How to save a marriage
My husband was born and spent his childhood in France, and you could say that from the moment we met, living in Paris, and fell in love, he wooed me with words. He'd speak French — really, he could have been describing the laundry — and my knees would positively buckle. Amour...chérie...fromage...
And then, as so often happens, life intervened.
Back home in the States, the stresses just accumulated like cascading dominoes over five years of marriage: two small children + mounting bills + skyrocketing house prices + financial insecurity + a home in a tiny rented bungalow. (Au revoir, Paris...) And the kicker: We were impossibly deadlocked over my desire to go back to cooking professionally, and his (more traditional) hope that our children would have a stay-at-home parent — a.k.a. me, by virtue of a cook's low wages — until they were old enough to start school.
Then, in 2007, I accepted a coveted spot in a national competition, The Next Food Network Star, something I hoped would be a career catapult and a way out of the impasse in which our marriage had gotten mired. Who could argue against such success? However, Greg made it clear I would participate in the show "over [his] dead body."
I plowed ahead, but what viewers at home didn't see — thankfully — was how I'd lie on the floor in between takes, rocking in a fetal position, clutching a phone, listening in tears as Greg threatened to leave me. He had no desire to be married to the next Rachael Ray, nor any intention of committing himself and our family to all that such a life implied. I can hardly think of four words more direct or lethal to any marriage than "I want a divorce." (Except for, possibly, "The hooker isn't lying.")
That I'm writing this, still married — and much more happily so now — confirms a statement John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., made in their book 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: "As any weatherman can tell you, the ability to predict trouble is not the same as the ability to prevent it. It's one thing to detect a storm brewing on radar; it's quite another to make the storm clouds disappear."
Lying there on the cold studio floor, I focused on the clouds' silver lining, and it was this: In my heart, I knew Greg didn't mean what he had said. He wasn't a monster or a chauvinist. I had faith in the depths of our devotion to each other, regardless of our words, and truly believed that what was happening was that we'd finally exhausted our caustic vocabulary.
I was certain that what Greg meant was that with me absent for the first time ever, he was scared, furious, worried, confused, overwhelmed, probably tired (and hungry), and likely even a little lonely for the same woman he was now threatening to abandon. But still, we were in desperate straits (see: storm clouds gathering) if the shorthand for all those complicated feelings had become "I want a divorce." If we didn't relearn the language of love, respect, and caring, then regardless of what we really wanted — which was to be together, and mutually fulfilled and happy — we were going to end up divorced anyway. So how to vanquish the storm?
In our case, the answer was a drama in three parts. Act One: Walk away from my budding television career. This wasn't as hard as I expected. Despite positive outward appearances — me actually winning The Next Food Network Star, taking a victory lap on The View, appearing in Bon Appétit, winning a beautiful new car, filming my own show on my very own gorgeous Food Network set — the months immediately following the reality show were...sad. The victory was hollow, and emotionally draining. More than anything else, I wanted to stay married.
And so, Act Two. Thanks to that shiny new car (worth a pretty penny on the open market) and some unique and fortuitous telecommuting flexibility on Greg's part, we moved to France for seven months with the express goal of working on our marriage. We holed up on a friend of a friend's isolated Burgundy farm, vowing to become newly skilled at kindness, compromise, cooperation, and romance — or else.
But what if we couldn't have gone to France (because, let's face it, most couples can't)? Andrew Christensen, Ph.D., a couples therapist and professor of psychology at UCLA and author of the book Reconcilable Differences, offers some perspective there. "Couples have differences large and small — some trivial, some fundamental, many complicated and interesting. Flip side: Couples also have shared values and experiences, large and small — some trivial, some fundamental, many complicated and interesting," he says. France was something that Greg and I shared — not just our memories of it, but our appreciation of it. It was a kind of glue for us, and that gave us a foundation for changing our behavior. For another couple, the glue could be faith, nature, a love of great books.
One of the glories of marriage is the collective out-loud dreaming: staying up all night talking about your hopes and plans for the future. Though the term "intimacy" has become conflated with that other awesome form of staying up all night together — sex — this is true intimacy: trusting, sharing. When you're falling apart as a couple, look for the glue.
Regardless of where we were, Act Three was, of course, the hardest part: getting out of the bad behavioral rut that had us sniping at each other all the time. Our extended stay in France was our own marriage lab. Besides how to make a killer lapin á la moutarde, here is what we learned:
1. Stop with the Threats
No one knows the kind of dangerous territory Greg and I were in by always threatening each other better than Laurie Puhn, a lawyer and couples' mediator and the author of Fight Less, Love More: 5 Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In. How many empty threats to leave a marriage have landed a couple in divorce court when deep down inside they wanted nothing more than to stay in the relationship? "The most important thing you need to do," says Puhn, is "recognize that this is just a bad verbal habit. You're not a bad person; you have a bad communication habit. Throwing out these caustic threats is just a habit; you're barely thinking. You've got to separate the person from the problem. That's the only way to diminish your own self-hatred, the only way to stop thinking, Why did I say that? This also helps you diminish the hatred you may feel toward your mate for the things he's said."
2. Recognize the Power of the D Word
Greg and I had to stop saying we wanted a divorce every time things got rough. But it turns out that the D word serves a very important purpose in marriage. Hal Runkel, a family therapist and author of ScreamFree Marriage, says that one of the things that makes marriage and the daily decision to stay together so powerful is that the threat of divorce is always there. When the threat of divorce makes you bring your best self to a marriage, then it's a vital, even necessary, ingredient. "The D word only becomes a weapon when it's used as an attempt to avoid dealing with the matter at hand," Runkel says.
3. No Time-Traveling
After seven years together (we've now been married for nearly 10), my husband and I had a rich history to mine for both positive and negative episodes. But keeping tabs, feeling like we owed each other for past shortcomings or for past graces, was doing us no favors.
Many married people, like Greg and me, find themselves in the middle of a fight and, like a lawyer making a case, reach into the past for evidence that our partner is wrong (and has been wrong for a long time). Digging up past dirt is easy. What is effective is stopping in the middle of the fight and reaching for a happy memory.
Runkel likes to say, "You don't have a problem in your marriage; you have a pattern in your marriage." His advice? Get humble and get positive, even if it feels like you're faking it at first. "Actively pursue a broader picture," he says. "Always assume there is more than one side, even if you can't see the other side. That is basic humility."
In other words, before you get furious, get curious. Christensen advises, "Stop and ask yourself, Why is my partner acting this way? instead of getting lost in the reaction."
4. Be a Cheerleader, Not Just a Problem Solver
As couples, we tend to focus on getting better at handling problems when perhaps we should invest more energy in learning how to respond to success. After all, isn't success what we're all hoping for? In 2006, psychologist Shelly Gable, Ph.D., published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called "Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right?" Her work found that having a sincere and engaged response to a partner's victories, large ("I'm moving forward with my career!") and small ("I finally got Scarlett to poop on the potty!"), is even more important to a couple's long-term bond than how the partners respond to negative encounters.
Obviously, Greg's threatening to leave me when I was being offered my own television show on Food Network was...well, a categorically bad response. But even when smaller bits of good news go unheralded in a relationship, that's a problem.
In her research, Gable found that many couples underestimated the importance of celebrating the good. She says, "People are very busy. They think, If it's not on fire or broken, I don't need to fix it. But most of us have five positive experiences in a day, compared with one negative event. If you don't pay attention to the positive events, you are missing a lot."
One of the things that taking those seven months away to work on our marriage and travel with our kids gave my husband and me was the opportunity to really focus on life's positive moments. Now that we are back in California, the ability to celebrate the great small moments in a day is a skill that has made our marriage not only strong, but infinitely more tender and loving than I ever could have imagined a few years ago.
5. Stay Focused
While we were healing, I made myself concentrate on just two things, eating and cooking, and while I was lucky enough to be doing that in France, it turns out that I probably could have gotten the same amount of happiness payback anywhere. New research by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., of Harvard suggests that what was most important was not the cheese, or the wine, or la vie en rose, but rather that when I was engaged in cooking and eating, I was so intently focused on those activities, keeping my mind from wandering. "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind," Killingsworth says. When the mind wanders, it actually leads our happiness astray. Good news for my husband (who insists he knew this all along): When are people the most intensely focused? During sex.
So snuggle up to your partner and don't think about the laundry list of to-do's. Or throw your whole self into making an elaborate Sunday dinner. Find something you love to do, even for an hour a week, and block everything else out. That time is like money in the emotional bank of your relationship. That's my advice, and the most important thing I learned when I walked away from a television career to focus on and fix my marriage.
In the end, you can't really take back the awful things you've said. There are still times when I recall something Greg said, or something I said, and I just cringe. But then I remember tip number three, and I don't hit Rewind. Because Greg and I have taken the reins of our language, I know how to separate a real crisis from one of us just having a bad day. Our marriage is a sacred space to Greg and me now: We won't blaspheme within it again. Now we try to identify and eliminate our toxic thinking before our emotions get the best of us. And we both make an effort to use words only to honor and strengthen our imperfect union.
But still...a really nice dinner never hurts.
Finding the Right Words
Have a bad habit of saying things you don't mean to your mate? Try this script from Laurie Puhn, author of Fight Less, Love More.
"Listen, I've got this issue. I know that I say things during fights that aren't right, like mentioning divorce; I don't mean it, and then I regret it. It's not helpful. I want to give you advance notice that I am going to try to stop saying those things. So when you hear me saying one of them during a fight, I want you to raise your hand, and that means I have to take a break."
Certain that your partner is the one with the attitude problem? Try this script anyway. If you call attention to your own positive efforts, he might say, "I shouldn't do that, either."