Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

AffairsDarling, you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be there till the end of time
So you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

This classic song from the Clash resonates with everyone at some point in their lives. It is especially poignant and painful after infidelity. Many who have experienced the dark world of cheating may initially say goodbye, but actually most change their mind and decide to make it work. This is a tough decision to make.

Affairs start in the mind and do not necessarily end in bed. They do often break hearts. There are subtle signs that lead to both an affair and recovery.  Signs of cheating should be all taken into account before making an accusation. Unless you have proof in hand, it is better to address the already evident: less investment in the relationship and a much greater investment in other activities, personal changes to increase one’s own attractiveness, and evasiveness about spending time or money.

Cheating is sensational. It is guaranteed to sell the news. It is something that everyone can identify with but is easily judged as betrayal. What is not so easily judged is the small ways that we betray our partners. Gottman says in his book “What Makes Love Last?” that “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship.” Not being there, not following through, putting the kids or career ahead of the marriage are examples.

John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, describes the deterioration of the marriage leading to an absorbing state of negativity called negative sentiment override. This is the stage in a relationship where one partner cannot do enough to make things right. Even positive  attempts fall short or are interpreted negatively. He compares it to a roach motel, where once you check in, it is hard to check out.

Add this to another critical element in the demise of a marriage: comparing your spouse unfavorably to others, even comparing to imaginary spouses that are better than your spouse. These are like nails in a coffin. These are usually kept to oneself, along with crossing boundaries. First comes secret-keeping, then comes cheating.

Deciding whether to stay or go depends on the ability to rebuild trust with someone who becomes trustworthy. Signs of someone who is changing a character trait is complete honesty (minus the brutal details which cause obsessions) with nothing to hide. Next, recovery depends on an ability to step outside the self and one’s own pain, and enter into your partner’s pain (without beating yourself up). It is the ability to feel what your partner is feeling, and on that basis fully regret your actions and betrayal. It involves making personal and relational changes that benefit both partners that stand the test of time. These changes are determined by essential relational skills: empathy instead of defensiveness, asking for what is needed instead of criticizing, and setting personal boundaries on what you are not willing to do, and at the same time what you are willing to do for your partner. Deciding whether or not your partner is being honest depends on these criteria, along with your own instinct about what your partner is like when he or she if faithful, and what he or she is like when she is not. Although this may be a confusing process, it can be used to decide if he or she is an acceptable risk. Verification of honesty may be required. Finally, there may be need for a clear consequence to future betrayals.

Is this painful process worth it? Are you able to overcome negative sentiment override? One idea involves writing down as many positive traits of your partner. Look back over your story. Is there regularity to the energy put into making the other feel loved? Are there examples of admiration for each other? Is it marked by “we” decisions or “me” decisions?  Is that enough to overcome the pain of recovery? Most people also consider the pain and effect of divorce, and realize that there is no guarantee that the next relationship will end up in a better place, and decide that because of shared history and children that it is better to stay together. Some researchers find that over time when all things are considered, the next relationship is not a huge jump in happiness. If trust is unable to be rebuilt though, there is little to sustain a relationship.

How to Stay Married

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Marriage Counseling

At times people think about how problems would be solved if they were married to someone else. Some problems may be solved this way, but it also is true that we carry our response to problems from relationship to relationship. John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, gives this example:

Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wanted sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice only wants when she already feels close.

Even rock-solid marriages have sensitivities like the ones described above. This is where it can hurt. It is common to think of marriage as something that is difficult, discouraging, and even hurtful. Many think of personal failure. It is difficult to respond well in an intimate relationship when we are not treated well. We all can think of examples where we are not treated well. Maybe you can think of a time you were betrayed by a childhood friend. Or, you ask your teenage daughter how her evening went, and she nearly bites off your head. Possibly you are caring for aging parents and in spite of all your efforts, they are still unhappy. Or, you are unhappily married but stay together for a number of reasons. Others do not. Every 45 seconds a marriage ends in divorce (Dr. Greg Smalley).

An incredible statistic is the one that predicts divorce. Marriage is one of the most researched topics over the last 40 years and this prediction is well-documented. John Gottman and other researchers underscore that your response, when you are treated poorly in your marriage, is predictive of eventual divorce with 91 percent accuracy.

It is not exactly what is said, or what is done, that is so predictive. It is the feeling that one spouse is above or below the other. It results in defensiveness. It can come from dwelling on the injustices in your relationship, or from ruminating on the weaknesses of the other. It leaks out in one’s tone, facial expressions, and non-verbal body language. It is contempt. We often do not mean to be contemptuous. Maybe you just want to bring up an issue, or just talk about it, and your spouse interprets it as criticism and wants to defend, attack back, and finally withdraw. Dan Allender, in his book with Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies says that “many couples live with an underlying contempt for each other.” Later they write, “Spouses degrade each other when they show a contemptuous, shaming, judgmental spirit.”

We are all treated poorly at times. We all have different desires and these can turn into expectations. When these expectations are not met, we get angry, or at least disappointed. We can feel that the other is not living up to their end of the bargain. The contract is not being fulfilled. If you a sign a contract, there are certainly expectations to be met. If you use that mentality in marriage, you are set up for more disappointment and hurt. Tension develops between the idea of marriage being a contract, and marriage being a covenant.

So what do spouses do, who generally get treated well, in their marriage, act at those moments when they are not treated well?

If there is any recourse from a hardened heart to one that is open, safety is key. It is hard to open up and admit feelings and failures, if you are afraid of your partner’s response. If one feels safe, you can be honest about feelings and failures. It creates a joint struggle to expose the beautiful, and the broken. It allows for true love, the grace that provides the elements needed to grow, and it feeds passion.

Contempt, on the other hand, is beyond the inevitable frustration with your spouse. It does not just say that I am angry, afraid or sad; it puts the emphasis on that the other is wrong or bad. We are all wrong or bad at times. We all struggle. But people that get treated well do not put down the other resulting in defensiveness. This approach seeks to make sense of your partner, and understand what he or she is feeling, and to make his or her feelings as important as your own. Marital researchers underscore that this non-judgmental approach happens in the context of equal regard, creating a sense of safety. It acknowledges underlying needs on both sides of the equation.

Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need an infusion of energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, about what happened between them. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.” Elizabeth felt if she asked him to come after her, she would never know if he would on his own.

Men need to be proud of. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

What if I am not open to this kind of covenantal approach? Impulsivity, stress, lack of time and energy, built-up anger, hurt and resentment are all facts of life but get in the way. A formidable obstacle is the belief that one’s partner is more to blame for the relationship problems. An urgent need is for personal support to make personal changes from reading, friends, and support groups.

What if my partner isn’t open to this kind of covenantal approach? This kind of approach is for the sake of the giver as much as the receiver. It allows the giver to feel settled and in control about their part, even if your partner does not respond well. Researchers underscore that when one partner is not treated well, this is precisely the time that this approach is needed. When it gets tough, take a break and come back allowing both sides time to process to a better conclusion. Or break the discussion and ask your partner for proposals, or make proposals. Living in a fallen world and being self-responsible means that we have to set personal boundaries. The challenge, according to marital researchers, is to not look down on your partner in the meantime, because looking down on your partner itself puts your relationship at risk.