Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage
By John M. Gottman, Ph.D., Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., Joan DeClaire
Maybe it was good fortune that David wanted most in a wife. That's certainly what attracted him to Candace when they first met at a church youth group when they were both sixteen years old.
"We were playing poker and Candace drew four aces and the joker," David recalls. "That really made an impression on me!"
Candace remembers the teenaged David as a soft-spoken, gentle boy. That notion never changed. "I've always thought of him as a good person, the sweetest man there is," she says. "He's really kind to me-my sweetheart and my best friend."
So imagine Candace s shock when, at forty, she learned that David was having an affair.
"It happened about two years ago," says David, a Pittsburgh-area real estate salesman. He'd been under a lot of pressure at the time. He had just invested-and lost-most of their retirement savings in a land deal that went sour.
"I hadn't fairly consulted with Candace, and I felt so bad about it." David said. Then he met a woman at his office who was willing to listen. "She really sympathized with me and I got involved with her. I never thought it was going to go that way, but unfortunately it did."
Candace found out about the affair in a phone call from the woman's husband. Feeling shattered, she confronted David. He didn't try to deny it. In fact, he confessed and ended the relationship with the other woman right away.
Then David and Candace went to work, doing everything they could think of to get their marriage back on track. Over the next two years they read every book they could find about healing their marriage. They went to marriage workshops. They even began co-teaching a class on marriage at their church. Still, it seemed a struggle to recover from the emotional upheaval the affair had caused. While David wrestled with feelings of guilt, Candace felt haunted by a recurring sense of betrayal.
Neither partner reports having had serious problems in their marriage prior to David's fling. Married at nineteen, the couple had two sons in their first four years together. David's sales job required lots of travel to other states, so he took his young family with him. Both he and Candace remember those early years as happy times, traveling by car, staying in motels, enjoying their time together. After the boys started school, Candace went to college and became a nurse while David concentrated on starting his real estate business.
Candace tells us they always tried to be "realistic" about marriage. "As you age, those big, passionate, 'teenage crush' feelings naturally go away-that's to be expected," she says. So, by their late thirties, she wasn't surprised that their romantic feelings for each other had waned. Having a strong friendship seemed good enough.
When she learned of David's affair, however, all of her ideas about a passionless marriage went up in smoke. "Now I could see that David still had the capacity for romance," Candace explains. "Passion doesn't have to go away just because we're growing older."
David swears he has totally recommitted to his marriage, and Candace seems to trust that that's true. Still, she finds herself wanting more from him than she ever needed before. In the aftermath of the affair, she needs to know on a much deeper level that she's number one.
David seems eager to reassure Candace, but he also admits that he has a hard time conveying his romantic feelings for her. Why? Both believe their hectic lifestyle is part of the problem. David claims they're always so busy trying to "get their ducks in a row" that they never take time for each other.
But we suspect there may be other obstacles to greater emotional intimacy. To find out, we ask Candace and David to talk to each other about a recent conflict. They start by discussing an incident that happened in the hotel room that morning, just before they came to the Love Lab.
Our Analysis: Sidestepping Difficult Feelings Blocks Emotional Intimacy
On the surface, this couple seems to be handling their differences well. They show lots (if concern and affection for each other; their tone is sweet and caring. Looking more closely, however, we can see the source of emotional distance: David and Candace are so intent on avoiding bad feelings that they're sidestepping issues that really need discussion. And David, especially, seems to be in such a rush to reassure Candace, he misses opportunities to demonstrate just how much he really cares.
Optimistic by nature, David and Candace have always placed a high value on getting along. And after David's affair threatened the security of their relationship, being accommodating and reassuring feels more important than ever. Hut when couples consistently avoid problems, they develop a habit of squelching their negative feelings. This creates emotional distance, which is a high price to pay for avoiding conflict. The price includes a sense of loneliness and a lack of romance. It's hard to be passionate toward your spouse when you don't feel close anymore.
Still, Candace has decided she will use this visit to the Love Lab as an opportunity to tell David what she needs. And in the dialogue above, she bravely states that she wants his physical affection, starting with a foot massage. Despite his initial defensiveness about the way Candace makes her request. David shows that he's open to her request. Hut he doesn't acknowledge how Candace is feeling in the moment. For example, he doesn't say, "I can see that you felt sad when I didn't stop and pay attention," or "I'm sorry that I missed your cue. That must have hurt your feelings."
Our guess is that David feels it's too risky to engage Candace in a conversation about her sadness. His heart rate, which we measured via electrodes attached to his chest and fingers, shows this may be true. At the beginning of the conversation it was already 100 beats per minute, which is higher than average-perhaps because he finds it stressful to be in the lab, poised to talk about problems. Hut it jumps even higher, up to 121 beats per minute, when Candace starts telling David about her disappointment. Such spikes are a sign of "diffuse physiological arousal," or "flooding." In other words, emotional stress has caused the many parts of his nervous system to become so overloaded that it's difficult for him to think straight and communicate, so he tries to put a lid on the conversation. Hut his attempts to reassure Candace and to repair the interaction don't do the trick because he's jumping to the conclusion. "I think we do pretty good, don't you?" he asks Candace. Hut nothing has happened yet to make her feel that things are pretty good.
What's the result? Candace doesn't seem to notice consciously that her needs have been dismissed. By all appearances, David is being his old sweet, reassuring self. So, despite her sadness, she nods, as if to say, "Yes, everything is just fine." But her heart is telling her something different, so she tries once more. ("It makes me very sad . . .") Only this time she doesn't wait for him to dismiss her feelings. She does it herself. Our heart monitor tells us her pulse is racing at 154 beats per minute, which causes her to clam up, full of tears. With her heart rate at this level, she's probably secreting the hormone adrenaline, as well. This interferes with her ability to think clearly, and she withdraws. The interaction leaves both of them feeling hurt, frustrated, and confused because they can't see where they've gone wrong.
1. Tell Your Partner What You Need, Even If It Feels Difficult
It's clear to us that David and Candace need to do a better job of stating their needs to each other. Although Candace makes a strong bid for getting more attention from David, she backs down when David tells her everything is OK. She may be doing this because she wants so badly to get her marriage back on solid ground, but it's having just the opposite effect.
As Candace told us earlier, she and David gradually started to expect less romance in their relationship over time, believing that would make them happier in the long run. "Don't expect much and you won't be disappointed." they might have said. Hut now she sees that their strategy has backfired. And it's not surprising, considering what marriage researcher Donald Baucom has found. His studies show that couples who have high expectations for romance and passion in their relationships are more likely to have these qualities in their marriages than are those who have low expectations; and those with high expectations have happier marriages as a result.
Candace s habit of letting David off the hook does not make things better for this couple. Instead, it creates more distance. If Candace wants to grow closer to David, she's going to have to make sure she's heard by him, even if it creates the potential for more conflict. Avoiding the conflict will only make matters worse for them.
By the same token, David needs to let Candace know what's in his heart. Imagine what might have happened if David had been more open with Candace when he last their retirement money. Imagine if he'd been able to tell her, "I feel terrible about this. I need your understanding. I need your forgiveness. I need your support." He badly wanted such sympathy at the time, but instead of turning to Candace, he turned to somebody outside the marriage for support. Because he was not able to express his deepest feelings to his wife, his marriage became prone to an affair long before the affair ever started. As marriage researcher Shirley Glass discovered, when partners avoid talking to each other about their deepest feelings, they put their marriage at risk for infidelity.
David and Candace say they understand this in hindsight. And they tell us they really want to change the way they interact. They want more emotional intimacy, they want to feel closer. But after twenty-three years of avoidance, how do they start sharing intense feelings with each other now?
One key is to believe that you can trust your partner to be receptive and nonjudgmental when you start to speak. You want to feel "safe" that your partner will listen carefully and with an open mind. She won't dismiss your feelings. He won't judge, criticize, or offer unsolicited advice. Once you achieve this sense of trust, you feel freer to stay with your feelings in the conversation and express them to your partner as they come up. Emotional flooding becomes less of a problem, which means you're less likely to withdraw.
To help Candace and David experience this, we suggest that they try another conversation in which they take turns at expressing what they need emotionally from the relationship and telling each other how they feel about the need. When it's one partner's turn, the other partner's job is to simply listen and ask questions that can lead to better understanding.
We give them some guidelines. We advise Candice, "Stick to your guns and don't withdraw. If David responds with reassurances that don't change-or even acknowledge-the way you're feeling, let him know that. You don't have to be unkind about it. You can simply hold your ground and say, I really want you to understand my feelings here.'"