“Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
– Bruce Lee
What happens when the high levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin that thrust you into love‘s orbit have burned away like the boosters of a rocket? Unfortunately, just as very little of the rocket makes it into orbit, with most parts either burning up or floating aimlessly in space, you may feel adrift when the glow of a new relationship burns off. If you Google why this happens, you‘ll get answers that run the gamut of accuracy.
After studying the literature, I‘ve found most neuroscientists explain when you fall madly in love, your brain becomes awash in the chemicals mentioned above, especially dopamine, which is made in the same area of the brain linked with hunger and thirst. But, because the brain can‘t tolerate the level of intensity caused by these chemicals forever, they naturally dissipate.
Since divorce attorneys are not associated with people still in the initial thrall of love (except when the object of their obsession is not their spouse), the people I saw were miserably unhappy in their marriage. When I began to practice law in Pennsylvania, divorceé attorneys had an ethical duty to ask the client if there was any chance of reconciliation before filing a divorce complaint. The way I approached this was in the first office interview. I‘d ask them what that special something that attracted them to their spouse was.
Then I‘d observe their body language when they relayed the attributes of the one they once adored, which ran the entire range of human experience. “He was so handsome and smart.” “She was so beautiful and had a good sense of humor.” “I loved the sex.” “She made great homemade pasta.” “We liked the same things.” “We could talk for hours.” “I felt so special like no one had ever made me feel before.” “He said he was dazzled by my beauty.” If they smiled, looked wistful, or seemed full of regret while relaying the story of how they fell in love, I asked if they‘d be open to marriage counseling.
“It‘s too late for that. Besides, we‘ve tried it. It doesn‘t work. And I found it a waste of time,” the client answered.
“Do you realize the amount of time you‘re going to spend getting a divorce?” I ask.
“I don’t care. I‘d rather spend the time doing that than living the way I am now.”
Calmly, I say, “Okay then. Do you want an amicable divorce, or are you going to want me to rip their lungs out?”
Wide-eyed, they ask, “Uhm, are those the only two choices?”
“Unfortunately. It can be an amicable divorce if you can talk to your spouse and agree. But if you can‘t talk to them and they perceive themselves as being dumped or rejected, it becomes a high conflict divorce.”
“How do I talk to them?”
“How do you talk to them now?” I ask.
“We don‘t talk. Of course, there?‘ regular small talk about what you want for dinner or what time you are coming home, but that‘s not talking.”
“Well, you must have talked about more intimate things at some point. Marriages are all about long-term planning, like having kids, investing financially in the future, buying a house, and short-term planning, like where to go on vacation or to arrange the kids’ schedules,” I explain.
“Yeah, but like I said, we don‘t talk anymore. All we do is fight.”
‘But I bet there was a time when the argument wasn‘t carried to bed or dragged into the next day.”
“It‘s hard to remember when.”
‘So, tell me, did your fights gradually start to stretch out over days or weeks and eventually evolve into the cold war you‘re in now?” I ask.
A look of recognition passes over the client‘s face as they shrug assent.
“I have a term for what‘s wrong with your marriage.”
“Yes, it‘s malnourished.”
“Look, I came here for a divorce, not a nutrition lesson,” the client says impatiently.
“I understand. I‘m trying to suggest a mindset so that you can get an amicable divorce, or it will cost you a lot more monetarily and emotionally.”
‘A person can live 8 to 21 days without food but only three days without water. If you look at communication as water, a marriage cannot survive without communication. And your marriage sounds like it‘s severely dehydrated.”
‘I get the analogy, but where is this going? I don‘t want to be married anymore.”
‘I get it. And I’m the girl to get you the divorce, but I don‘t want you to spend thousands of dollars on legal fees arguing over a lava lamp.”
‘You have my attention. But how do I start the conversation about getting a divorce when I can‘t even talk to them about their day?”
“Like you would someone dying of thirst. You wouldn‘t pour water down their throat. Instead, you‘d help them sip it slowly. Well, you don‘t start with “You‘re always saying I‘m an asshole and I never do anything right, you make me miserable, I don‘t love you anymore, and your private parts smell., That‘s not the way to do it.”
‘Well, what do I say?”
‘If I asked you right now to write down the top reason why you want a divorce, what would be?”
“I don‘t love my spouse anymore. Too much has happened. Too many fights. I don‘t feel the spark I once felt.” And after a pause, “I spend so much time asking myself, ‘What was I thinking?’ or ‘Why are we still together, living this lie?'”
I nod empathetically. “What I heard you say is, Although you‘ve stood by each other in the hard times of your lives, you feel that you should take a different path at this stage of your life. Is that right?”
“Then pick a time to tell your spouse you‘d like to talk to them about something important. Write down what you will say, keeping it compassionate, not critical. Steer clear of fault-finding. Be direct and inoculate them with the idea that the marriage has been unfulfilling for you both. Then after some more discussion, you can say something like, “I‘ve only ever wanted your happiness, and I know neither of us is happy. I propose that the best way for us to go forward is to follow our separate paths.” Make sure the kids aren‘t around and prepare for an emotional reaction. If you’ve ever had an argument where there has been any hint of physical abuse, meet in a public place.” I stand to signal the end of the session.
The client says, “Okay. Thanks. What‘s your retainer?”
“That depends on whether your divorce will be amicable or high conflict. Call me after you talk to your spouse. We‘ll go from there.” I start to walk them to the door and stop, look into their eyes and say, “One more thing. Remember, water can flow or it can crash, just like words. Try to keep in mind your goal to have them flow.”
The most life changing decision you‘ll ever make.
If this isn‘t the scenario you want, but you can identify with feeling the communication in your marriage has dried up and drifted down from love‘s orbit, it‘s time to take stock of your relationship before it‘s too late.
It‘s fatuous to think two people, who are not clones, could seamlessly weave their lives together. There will be differing opinions about finances, children, each other‘s in-laws, sex, housekeeping, money, time spent on careers, and other obstacles a couple must reconcile. John Gottman, the sage of relationship research, studies how a couple communicates by asking them to spend time in a laboratory fitted out as a small apartment while filming their interactions. By watching how they interact with each other, he can predict if divorce is in their future with an incredibly high degree of accuracy. He lists what he calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse as contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness in their interactions to be the death knell of a marriage.
To avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, there are several steps you may want to consider when disagreements happen and when the same one(s) reoccur.
Step #1: Always remember what eats a marriage alive is not what you fight about but how you fight.
Do not scream or yell since this triggers an immediate defensive reaction and alters a person‘s sense of perception. When perception is impaired, a person’s ability to hear or understand what is said accurately. The louder you talk, the less they hear. If you want to get through to someone, speak calmly and in a measured voice. If you‘re pissed off, count to 10 or call a timeout.
Consider the following scenario demonstrating all four apocalyptic horsemen, contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
Wife: Looking at her husband with a scowl on her face. “I need to talk to you.”
Husband: Looking at his cell phone: “Mm.”
Wife: “I‘d like to talk to you when you‘re looking at me, not that fucking phone!”
The husband sighs and does not look up from the phone‘s screen.
Wife: “I‘m serious. We need to talk.”
Husband: His eyes are hostile. “Well, what?”
His stony expression causes tears to form in his wife‘s eyes. Husband sees the tears. “Is this going to turn into another drama?”
Wife: Clenching her fists, she screams, “You have no idea how bad you fucking make me feel when you act like this!”
Husband: “Act like what? You‘re the one who gets all dramatic and unpleasant every time you want to talk.”
Wife: “You know what? You‘re a real shitbag.”
Husband: “I don‘t have time for this,” he says, walking out the door.
Now zoom in on how the same scenario would play out by removing contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
Wife: Looking at her husband with a smile on her face. “Hey, Babe (or some pet name they use with each other), I’d like to talk with you.”
Husband: Looking up from the phone with a quizzical look. “What is it? I‘m just checking for an email I’m expecting about a big order I sold today.”
Wife: Nodding, she smiles. “Oh, sorry, I didn‘t know. If this isn‘t a good time, maybe later?”
Husband: Returning the smile. “If it can wait, I‘d appreciate it. I‘m nervous about making sure they signed the contract. I‘ve got a lot riding on this.”
Wife: She walks over to the sofa where he‘s sitting and gently kisses him on the lips. “I can‘t wait to hear about it. Let‘s get a bite to eat later. We can talk then.”
Husband: Reaching his hand out to her. “Have I told you lately that I love you?”
Wife: “You just did.”
Some people reading this will balk and say that the wife surrendered what she wanted to his needs. My response is, didn‘t she already surrender to him, and he to her, when they gave their heart to each other and vowed not to break it? By considering his needs over hers, didn‘t she get what she wanted?
Step #2: All relationships go through hell. The real ones get through it.
Determine the deeper meaning of what you‘re discussing and whether it‘s an argument or a fight. Arguments can be heated debates or disagreements. They become fights when they include name-calling, deliberately saying mean and hurtful things, divorce is raised as an option to end the discussion, and the issue is unresolved since fights rarely resolve anything. What fights do is make both parties think about whether theyre compatible with their partner and whether it‘s best to end the relationship. Only the people in it can answer that question.
Considering the examples above, what do you think?
Step #3: We need to accept we won‘t always be discussing what we‘re verbalizing and will have to find out what it is we‘re actually discussing so we can discuss it.
Get to the bottom of what the argument or fight is really about. Are you discussing something other than what your disagreement is about? Is it a proxy for power or control? Is it an excuse to slam the door and get away to meet a paramour? Is it over drug or alcohol addiction, sexual incompatibility, or a personality issue or disorder? Are these unsolvable problems that are a true deal-breaker for the relationship? For the sake of your partner, your children, and yourself, you need to determine if the relationship is worth getting brain damage from banging your head against the wall trying to get through to your partner. There may be demands being put on your nervous system that there‘s just no more room for.
Step #4: When you stop looking for solutions to your disagreements, you‘ll know there‘s nothing left to argue or fight about or for.
Once you‘ve identified the issue at the root of the argument or fight, you‘re in the problem-solving phase. However, even though you‘re there, do not jump right in and try discussing options to resolve the problem, take a break.
Spend time writing down what each of you thinks may be a way to resolve the issue before coming together to discuss it. For example, suppose you decide that you and your partner don‘t have the skills to develop a viable solution, but you want to salvage the relationship. In that case, it may be time to reach out for professional help from a couple‘s counselor.
If you or your partner have come up with an option to discuss the problem, be collaborative. Don‘t automatically judge each other‘s ideas or say something like, “What are you fucking out of your mind?” That is going to thrust you right back into the fight. On the other hand, even if your partner‘s idea is hair-brained, listen. Tell them you‘ll take it under advisement and see if there‘s anything in it that could possibly dovetail with yours. If not, you are at an impasse and should consider mediating with the proper professional who deals with such issues. For example, if it‘s a financial issue, consult an accountant. For an addiction issue, consult a professional who deals with problems in that field, and so on.
If, despite your best efforts, you feel the only resolution is divorce, do not raise this as an option until you‘ve seen a divorce attorney or a professional who can help you find the best way to broach the subject with your spouse.
Step #5: If you‘re not willing to do the work to save what you love, don‘t cry for what you‘ve lost.
You want to listen, be heard, and understand in a conversation. If you already know from prior discussions with your spouse that they’re not going to agree with your view of the problem, I suggest starting with their view. Then, work respectfully discussing the reasons why you are offering your alternative. It just may open the door to a real conversation that could lead to a resolution. But, let’s face it, there are some days it will feel like the only thing you and your spouse can agree on is that you can‘t agree on anything.
Social psychologists refer to this as “belief perseverance”. Belief perseverance is when a person maintains a belief regardless of the information that firmly and unquestionably contradicts it. This is not the same as confirmation bias when a person seeks out information that supports their preconceived beliefs. Belief perseverance doesn‘t involve using the information to confirm a belief but rejects the data that disproves their belief.
Additionally, in belief perseverance, a person‘s beliefs may even be strengthened when someone tries to present evidence to disprove it. This is known as the “backfire effect”.
When discussing with someone who‘s had radically different life experiences than yourself (which is most often the reason for the divide between you), you must follow three essential principles of conversation. The three Cs are clear, concise, and compelling.
First, at least one person has to be clear in their mind that the discussion may fail to convince the other person of their point of view. It‘s crucial to look at this as a first step onto the climbing wall, not the first punch in a cage fight. If you‘re bound and determined to run headlong at the disagreement with the first words out of your mouth, don‘t even bother to try to talk with your spouse since this tends to make people shut down and not just from the conversation but from the relationship as well.
You can start by saying something like: “What can you share to help me see what you see?” Then, after they explain, even if it‘s not true, take a deep breath and think about saying: “I never thought about it like that. Let me think some more on it, and let‘s take a break and meet again to discuss it further.”
Second, be concise. “I don‘t want to fight with you. I want to work with you to understand your perspective. So, I can understand where you are coming from and why.”
Third, be compelling with your partner about why you are trying to talk to them. For example, ask them: “Where do you see us in the future if we can’t get over this hurdle?” Being honest about what‘s at stake may help them understand and hear what you are trying to say and know how hard you?re working at developing the skills to say it.
If either of you feels working on how you communicate with each other to gain a consensus about a hot button issue is not worth the effort, your relationship is not just dehydrated, it‘s doomed.
One last lesson?
There‘s one final lesson I‘d like to share with you, and taught by the beloved American children‘s television presenter, Mr. Rodgers. In 1969 a congressional subcommittee on communications was impaneled and sitting before it was Mr. Rodgers. The committee was chaired by the curmudgeonly Senator John Pastore.
Mr. Rodgers was there to make the case in support of his bold proposal to increase federal funds for public broadcasting to develop children‘s programs whose content contained the drama that arises in most ordinary families.
Senator Pastore was having none of it. Although it looked as if Mr. Rodgers was going down he respectfully, clearly, concisely, and compellingly continued to make the case that what happens in every American family matters to us all.
Mr. Rodgers knew his audience and that Senator Pastore grew up in the depression and went to work at age 11. Mr. Rodgers spoke deeply to Senator Pastore‘s childhood experience when he said, “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
Suddenly, Senator Pastor looks at Mr. Rodgers as if he‘s actually listening and finally says out loud, on the record, “You know, I‘m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I‘ve had goosebumps in two days. It looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”
Mr. Rodgers then said, “Well, I’m grateful, not only for your goosebumps, but for your interest in — in our kind of communication. Could I tell you the words of one of the songs, which I feel is very important?”
Senator Pastore replied, “Yes.”
Mr. Rodgers went on: “This has to do with that good feeling of control which I feel that children need to know is there. And it starts out, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” And that first line came straight from a child. I work with children doing puppets in — in very personal communication with small groups:
It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead, and think this song —
“I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime…. And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can?. “
I think Mr. Rodgers was saying that the only person you can control is yourself, and only you can do the work to do it.
I hope you‘ve learned how vital communication is to a healthy marriage and how to approach it from this chapter. If contempt has replaced conversation in your relationship and you don‘t address it immediately, it will eat at you and consume your marriage whole. By analogizing communication to water, my mission was to have you see the need to give your spouse the same number of love affirmations as the number of glasses of water you drink every day to stay healthy.
That is a nice simple analogy that one can keep in mind in all circumstances. You have some amazing scenarios to make your point. Thanks so much, Nancy.
Love this and love Mr. Rodgers!
Love Mr. Rodgers and this article!