How To Save Your Marriage

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S1: Did you guys ever worry that this marriage wasn’t going to work out?

S2: Yeah, absolutely, because the disconnection is feels like very big.

S3: Yeah, when I’m mad, I think about those negative things and I think that’s almost normal.

S4: But we are trying and we’re giving our best. Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg. Every marriage, of course, has its ups and downs, but with the pandemic disrupting people’s jobs and lives, not to mention being stuck at home together all the time, things can feel even more intense. But what about when you worry your relationship is past the point of no return?

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S1: This week we have two listeners who are desperate to preserve their marriage but don’t know where to start.

S5: My name is Loyn, my husband and I and our son Alberto. We moved to Florida where newly pregnant, we have a baby on the way. So that’s very exciting.

S6: My name is Carlos and I am from Venezuela. So I came to the US maybe six years ago. Then I met my wife and yeah, everything happened so fast.

S1: Lauren and Carlos have been a couple now for about three years and they’ve been married for just over a year. Tell me a little bit about why you reached out to us.

S7: How do you think that would be good for you to start off the conversation, huh?

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S8: This is just coming from my opinion.

S6: You know, we’ve been having some trouble in our relationship, and I think that we come with ideas on how to solve them together. And then one of us, I think, choose to follow it and the other way and kind of like us and really commit to it.

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S5: I think the first time we really got into an argument is when we lived together because my husband, I have two different personalities, his more Taipei and I’m more like relaxed and and that would make kind of things clash together as far as like responsibilities and chores around the house.

S1: That was like the beginning of like our arguments these days, Laura and Carlos still fight about cleaning the house and other chores, but now being married and with a toddler and another baby on the way. There’s other fights to one of their most frequent arguments has to do with finances because Carlos is trying to switch careers, going from being a mechanical engineer to a day trader. And he doesn’t have a job right now.

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S5: I’ve been supporting the family with finances, so we’ve just been kind of going back and forth of like, should you go back to work? And my husband’s like, you know, doesn’t feel like he has enough time dedicated to really learning his technique as a day trader.

S1: So what you guys are describing sounds sounds pretty normal, right? Like your there’s some challenges. But but Carlos, when you reached out to us, I know that you were saying that this felt like more more serious than just kind of the normal ups and downs of any relationship has. Why is that?

S6: Yeah, so I feel like things are not learned from from her part in this example that that we just gave you, this illusion was OK, like I’m Lawrences, I’ll give you this time to practice so you can be a good day trader and then say, OK, perfect. So when you’re off, you know, can you take care of the baby? And then she says, yes. So when the day comes, she’s off and then like, it doesn’t really happen.

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S2: So there’s no compromising. If you have you thought about giving up very often? Because to me it’s very important that we don’t need to talk about one issue over and over again. We have been through all the therapies before and we say, yes, we really committed yes to it and then their willingness to drive each night. It’s not really theirs for like I cannot pretend that she’s going to be like me, but I wish I could see. OK, I am trying to maybe he’s going to take me a while, but I’m trying.

S9: On today’s episode, How to Save Your Marriage. Our experts this week have dedicated their entire lives to healing struggling relationships, including their own, and their marriage is still going strong three decades later. Stay with us.

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S10: Would you mind if I cut in, Charles? Yeah, go ahead. OK, great. This is Julie and you can just call me Julie. No worries about formal titles or anything.

S1: Julie is Julie Gottman, psychologist, writer and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, which researches relationships and conducts workshops. And this, fittingly, is her co-founder.

S11: I’m John Gottman and I’m Julie’s husband.

S1: John is also a psychologist. And together, the Gutman’s are widely acknowledged as some of the foremost researchers on why some relationships go bad and why others managed to stick together. A lot of the government’s research has focused on getting couples to open up by asking them a sequence of questions like How did you guys first meet?

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S12: We met through Match.com.

S10: OK, and what happened after you first connected on the Internet?

S12: I thought that he was different. Whenever I’d say something, he was always really sweet. You seem very fine, very ambitious. And I just wanted to learn more about him.

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S4: Oh, that’s wonderful. And Carlos, what were your first impressions of Lauren?

S8: Wow. She really has beautiful eyes.

S7: I know when I met her, I was like, wow, this is crazy. There is no way.

S10: And so you married and how was the wedding you described?

S12: Weddings get a little stressful, though, as far as like planning and and finances. So we’re kind of butting heads.

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S10: OK. And how was the transition into being married?

S7: Honey, I think you can answer this one.

S8: I, I think that during the whole thing, there was a little bit of trouble. So like when we were planning our wedding, there was, you know, the illusion, like all my wedding. And I wanted to do, like, you know, whatever I can for for her. But financially, like we were not in the best place. I was like, you know, yeah, we only have this much money.

S11: It sounds kind of like, Carlos, you were you were the one who was emphasizing being cautious. Financially and Lauren, you were much more emphasizing the quality of the experience. Yes. And how did you how did you come to a resolution of those two approaches?

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S12: I think we knew that we were going to get into like a little bit of debt, but then and that caused like a little bit of our humans, but then we told each other, like, we’re not going to get into debt going forward, like after this like this pay off our debt and then just go forward and enjoy the rest of our lives and not argue about this.

S4: The government’s questions may sound innocent enough. How did you meet? How was the wedding? But they say there’s something specific they’re listening for when they talk to people like Lauren and Carlos.

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S10: What we’re looking for here are were you really in love? And what we are hearing so far is lots of yes, yes, yes, yes. What we’re both looking for are landmarks at which point things began to turn south a little bit.

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S1: In particular, one of the things Julie is looking for is to see if couples come back to the same problems over and over again.

S10: Sixty nine percent of all problems couples have are perpetual problems. They never go away. It’s most important to learn how to dialogue about those problems and without getting so flooded that you go into fight or flight and it ends up being a horrible fight. So you guys have a child and it sounds like you got pregnant pretty quickly.

S12: Yeah, six months after we got married. Alberto is how old?

S10: He he’s 20 months. So how was the transition into parenthood?

S12: I think with our first like we were so excited. But then also, too, we had issues and me being hormonal didn’t help with us fighting.

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S10: So there are fights that take place in front of Elberta. Yeah. Yes. Was there a fair amount of sleep deprivation after Elberta was born. Yeah.

S7: Yeah, yeah.

S12: And that doesn’t help our situation. It adds to the fighting.

S10: Yeah. Right. Was there any screaming. Was there yelling. Was there stomping out of the house. Was there. Yes. Know that kind of stuff. Yes. Yeah. Who was doing this. Screaming and yelling and stomping.

S2: Yeah. The screaming in my opinion it was more Lauran by the leaving. I didn’t want to do it because I wanted to show that, you know, I’m here for you, you know, and but yeah. Like, it got to a point that I also had to leave and come down someone somewhere else and then come back.

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S11: So one of the things I’m wondering about is I heard Carlos start to identify the problems that they’re having in terms of deficits and Lauren’s character, we call that criticism. And once you see that pattern of one person saying the problem is with my partner, that’s a bad sign.

S10: And what criticism always inspires is defensiveness. Well, wait a minute. Don’t attack me. Here’s what was going on for me. And that pattern doesn’t bode well.

S13: So here’s our first rule. Do not criticize your partner. It will make them defensive instead. And I’m going to admit from personal experience, this is a very hard thing to do.

S14: You should try and figure out the root of what’s bothering you and and how you both need to change. But how exactly do you do that, especially in the middle of a big blowup? When we come back, John and Julie will tell us how to have better fights and more productive arguments. Stick around.

S1: We’re back with our experts, John and Julie Gottman and our listeners, Lauren and Carlos, who have found themselves fighting more than ever lately, which actually isn’t all that unusual, considering that they have a two year old at home.

S10: We saw in our research that about 70 percent of all couples after the first baby is born go through a huge drop in their marital satisfaction. Part of it is the sleep deprivation, because with interrupted sleep after 30 days of that, most people will show almost every sign of clinical depression. What I’m also hearing is that those fights caused some we would call those emotional injuries where you’re so flooded, not feeling listened to, feeling attacked, that you go into fight or flight. The things that come out of your mouth, you can’t remember what’s going on in your body is that your heart rates are typically going to be over 100 beats a minute. Even if you’re just sitting there and doing nothing, you’ll feel hot. Maybe your muscles will tense up. Does that sound familiar?

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S7: Yes. Yes, it does. I know. It’s terrible. I know. All right.

S10: So here’s here’s what you do. The minute you start feeling that, tell your partner I need a break and you make that break at least 30 minutes long, if not longer. And during that time, you go away from each other and don’t think about the fight, because if you keep thinking about the fight and what you should have said, then what happens is you stay flooded. And what you’re really meaning to do instead is to sell soon. This is our second rule.

S1: Walk away, focus on calming yourself down before you focus on what to say next to your partner. Julie says that when you can chill out by playing with your kid or watching TV or really anything, it helps stress hormones start leaving your bloodstream and that causes your body to calm down and eventually your mind to calm down, too. And all of that puts you in a better mindset for solving problems rather than blaming your partner.

S11: Can I ask a question, Lauren? What what kind of a baby does Alberto there mostly?

S7: Yeah, he’s very active.

S11: So I’m wondering if, Lauren, you know, you’re feeling now kind of overwhelmed by just the process of being a mom?

S12: Well, for me, I am. I work full time. So my husband is actually. Yeah. So my husband’s watching our son.

S1: And what’s it like being being a stay at home dad for you?

S2: I like it. I like it. But other than Ben not being able to provide because there’s something there that I don’t know, that kind of like affects me, you know, that I’m not the one that she’s the one who provides for the family.

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S1: And I mean, Lauren works in retail sales, which involves a lot of dealing with people and being on your feet all day and then you’re coming home for the second shift.

S10: Yep, that’s what they call it.

S12: Yeah. So my husband’s watching our son, but I think it’s like keeping things balance is a little overwhelming because I can’t, you know, take care of him and then do chores and then cook. As Carlos was saying before, he hasn’t had time to practice his new profession. So we argue about that, too. And then my husband is complaining that we’re not being as intimate as he would like for us to be. Right. And I’ve been trying to find a balance of like working full time, taking care of things around the house, our son, and then with him, it gets overwhelming.

S15: So much stress. Well, you’re right. You have a right to feel that way. You actually both have a right to feel that way. I mean, for every couple covered, for one thing has become a terrible pressure cooker. And you’re pregnant again, Lauren, and you’ve got this little toddler who’s, you know, super active little soccer star running all over the place.

S10: And so it’s tough. It’s really, really tough. So here’s another antidote for you guys, OK? You look for what your partner’s doing, right? Not what they’re doing wrong. You know, John is an angel. And I recently had some shoulder surgery. And so he’s doing the dishes and he’s cleaning the kitchen and cooking and. But what do I see? I see the crumbs that got left over the counter. But it’s like John and I, you know, I mean, I was like, oh, I shouldn’t do that. I should know better. Here I am an expert.

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S1: Like, what’s a fight that you guys have had and how did you work through it?

S10: Well, we have the fight over cleaning up the housework area, right, sweetie? Right. Yeah. So Jon will have a huge pile somewhere like in the living room, basically the food, the books, the banjo, the flute, the books, papers, the journals that haven’t been read.

S16: So I’ll ask John to pick please pick up the living room and he’ll pick up the living room and take all the stuff to the kitchen and it will sit on the kitchen counter. So what do you do then? OK, so first of all, I have lower standards. Secondly, I’ll let things go for longer than I ordinarily would.

S1: And this is another good rule. Part of being in a relationship or having a kid is adjusting your expectations, particularly when the thing you care about, like cleaning, is something your partner doesn’t care about quite so much.

S16: And then finally, I’ll get to my crazy place. My crazy place sounds like this, John. I’m going to kill you unless you clean up the living room. Will you please clean up the living room? Now, notice I haven’t described him. I’ve just described me.

S10: So it’s like I get to work and he gets to work because he knows through experience that I’m not a happy girl if things are a total mess. Happy wife, happy life.

S1: This is all building to one big important insight, which is part of what causes tension in a relationship. Is this pressure where you believe that your partner is just like you or maybe subconsciously you want to make your partner like you. And this is a bad belief and a bad instinct because it’s much better to acknowledge that you’re different people and that you have to accommodate that early on while you’re married.

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S11: I kind of thought she’s being too emotional. Why can’t she be more like me? And over time, I’ve learned to realize that her emotions are actually a resource for us. And if I listen and understand what she’s feeling, then we actually get closer and I learn to see things from her perspective. And then she winds up seeing things from my perspective. Then we can collaborate.

S1: To see things from your partner’s perspective, Julie says you should ask each other specific questions like what values are you holding onto right now that’s making this such a difficult conversation? Or is there a childhood history or something hidden that’s causing this tension? Is there some dream you have that I’m blocking in a way that I might not understand? John and Julie call this the dream within conflict exercise. And it allows couples to bring to the surface these issues that maybe at first they don’t realize are causing them to fight.

S10: You know, I want to point out something, guys, that’s really important, and that is that covid is the big elephant in the room here in the fact that you can’t take your child to daycare and because you can’t take your child to daycare, Carlos, you don’t have time because you’re running after him all the time. So if anything is preventing you from practice as a day trader, it’s covid.

S8: It’s not so much Loryn kind of tells you something kind of look like sometimes I do think like or I try at least to think as a psychologist. So like it like everything was stressful, like everything was a lie. And I think that kind of like the belt, like a pattern too in my mind.

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S10: Let me interrupt you, OK, because this is a really important piece here.

S15: Researchers look for patterns, therapists look for patterns, partners do not. If you start pointing out patterns, you’re coming off as condescending. Yet you never, ever want to be your partners therapist ever.

S17: This is our next rule, do not try to psychoanalyze your partner, that is not your job and it’s probably just going to piss them off. Instead, what you should do is talk about what you’re feeling rather than telling them what you think they’re feeling or or what you think they ought to be feeling.

S18: Each of you, when you have a complaint, if you have something that disturbs you in the relationship, you want to describe yourself, I feel. About what and here’s my positive need, it’s I feel upset that the kitchen is a mess.

S19: Now, the positive need means you’re not talking about what you don’t want. You’re talking about what you do want. And you have to be very specific about it, very concrete. I would love it if you could pay the bills by next Monday. That would take a load off my plate.

S2: And I usually tell her to sometimes I because I never mean any bad or harm or anything like that.

S8: So I usually tell her when I know that there’s something that might upset her, like, you know, I have something serious to talk to you.

S2: So would you please be open? Will you please try to empathize with me? Don’t take anything that I’m going to say is an insult. Nothing like that. Just like just here.

S10: It’s not going to work if you’re delivering your message with an insult.

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S2: Right? Yeah, I just I can’t find the words. What happens when you don’t get that from from the other person? Like, is there anything that you can do?

S10: Yes. Yes. So first of all, the other person. So Lauren, in this case, Lauren, it would really help if you were absolutely realistic about what you could deliver and what you can’t. The other thing, too, Lauren, is I haven’t heard what you need. Have you said what you need from Carlos?

S12: I think I have, but sometimes I keep it to myself because I feel like it’s not really getting through to him. And when you said condescending, that really rings a bell with me because say, for instance, I’m not doing something up to his standards. He’ll be like, oh, I know that’s not within your capability. And I said that. And that’s very rude. And I know he doesn’t mean it to be that way, but it hurts me and it makes me, like, shut down.

S10: That would be really, really important to change. You guys know what a sea anemone looks like? It’s one of those sea creatures you see in tide pools that is circular and it has all these little fingers that kind of open up. But if you poke it a little bit, all the fingers close back down again. Well, that’s what I think when I hear one partner criticizing another, it’s like a poke because you guys want to feel comfortable and relaxed with each other. You want to be able to express your love for one another. I can hear that from you. That’s why we gave you those early questions, to hear the love that was there on the magic that was there. So, Lauren, here’s how to say what you need. Honey, I struggled with words like.

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S13: Not capable, would you please? Here’s the positive need, would you please speak to me about what your positive need is? Here’s our next rule. Tell your partner what you need and don’t pose it as something that they’re lacking or failing to give you, but rather something you want from them, something you need from them. That’s the first step to reaching a compromise.

S19: We have a specific exercise for that. And you can do this visually, draw two concentric circles that kind of look like a big donut. And in the center circle, you say, what parts of my position on this issue can I not compromise on? Then in the outer circle, you write down what you’re more flexible about.

S10: Once you’ve kind of hash those out individually, then you compare notes. How can you honor each other’s inner circles with flexibility that helps you reach a compromise around that outer stuff?

S1: That makes a lot of sense. Lauren and Carlos, do you think that that would help?

S12: Yes. Yeah, I think so. I think that would be really nice to just see it like on paper, because sometimes when we talk about it gets a little jumbled up. But I think that makes it more concrete that way.

S1: Here’s our final rule. Write down your values and your desires and also where you feel like those values and desires are flexible. And then look for how all of those things overlap with your partner.

S3: I was feeling kind of stuck like we’re getting into bad habits, but I know that we can overcome them even if we’re having troubles at the moment. Like, I just know that Carlos is meant for me and I know that we have a lot to learn from each other because I just don’t I just don’t picture my life with anyone else or doing it over in any other way.

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S1: With Carlos, you had originally reached out to us because you were really worried about your marriage. Do you feel like this conversation has helped you?

S2: Absolutely. I know that he’s not only her part of the of the deal is not only her doing this things to me. I know that I have to be doing something else that is triggering these things on her. I feel that this is a new approach that is going to that is going to help.

S20: It’s important that Lauren doesn’t shut down and really talks about what she needs from you and that you listen. So defensiveness is the big enemy of problem solving. And I always have to work on being less defensive and listening well to my wife and I have to work on being less critical.

S19: So there you go, guys. We’re all working together on this stuff. We’re all in the same seat. So hang in there.

S14: Thank you. To learn and Carlos for sharing their story with us and to Julie and John Gottman for all of their fantastic advice.

S17: If you want to learn more, you should definitely look for their book, Eight Dates, Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Or you can find lots of resources for you and your partner to work through together at their website. Goateed man dot com. If you like this episode, you should check out another one named How to Tame a Chaotic Household.

S14: Bruce Feiler, who’s the author of The Secrets of Happy Families, shares the habits that will help you make the best of a messy apartment or an overwhelming work and child care load or anything else that’s throwing your family for a loop, particularly right now in this exact time. You can find that episode in all of our episodes for free and our podcast for you. Is there something broken in your life that needs to be fixed? If so, you should send us a note at how to add slate dotcom. Or you can always leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you think this week’s advice was helpful, please tell a friend and encourage them to subscribe. How TOS executive producer is Darkon Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced a show in Merritt Jacobs, our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannas Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of audio special thanks to Maggie Taylor and Sung Park and Charles Duhigg.

S9: Thanks for listening.