The Middle Ground

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Save Your Marriage

Three solid tips to rescue your relationship.

Three Solid Tips
3 Tips
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There are different kinds of insights that people refer to as tips. If you go to Barcelona, it would be a good idea to get a museum pass. You’ll see all the wonderful museums and be able to skip waiting on those long lines! That’s a tip. It’s a one-shot tip. You use it or you don’t. The tips in this article are different. You’ve got to practice them regularly. If you do, you can derive many sessions worth of couples therapy from this short article. And I hope that you do just that.

Number One—Optimism versus Pessimism. Don’t get sucked into the trap of confusing pessimism with realism. If you want to save your marriage (or relationship) because you believe it is worth working on then you owe it to yourself to cultivate optimism. It may be realistic to believe that creating better patterns of communication will be challenging. However, if you slip into believing this to be impossible, then a significant part of the relationship problem you face is this attitude. Pessimism forecloses hope. Realism accepts difficulties without surrendering to fatalism. Optimism is about focusing on finding or developing a connection that makes a difference. None of this denies or belies the fact that your partner may pose unique or serious obstacles to relationship improvement

Can it be proven that optimism takes you further than pessimism? Here’s some research evidence: Two groups of mice were placed, one at a time, into a shallow pool of milky water – the kind of pool that might be given to pet turtles, only larger than the usual size. One group was lucky to have an elevated spot, an island, upon which they could rest although away from the island the water was over their head. A second group of mice was exposed to a similar pool of water only the second group had no island anywhere in their pool and therefore were forced to tread water, swim continuously and vigorously with no respite in order to avoid drowning. The experimenter rescued these mice just before they expired.  The two groups of mice were then rested and fed. After both groups had recuperated from their first experience they were once again put into the pool of milky water. This time, however. both groups were plopped down into pools that offered no island of rest. This meant that in order to avoid drowning the mice had to tread continuously. These mice swam until exhausted and then were rescued just before they succumbed. The results astonished even the scientist who had designed the experiment. 

What did the experiment show? The first group--who had at first experienced swimming with the benefit of the island--swam more than twice as long as the other group. In every other way the two groups of mice were matched. The only difference was that the first group had developed an expectation that the pool might have a resting place. This allowed them to hope they would find it. Positive expectations, some form of optimism, extends possibilities for finding a solution to problems.  Hopefulness generates strength and longevity, even when situations are stressful. Optimism makes a difference. [This experiment is described in Half Empty, Half Full, written by Susan C. Vaughan, M.D.]

Number Two—Check Yourself. Think about how you are contributing to the problem at hand. [This tip does not apply if you consider your relationship to involve abuse. That’s an exception to what I am talking about here.] Think about how you participate in what is making communication difficult. Patterns between people are not random. What steps have you learned that keep the dance going as it has been going? Do you acquiesce when you have a major objection to what is going on? Do you let your anger fly without thinking? The ability to shift away from defensiveness, or negative expectation, is often the first step towards creating a new direction in your relationship. Openness to that shift begins with checking yourself to see how and when you might derail destructive patterns. Altering your way of responding is the most effective tool you have at your disposal in a stuck relationship. Positive changes in the relationship flow from the awareness of needing to make your response make a difference—break the pattern. Often that difference will involve compassion, ingenuity, generosity, clarity, patience. Does it involve anger? Sometimes, but the anger must be targeted to serve a constructive purpose. Anger that is vindictive or retaliatory will not move you towards connection. 

Key Perspective on the Second Tip: Checking yourself interrupts kneejerk reactivity. You think about your reaction, you get a chance to factor in your priorities, you consider the overall meaning of your mood and your partner’s so you can look at your options, and choose what you consider to be the best one. You are not stuck with doing the first thing you have an impulse to do. Contrary to a belief that is widely held, venting anger without monitoring or modulating its expression does not represent a spontaneous and healthy ideal, but is typically a dangerous and destructive pattern. 

Number Three—Empathy. Self-help literature can be useful. The key to improving communication is not, however, learning clever techniques. It involves being able to see things from each other’s point of view: that’s empathy. I had an experience with the editor of a website designed to help men relate to women better. I wrote a piece that featured the importance of empathy and he shot me an email that said, “Tell me something I don’t know. Everybody knows that empathy is important.”  But is that really true? Many times partners come in for couples therapy saying that their communication process is broken down and they have no idea how to fix it. Once the couples-work begins, they often get sidetracked by their list of grievances. I have yet to have a couple begin their work asking that their lack of empathy be addressed. People know that empathy is important in the abstract but when it comes to healing it in their own relationship, they often lose sight of this. They need reminders, support and encouragement. That's why articles featuring empathy make sense to me. When partners feel a lack of empathy, they experience themselves as being alone. That aloneness typically causes anger. Underneath that anger lies frustration about not being able to connect. Couples often lose track of the fact that the lack of empathy is fueling the anger. The inability to re-establish trust causes despair and confusion and often an overlay of anger masks these more primary feelings. Discussion of the feelings that lie beneath the surface, when empathy is interrupted, can facilitate healing. Empathy occurs naturally so long as it is not interrupted by the absence of emotional safety. 

Breakthroughs in neuroscience allow us to see more clearly than ever how empathy works from a neural perspective. An empathy resonance circuit has been identified and a social engagement circuit as well. 

Implement the tips and let me know what happens. This article is intended as a dialogue-opener. Has it raised any questions for you? Feel free to leave questions or comments. They are most welcome.

Marty Babits is Co-Director of Family and Couples Treatment Service, a division of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.

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