Thursday, October 22, 2009

Make Up or Break Up: The Secret of Relationship Repair

Elizabeth Zelvin

Bad relationships are a major theme of my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him. My protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, has a lot to overcome in that area: an alcoholic dad, an emotionally constricted mom (whom readers will meet briefly in this book), a dysfunctional marriage that’s far from over in spite of the divorce (lots about the crazy ex-wife in the book), and many years of heavy drinking during which he was a menace to himself and anyone who cared about him, including his friends and sidekicks, Jimmy and Barbara.

As a therapist, I’ve seen more than my share of couples with as many counts against them as Bruce. If you come from an alcoholic family, if you experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse, if you’ve never had a partner who was supportive and emotionally available, if you’ve never tried to love someone without being blitzed, you may need all the help you can get to sustain a healthy relationship. But even if you come from a loving family and had good role models to learn from, you may have trouble resolving conflict with your partner.

One of my favorite concepts for relationship success comes from psychologist John Gottman, the author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, intended not for people in recovery or even therapy, but for basically stable couples. And let’s not hear any put-downs of “pop psychology”: folks like Gottman become best sellers because they have a gift for putting sound principles into very accessible language. Anyhow, Gottman says that the ability to allow what he calls “repair attempts” to succeed is one of the best predictors of whether a couple will stay together. In other words, if you can’t make up, you’re going to break up.

Here are a couple of true stories:

Jack and Jill get into an argument as they walk down the street. They are both very angry. Jill stalks away. Jack stomps past her. Jill pretends to be looking in a shop window. Jack storms on. Stopping in front of another shop, he ignores Jill as she continues down the street and pretends to look in another window. They leapfrog down the street until they simultaneously realize how absurd they’re being. They both burst out laughing. Fight over. Laughter is a good tool for ending a quarrel.

Romeo and Juliet are arguing in a New York City subway station. Juliet says something cutting. Romeo stalks away from her—and gets stuck in the subway turnstile. Juliet bursts out laughing. Romeo gets even more furious. Does the marriage last? Nope, it ends in divorce.

So what do you really need to be good at making up? One, the partners have to trust each other. If every time you say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” your partner says, “Right, it’s all your fault,” instead of “I’m sorry too,” you may be afraid to risk it. Two, you need to be able to laugh at yourself. Both of you. At yourself, not your partner. And three, you have to understand that no matter how hard it is to believe, you are not a hundred percent right all the time. You may have to agree to differ, not only about what’s true, but about what happened. Once you’ve calmed down, you don’t need to negotiate about who started it or who was right—in fact, trying to do so can destroy the repair attempt and escalate the conflict all over again. All you have to do is let it go—laugh, hug, whatever works for you and your partner—and move on.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is great advice, Elizabeth. Laughter is so important in a relationship...and, as you point out, the ability to laugh at ourselves, not our partner.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

I always read the relationship columns in newspapers and magazines (although I've never understood why anyone would write to a columnist who's a perfect stranger for advice on intensely personal issues). Some important societal changes -- primarily the larger number of women who work by choice and want professional careers -- have put additional pressures on relationships, but the issues remain stubbornly the same, decade after decade. Who apologizes first? How does a woman get a man to fully participate in the relationship (not to mention the housewwork)? And so on. The burden seems to fall on the woman more often than the man.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I think things are more equal in the younger generation as far as participating actively, especially in parenting. But you're right, some issues are persistent and universal.

Sandra Parshall said...

All this week NBC and MSNBC are doing reports on the status of women in the US, and the news isn't encouraging. Half the work force is now female, but women consistently earn less than men. And plenty of women report that they do ALL of the housework, child care, and cooking after working all day. Their husbands come home and relax. Women come home and keep right on working until they drop into bed, exhausted. The expectation seems to be that a woman must contribute financially to the family these days, but she must also continue doing all the "womanly" things at home.

Julia Buckley said...

A great post, Liz--some good food for thought here.

And Sandy, my husband actually contributes WAY more than he did when we were first married, but I STILL feel like I do everything. I guess the answer is there's just too much to do. :0