02 Aug What or How
Something occurred to me in therapy the other day. Rather, I would say I came up with a new way of saying something that I had tried to convey before. I was working with a couple on relational problems. They had a pretty good laundry list of complaints against one another including some of the big ones like how money should be spent and blended-family parenting issues. The more they talked, the worse the room felt and the more hopeless they became. The question was finally asked. “Can we get through this and save our marriage?”
Finally, out on the table was what I knew both of them were thinking but also dreading to even say. It was the fear that even though neither wanted it, maybe their marriage was just too broken to survive. My heart went out to them as it does to every couple I work with who look down the barrel of their greatest relational fear; divorce.
I wanted to give them hope beyond just reassuring them. I wanted them to know that there are things they can actually do to hold their marriage together and even mend it back to health. They were afraid that what they were dealing with was greater than their resolve and desire.
What they were dealing with. That phrase struck chord with me. I remembered the John Gottman research and his impressive but painful ability to predict divorce with 94% accuracy. I remembered his “four horsemen” and all the repairs and counter-moves to head off these horsemen before they spiral couples down the path that leads to divorce. Mostly, I recalled that his research was almost exclusively NOT on what but howcouples dealt with their problems. Even further back in my memory, Dr. Weeks and Dr. Botkin kept reminding my peers and me over and over; process over content, process over content, process over content.
So after a breath, I told this couple that yes, their problems are big ones and difficult ones to deal with but also that if the research was right, it would not be what the problems are that gets them but how they choose to deal with the problems. Keep on criticizing, defending, being contemptuous, and stone-walling and they really might not make it. Learn to implement repairs, accept bids, soften the startups, and accept influence from one another and the odds would definitely shift in favor of saving their marriage. Even though they can’t make the topics magically go away, they can actually change how they deal with the topics and in so doing; change the very course of their marriage. After all, that’s all most of us really want; things that we can actually do that actually work.