third person whom they trusted to support their relationship.
How do wonderful couples lose track of each other over such small stuff? It’s as though we had a marital tendency to look on the minus side.
And actually, we do. Our nervous systems — designed to keep us safe in the days when humans lived in caves and were threatened by wild animals — have equipped us to remember the negative and not take the positive to heart.
A team of Chicago researchers have come up with a hack. These Northwestern University psychologists asked partners to spend seven minutes every four months reporting on their relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion and commitment. Then they asked couples to consider their most recent disagreement with their partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved.
Most newlyweds experience a decline in marital satisfaction after the first two years, but not the couples who did this seven-minute exercise. They fought as much as the couples in the study who didn’t do the writing, but they were less distressed by it and reported more positive feelings about passion and sexual desire.
Why not try this at home? Instead of staying stuck in your own point of view about a conflict, try writing about it from the point of view of a third-party who really wants the best for your marriage. Some couples find it easier to imagine who that person might be: their future child or a supportive friend. Others try to picture their relationship in God’s eyes.
With this ritual, you’ll be reinforcing in your own minds all the things that make you the terrific couple you are. It’s a simple practice that helps you keep things in perspective when the inevitable blow-ups happen.
Here’s more information about my Manhattan marriage counseling practice.