Can a stale mar­riage be saved?

‘It’s nor­mal for cou­ples to move in and out of bore­dom — or con­flict’

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - DANIELLE BRAFF Chicago Tri­bune

If you’re in a re­la­tion­ship and man­aged to get past the seven-year itch, there’s no rea­son to be re­lieved.

You still need to get through the 10-year slump and a 30-year di­vorce peak.

To say that mar­riage is hard work is an un­der­state­ment.

“Mar­riage is messy and com­pli­cated, es­pe­cially when we share space with an­other per­son, tie our fi­nances to­gether, ne­go­ti­ate sex­u­al­ity and count­less other de­ci­sions that daily life de­mands, to say noth­ing of adding chil­dren or stepchil­dren to the pic­ture,” said Har­riet Lerner, psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of “Mar­riage Rules.” “It’s nor­mal for cou­ples to move in and out of bore­dom — or con­flict, for that mat­ter — at any point in a mar­riage.”

A 2014 Brigham Young Univer­sity study that looked at mar­i­tal qual­ity for more than 2,000 women found that hap­pi­ness and com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween part­ners de­cline from the be­gin­ning of a mar­riage and never get bet­ter. They hit rock bot­tom be­tween the 10- to 15-year-mark, but if cou­ples can make it through those years, the con­flicts im­prove by their 35th an­niver­sary, ac­cord­ing to the study. Un­for­tu­nately, the mar­riage never gets back to the hon­ey­moon days.

One com­mon is­sue in a mar­riage is sim­ply bore­dom, Lerner said. But when a mar­riage starts to be­come stale, the ques­tion for the cou­ple is: can this be fixed, or is it too stale to be reme­died?

At the be­gin­ning of ev­ery re­la­tion­ship, the cou­ple is ac­tively court­ing, look­ing their best, try­ing hard to im­press. But af­ter be­ing to­gether for many years, this court­ing takes sec­ond place to chil­dren or ca­reers, said Seat­tle-based re­la­tion­ship coach Kyle Ben­son, of the Gottman In­sti­tute.

As long as the re­la­tion­ship is go­ing well the court­ing typ­i­cally stops, though this doesn’t hap­pen in a par­tic­u­lar year, Ben­son said. If the lack of court­ing is ac­com­pa­nied by non­cha­lance and even crit­i­cism about your part­ner, it’s not a good sign.

It all leads back to an older study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Mar­riage and the Fam­ily in 1998 about new­ly­weds and bore­dom that’s still rel­e­vant to­day, Ben­son said.

John Gottman, along with three other re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton in Seat­tle, set up a lab that looked like a bed and break­fast. They in­vited new­ly­weds to spend the day, so their in­ter­ac­tions could be ob­served. Gottman wanted to see them make con­nec­tion re­quests to each other. For ex­am­ple, if one per­son said “Look at the beau­ti­ful bird out­side,” he was mak­ing a re­quest for a con­nec­tion and wanted his wife to con­nect and look at the bird. His wife could look at the bird, or she could tell him she was busy read­ing her book or mak­ing lunch or do­ing some­thing else.

While this might seem mi­nor, Gottman said, th­ese small re­quests for con­nec­tion re­vealed a lot about their re­la­tion­ship health. Cou­ples who di­vorced six years later only con­nected 33 per cent of the time, and those who were still to­gether af­ter six years con­nected 87 per cent of the time.

If a mar­riage ap­pears to be doomed, there still is hope.

The big­gest prob­lem is that cou­ples start to feel less sur­prised by each other, pay­ing less at­ten­tion to each other as time goes on, said Anna Papa, a Texas-based cer­ti­fied re­la­tion­ship coach.

“You lose in­ter­est in your part­ner and feel like you know ev­ery­thing about him or her,” Papa said.

While this is a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion of a re­la­tion­ship, it can lead to bore­dom, which could even­tu­ally bring about a di­vorce in more se­ri­ous cases.

“A real prob­lem arises when one or both peo­ple be­gin to catas­tro­phize their bore­dom and cul­ti­vate an at­ti­tude of neg­a­tiv­ity: per­haps I mar­ried the wrong per­son; the love has gone out of our mar­riage; we have noth­ing in com­mon,” Lerner said.

In­stead, she said, the cou­ple needs to un­der­stand that a mar­riage can tol­er­ate a good amount of bore­dom as well as con­flict when there is a solid foun­da­tion of love and re­spect.

Bore­dom can sim­ply be a sign that cou­ples need to re­con­nect and pay more at­ten­tion to their re­la­tion­ship, Papa said.

“Our whole life is about change and learn­ing, and so should be our mar­riage.”

There are also sci­ence-backed ways to coun­ter­act that bore­dom.

While many cou­ples go on reg­u­lar date nights, they may be sur­prised to learn that th­ese date nights could be con­tribut­ing to their stale mar­riage.

Arthur Aron, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Stony Brook Univer­sity and au­thor of re­la­tion­ship stud­ies, said many cou­ples make an ef­fort to do weekly date nights but tend to do the same dates over and over again.

Aron found that cou­ples who go on re­peat dates have less mar­i­tal sat­is­fac­tion than those who go on more ex­cit­ing, chal­leng­ing dates such as at­tend­ing plays or hik­ing.

“When you over­come chal­lenges with your part­ner by do­ing things that are new and ex­cit­ing, it cre­ates a new and ex­cit­ing feel­ing in you that you equate with your part­ner,” said Aron. “Do­ing the same old, same old doesn’t do much to change any­thing.”

That’s why Didi and Rod Lewis, of Hins­dale, who have been mar­ried for nearly nine years, try to mix it up. Their date nights con­sist of ev­ery­thing from auto shows to casino fundrais­ers to sports games.

“Rob gets in­vited to a lot of net­work­ing events and galas, and he makes a good ef­fort to try to in­clude me in those things, es­pe­cially where there’s some kind of ex­pe­ri­ence in­volved,” said Didi Lewis, a mother of two and a part-time pro­gram man­ager for the Neigh­bour­hood Par­ents Net­work in Chicago.

She and her hus­band, who is a part­ner in com­mer­cial lit­i­ga­tion, also plan an an­nual va­ca­tion sans the kids — and they try not to re­peat the lo­ca­tion.

Still, for some cou­ples, sim­ply mix­ing up date nights and tak­ing nice va­ca­tions aren’t enough. If one part­ner has checked out of the re­la­tion­ship, he or she tends to miss about half of the pos­i­tive signs to con­nect, Ben­son said.

For ex­am­ple, your part­ner may bring you tulips in an ef­fort to re­con­nect. In­stead of be­ing happy to re­ceive the flow­ers, you’ll be sus­pi­cious about them, Ben­son said.

“In our re­search, we found that even if the part­ner makes a nice ges­ture, you will in­ter­pret that as neg­a­tive,” Ben­son said.

You both have to be will­ing to work and fight for your mar­riage. And fight­ing for it is key.

“Of­ten, cou­ples that are stale view con­flict as a bad thing — we don’t want to fight be­cause it will make things worse — but I en­cour­age the mind­set that con­flict is a cat­a­lyst of un­der­stand­ing . ... Change the way you work with con­flict,” Ben­son said.

And change cer­tainly isn’t bor­ing.

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To say that mar­riage is hard work is an un­der­state­ment.

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