When you make the decision to end your marriage, you want to be sure about divorce. No one wants to make a mistake.
For some people, while it is a hard decision and not something they wanted, it becomes clear that divorce is what needs to happen. Often, these situations involve domestic abuse, addictions and infidelity.
For many other people the decision is much more challenging: they get along OK with their spouse, they parent OK together, they’re not constantly fighting, they can make decisions but … there’s something missing. There’s no intimacy, emotional or physical. They feel their spouse is more like a roommate than a romantic partner.
These roommate marriages are the hardest ones to end. People agonize over the decision for months, even years. Couples counselling often doesn’t seem to help. People feel guilty and don’t want to hurt their spouse.
Is there a way you can accurately assess the reality of your marriage? How can you test the possibility for change? Can you/should you involve your spouse in this? Can you be sure about divorce?
Joining me for this Conversation About Divorce are Doctors John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman. For forty years the Gottmans have studied what separates the masters of relationships from the disasters and in their latest book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations For A Lifetime of Love, they argue that it’s all about building connection. I think you could use these Eight Dates to try to reconnect with your spouse.
Listen into our Conversation below and/or keep reading for a synopsis.
It’s Not About What You Have In Common
I often hear from people that over the years they’ve drifted apart from their spouse, they don’t have many activities they do together anymore. The Gottmans argue that this shouldn’t be the main criteria for a happy relationship. Instead, happiness comes from knowing how to address your core differences in a way that supports your partner’s needs and dreams.
“People really do need to embrace their differences because those differences can enrich the relationship,” said Schwartz Gottman. “Each person represents a different world and as long as people really stay in touch with that internal world with their partner they can be fed with adventure, with fun, with nurturing, with wonderful passion.”
Part of the problem for modern day marriages is that couples spend most of their time dealing with the daily minutia. A study done at UCLA with 30 dual career couples in Los Angeles found that the typical couple spends less than 10 percent of the time in an evening in the same room and the average amount of time couples spend talking to each other is about 35 minutes a week. Most of the talk is about what’s going on, who’s going to do what.
“People are ignoring the relationship, focusing on work and children,” said Gottman. “They’re not having dates and romantic dates, not really focusing on who their partner is, who their partner is becoming. There’s very little emotional connection. They become two lives in parallel.”
Ground Rules for Dates
I feel that telling you to go on dates with your spouse is typical advice for marriage therapists. I remember one of the therapists that my now ex and I saw telling us to do that. I think we maybe managed two dates – at the time, it felt like more work for me … arranging the babysitter, agreeing where to go etc. while working more than full-time. When I left the logistics to my now ex, it just didn’t happen. I don’t remember our therapist talking through guidelines.
The Gottmans dating advice however is very different. It’s very specific and sets out ground rules. To be clear this isn’t about going out and doing stuff together, like hiking or dancing or seeing a movie. These dates are focused on conversation around big topics like what was trust like in your family growing up or how did your parents show that they either trusted each other or didn’t rust each other. These are questions that don’t answer in a few words.
“What we wanted to create were dates where people were really addressing questions like that,” said Schwartz Gottman. “Questions that really opened up the heart, opened up the soul and allowed each person to really see the other, see their values, their needs, their core beliefs, their dreams, to learn more about who this person is that perhaps they’d been living with for 30 years but have forgotten who they are.”
Not only are the dates a way for you to reconnect with your partner, they are also a way for you to explore yourself and to reflect on your own history, your values and beliefs.
“Each date is a seed for what you can build with your partner,” said Gottman.
Don’t Evaluate. Connect
The Gottmans are clear that these dates are not intended to be an evaluation of your marriage or your partner.
“It’s really more about, let’s catch up with each other,” said Schwartz Gottman. “Let’s see who the other person really is. Let’s keep an open mind and connect with one another.”
This reminded me of my Conversation with Douglas Noll about how to calm an angry person. Noll said a common mistake that even trained mediators make when faced with someone who’s emotional is to jump to problem-solving. You have to confront the problem on an emotional level first before you begin looking for solutions.
Similarly, these dates are not about trying to resolve the problems between you and your spouse such as your different parenting styles or your different spending habits. It’s more about trying to understand what your experience with parenting or money has been that has brought you to this point, understanding the why, putting everything in context.
So during these conversations it’s going to take some discipline not to jump into problem-solving but connecting first is likely to lead to better resolutions ultimately.
“What we found in the relationship therapy that we’ve done is that as long as people really understand where the other person is coming from, what their history is, what their dream is, what their values are, then each person can feel more respected, more understood, more empathized with,” said Schwartz-Gottman. “It becomes so much easier to reach some kind of compromise.”
Gottman says you don’t have to follow the conversation topics in the order presented in the book. If there is a particular topic, such as sex and intimacy, that is a particularly contentious area, you might try a few of the other topics like family or growth and spirituality to get comfortable having open, honest conversations again before you tackle a difficult area.
You Can’t Do This Alone
While divorce might indeed be on your mind, you might not feel ready to share that with your spouse yet. And certainly approaching this as a “do this or else” strategy isn’t going to create a safe environment in which your spouse will want to join you. (You can’t work through the material for these dates on your own no matter how well you think you know your spouse.) Invite them to participate with you by saying that you feel that you’re drifting apart, that you don’t really talk anymore and share what you’re feeling. Schwartz Gottman suggests perhaps that you’re missing them, missing the conversations you used to have or that you’re feeling lonely.
Sharing how you’re feeling will help your partner feel safer about engaging in the dialogue and also wanted. And if your partner isn’t willing to engage in this, then that in itself is very telling.
This Takes Practice
Having these conversations is just like anything else that you’re learning to do or relearning. It’s going to take some practice and that’s where having the Gottmans’ book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations For A Lifetime of Love will help you. The Gottmans have carefully thought through the suggested setting for each date and have developed a list of questions for you each to consider ahead of time.
“The questions we ask, the settings and all the coaching that we give folks throughout the chapters in the book really help people to have those conversations without having to worry about artful conversation,” said Schwartz-Gottman.
In the end it’s not just about eight dates. You can’t be done in eight dates. It’s about developing a practice of heartfelt conversations and learning to communicate what you feel without what the Gottmans call the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. It’s my belief that if you can have these eight dates and re-discover the connections between you and your partner, it likely isn’t time for divorce.
My guests this Conversation About Divorce were Doctors John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman. For forty years the Gottmans have studied what separates the masters of relationships from the disasters and in their latest book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations For A Lifetime of Love, they argue that it’s all about building connection. Visit the Gottman website for a listing of book tour dates and follow them on Twitter @GottmanInst and on Facebook at GottmanInstitute.