A conversation with Marcia Lee about every Alberta couple living an extraordinary marriage
Have you ever contemplated leaving your husband or wife? Do you think others can see or sense whether your marriage is on the rocks? If you are in a troubled marriage, the question then becomes, “Can this marriage be rescued?” The asking of this question begins long before a relationship reaches the brink of destruction.
If you suspect you may be headed for disaster, I invite you to test the strength of your marriage in the relationship quiz below, prepared by Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington Family Research Lab.
Dr. Gottman is respected as one of the foremost marriage researchers in North America, and is renowned for his breakthrough research on marital stability and divorce prediction. He has studied couples for 25 years, measuring everything from heart rate to facial expressions to how people talk about their relationship, and can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will stay married and which will not.
To measure the strength of your relationship, do this alone and write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ next to each of the following statements. Give yourself one point for each “yes” answer:
1. I can name my partner’s best friends.
2. I can tell you what stresses my partner is currently facing.
3. I know the names of some of the people who have been irritating my partner lately.
4. I can tell you some of my partner’s life dreams.
5. I can tell you about my partner’s basic philosophy of life.
6. I can list the relatives my partner likes the least.
7. I feel that my partner knows me pretty well.
8. When we are apart, I often think fondly of my partner.
9. I often touch or kiss my partner affectionately.
10. My partner really respects me.
11. There is fire and passion in this relationship.
12. Romance is definitely still part of our relationship.
13. My partner appreciates the things I do in this relationship.
14. My partner generally likes my personality.
15. Our sex life is mostly satisfying.
16. At the end of the day my partner is glad to see me.
17. My partner is one of my best friends.
18. We just love talking to each other.
19. There is lots of give and take (both people have influence) in our discussions.
20. My partner listens respectfully, even when we disagree.
21. My partner is usually a great help as a problem solver.
22. We generally mesh well on basic values and goals in life.
Now find your score on the following scale:
• Above 12 ‘yes’ answers: You have a lot of strength in your relationship. Congratulations!
• 7 to 12: This is a pivotal time in your relationship. There are many strengths you can build upon but there are also some weaknesses that need your attention.
• 6 or fewer ‘yes’ answers: Your relationship may be in serious trouble. If this scares you, you probably still value the relationship enough to try to get help* (Read on!)
My own memory of a particularly painful counseling session plays back in slow motion in my mind. It was exactly three and a half years ago, and I was listening as our marriage counselor asked my husband, “Do you still love your wife?”
I had actually heard the same question multiple times now over some eight months, asked by the third marriage counselor we had worked with in a span of five years. But never before had it taken my husband this long to answer.
I fixed my gaze on the bleak autumn scene outside, not daring to look at my husband, bracing for his answer. And what I heard next rang through my bones with a chill even colder than the fall air. “All I feel toward Marcia right now is anger, hatred and resentment.”
If you’ve ever been in marriage counseling, you might understand how I felt. In that very moment, it seemed that I’d just spent years treading water in some nebulous ocean current, grasping at lifelines that repeatedly turned out to be spider webs. The hollow feelings of frustration, sadness and resignation ebbed and flowed through those years, at times lightly crashing like an ever-present surf, at times like this overwhelming like a tidal wave.
I heard the counselor begin to outline his formula for separation while my husband asked questions of clarification. I felt somehow disconnected from myself, an observer of a drama in which my future was being scripted for me. And as the two of them spoke, part of me was listening to them, but another part of me was having an entirely different internal conversation.
I recoiled with horror at the thought of the impact this would have on our children – I was just three weeks away from giving birth to our second child. I found myself wanting to believe it really would be better for the children, as I’d been told more than once, but I knew somewhere deep in my heart that really mustn’t be true.
More recently, I’ve explored the impact of divorce on children and how it shows up in our world. I’ve decided that perhaps we just tell ourselves our children would be better off so we can avoid facing more of the painful reality.
The most comprehensive and recent collection of data I’ve found is in an April, 2002 report from the Heritage Foundation called “The Positive Effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts.” It shows that children from divorced families are almost twice as likely to repeat a school grade as children from intact homes. As adolescents, they are almost twice as likely to be unhealthy, be expelled from school, consider having a child out of wedlock, or use marijuana or cocaine. These adolescents are 1/3rd more likely to smoke cigarettes or be depressed, and 2/3rds more likely to be sexually active. As adults, they are 2 to 4 times more likely to end up in jail.
Still sitting in the therapist’s office, I recall thinking back to that day seven years earlier when we both had said, “I do,” and we both really meant “until death do us part”. Who could have predicted that we would find ourselves in this situation today? How could we have anticipated that we would find ourselves at the brink of becoming another Alberta statistic, one of the 2 in 5 marriages that end in divorce?
There are some red flags that we could have spotted early on, had we known what to look for. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman refers to the “Four Henchmen of the Apocalypse”, four dangerous patterns of interacting that are critical indicators found in relationships on a path of destruction. They are:
1. Criticism: Complaining with blaming, a type of criticism that directly implies there is something wrong with the spouse’s character or personality. This destructive type of criticism often starts with “You always…” or “You never…”
2. Defensiveness: Defending one’s own innocence, verbally warding off a perceived attack, often presents as a counter-attack or taking an innocent victim stance (‘It’s all my partner’s fault’)
3. Contempt: Putting your partner down, taking a higher position which can include maintaining the ‘higher moral ground’, may be accompanied by belligerence, and may simply present as ‘looks of contempt’ such as rolling of the eyes.
4. Stonewalling: The listener withdrawing from the interaction, using a monitoring gaze, or no longer giving listener tracking cues like moving the face or even looking at the spouse.
My husband and I had ‘gone for help’, over and over in fact, accessing multiple traditional and non-traditional marriage resources, both practical and spiritual disciplines. Usually, at least one of us was the reluctant participant. Perhaps you’ve been there. Perhaps you are there right now.
Truth is, we didn’t need any research based evidence to know we were in big trouble. We were beyond that, and yet we didn’t separate; we endured the ebbs and flows – “for our children”.
And so it went until a particular Saturday evening just last year, bedtime for four year old Katie after a typically strained day in the marriage. Katie had recently seen the movie ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’, and when we settled in for our bedtime ‘chat’, it became obvious she’d been waiting for the right moment to make her inquiry. “Mommy, why don’t you just ask Daddy to leave — like in Mrs. Doubtfire?”
It was in that moment that I finally let myself get in touch with the true impact we were having on our children, despite our well-meaning pretenses. And somewhere inside, I decided to stop pretending not to know, and to take a stand.
Can marriages be rescued? I’m here to shout YES!
As I sit writing this with my husband’s input, we both agree on the statement, “There is fire and passion in this relationship.” We have come an incredibly long way since that Saturday last year and now embrace the path before us.
What does it take to rescue a marriage? I have no cookie-cutter recipe or formula. However, there are some powerful resources that my husband and I agree all fit somewhere on a continuum between helpful and transformational. We offer them to you here…
1. Couples Therapy: Can it be hazardous to your marital health? Dr. William J. Doherty says yes, and he himself is a committed marriage and family therapist who even trains marriage and family therapists at the University of Minnesota Family Social Science Department! He called himself the “whistle blower” in an address he delivered at a 1999 major conference of those very therapists. You can read his entire presentation on the web, including his list of the questions to ask when shopping for a therapist, and his personal recommendation on whether to stay or run based on their answers. Help me find the great ones! http://www.smartmarriages.com/hazardous.html
2. ‘The Pursuit of Excellence’ Program in Edmonton: Although not specifically for couples, we credit this 2 evening plus 2 day program and it’s sequel with filling two important needs. First, it was the foundation upon which we first explored our current comfort zones and gave us tools to step boldly beyond them. Second, it helped us really understand the concept of ‘greener pastures’ — we would just take our ‘brown stuff’ with us if we jumped the fence into a new relationship. Program Facilitator Bobby Ng (780-486-3041) is leading a course April 10-13.
3. Fighting for Your Marriage (a book) and Couples Programs in Edmonton: This book is authored by world renowned marriage researchers, University of Denver psychologists Drs. Markman, Stanley and Blumberg. The keys to make marriages work according to their research (or how to ride the bicycle-built-for- two without crashing) are outlined in their book. They have also developed a couples’ course that for 12 years has used an educational approach (vs. therapy approach) to get couples riding that bike. I plan to co- facilitate such a couples’ course in Edmonton based on their cutting edge work over 8 Monday evenings from late April to June. Email email@example.com with a subject line Edmonton’s Couples Course for details once available.
4. * The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (a book) and “The Art & Science of Love” Couples Seminars in Seattle. To learn more about what makes marriages work, read this book by Dr. John Gottman. If you are interested in obtaining more information about Gottman’s research, obtaining educational materials from The Gottman Institute, or learning about their workshops for couples, contact The Gottman Institute at 888-523-9042, or check their Website at www.gottman.com.
5. ‘The Landmark Forum’ Weekend Course in Calgary or Vancouver: What can I say…simply transformational! We did this program separately – it’s not just for couples. In it, we both found an access to drawing a line in the sand, powerfully completing on so much of the past, and really stepping into new possibility. Works best if you stay in the process even after the first program to continue re-examining and re-inventing yourself to be the way you want to be. Includes a free 10 week follow up seminar. Inquire to Mark Mallamo at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: Thriving Partnerships Now.
6. ‘Citizens’ Marriage Initiatives’ are now transforming a growing number of North American communities, and I am simply in awe of some of the results. Citizens of Harrisburg, Virginia and Cedar Rapids, Iowa have in a single year reduced their divorce rates by 15% and 24% respectively.
Every community states the purpose of its initiative differently, but they all revolve around taking a stand for couples to live extraordinary marriages, and for communities to offer extraordinary support to couples in preparing for life-long marriages, enhancing existing marriages, and restoring troubled ones.
I invite you to take a stand with me – for the ongoing transformation of your own marriage, mine, and every marriage in Alberta. I do not know what such an initiative in Alberta will look like, but I know I can’t do this alone. I also know that a lot of inspired people passionately doing what they love to do can accomplish a lot and have a good time doing it.
This initiative will need citizens who can provide talent, energy, resources, ability and a sense of humor for planning, strategy, organization, evaluation, education, administration, contact management, coordination, volunteer management, public relations, research, child care, fun – you name it. It will need leaders from many sectors of community (Education, Business, Legal, Media, Spiritual, Health, Community, Government, Service and more), and a steering committee to mastermind the invention of this new possibility. What are you inspired to do? I request you let me know by email at email@example.com with a subject line Marriage Initiative.
Together we must stop pretending not to know the impact that marital breakdown has on our health, happiness and sense of fulfillment, productivity, our children and our hearts. My vision for Alberta is that we are the home of communities that deeply nurture marriages, where every marriage flourishes and every individual, couple and community sector is a giver and receiver of support. Rise up!
Marcia Lee is a professional speaker and a certified Instructor of couples programs by Drs. Markman and Stanley of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Marcia was also the first accredited ‘Chopra Center Instructor’, and leads seminars based on the work of author Dr. Deepak Chopra. She was formerly an ER nurse for 17 years. She and Gabe have been married for 10 years and have two small children, Samuel and Katie.