This is Houston, say again, please.
Houston, we have a problem . . . our marriage is failing and we need help . . . fast.
Failure is not an option.
Forgive my embellishment of these famous movie quotes from Tom Hanks and Ed Harris in Apollo 13, one of my all-time favorite movies. Having seen the flick at least a dozen times I never tire of the suspense, the drama, the teamwork and the fact that it is a true story. It’s for the same reasons that I love working with couples. Often they radio in with their crisis and hope that the expert can help them navigate back to safety.
But just like in the real Apollo 13 drama where the crew did not know if they would survive, we can’t always answer the frantic “Can you save my marriage?” call with a resounding yes. Like the NASA team, we assess the situation and determine how bad the damage is.
In the course of that assessment we look for the predictors of divorce. We observe the couple in their interaction to see if there is a sense of we-ness (a good sign) or a sense of me-ness (a warning sign). Are they joining together or leading parallel lives? We look for expressions fondness and admiration, as well as feelings of negativity.
In addition to keeping our eyes peeled on their patterns of interaction, we interview them extensively about the history of their relationship. In the early 90s John Gottman conducted research that showed we can predict marriage stability by looking at how fondly or critically couples remember the course of their marriage. Asking questions about how they met, their early dating phase, decision to commit, good times/bad times and how they traversed the course of their marriage over time gives us clues on how disillusioned they are about their relationship. Gottman found that disillusionment and disappointment, especially in men, was the single most powerful predictor of divorce.
For example, if a husband was hopeful about marriage recovery he might recall their first date like this: “I got lost going to the restaurant and I was so worried that she would think negatively of me. She thought it was funny and we laughed the whole way . . . we figured it out together”. If he is disillusioned in the marriage he will rewrite history and remember it like this: “I got lost on the way to the restaurant and I felt like she was laughing at me. She never let me forget it and to this day she criticizes my sense of direction.”
This is valuable assessment data, but we don’t stop at assessment. Gottman’s work has also given us preventative measures/antidotes to the problems that lead to such disillusionment. Like the NASA team, we are eternal optimists. We work with couples so they learn how to do a zillion small things in their relationship to help them “re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without burning up”.