I don’t like the way he talks to his mother.
His apartment is a mess. You should see it!
She’s not as interested in sex as I am.
It seems like she gossips a lot.
She drinks too much.
He’s not religious enough.
She doesn’t seem very ambitious.
He’s a sloppy dresser.
He seems to have a quick temper.
She shuts down and freezes me out when she’s upset.
All of these concerns have been expressed in my office, by 20-somethings and 30-somethings who are evaluating their current boyfriend or girlfriend for “fitness to marry.” I’ve also heard comments like these from clients who have been married for decades.
But as a couples therapist who has worked with hundreds of couples, when I hear these concerns from a client I almost always try to steer him or her away from the concern itself, and more in the direction of a far more valuable question:
How would your partner respond if you brought this concern up directly with him or her?
I ask my client this question because I know that having an issue like any of those listed above can be very troublesome. And I also know that wherever that issue lies also exist many other issues. Being partnered with someone for a lifetime is a guarantee that as a couple you will face many such problems. So the problem itself is less important than the ability of the couple to work through it.
Clinical psychologist John Gottman found, in a now-famous 2002 longitudinal study aimed at predicting when a couple will divorce, that contempt is a common by-product of a lack of relationship skills. He also found that contempt is the strongest predictor that a couple will divorce.
After dating Will for six months, all the while secretly fretting that he wasn’t ambitious enough for her, Milly finally took my suggestion and brought up the issue directly with Will. It went something like this:
Milly: So Will, you know I really feel like I’m falling in love with you, but there’s something I’ve been worrying about and I can’t seem to get past it. I don’t want it to hurt your feelings or anything. But I have to talk about it with you, I think.
Will (Apprehensively): What is it?
Milly: Obviously you’re super-smart, and I really believe that you can do anything you want in life. But you seem kind of stuck in your job, and you’ve never mentioned anything about trying to get promoted or switching jobs. I guess I think ahead, to like what if we were together and we had to support a family. How would you deal with that?
This conversation is an important moment in Will and Milly’s relationship. Milly has expressed her concerns in a loving, non-judgmental, and caring way. Will’s response will tell Milly a lot about his ability to work through problems with her.
Will can become immediately defensive, and yell, “Exactly what are you accusing me of?!”
Will can make a joke, and try to change the subject asap.
Will can listen thoughtfully, ask Milly for more clarification, and use her concerns as a way to learn about himself and her.
To evaluate if you're in the right relationship and it is resilient and healthy, answer these five questions:
- Can you each manage your anger sufficiently to talk about a difficult problem while maintaining care toward each other?
- Can you listen to each other’s concerns and control your defensiveness?
- Are you both willing to face difficulties and change yourselves in order to sustain the relationship?
- Do you each tell the other when you’re upset or need something in the relationship to be improved?
- If your answer to any of the above questions is “no,” would you each be willing and capable of learning these things?
If you cannot answer the questions above with any degree of confidence, then you are not ready to make a lifetime commitment to this person. Consider giving the relationship more time and addressing some more concerns with your partner to see if he or she gets better at it. Consider seeing a couples therapist if you need to.
If you’re married and you have some “no” answers, it doesn’t mean it has to be the end. As long as you’re both willing to learn the necessary emotion skills, your marriage can become everything you always wanted it to be.
Everyone has annoying habits, shortcomings, and flaws. Every relationship has issues. Some people never had the chance to learn the complex emotional and interpersonal skills that it takes to have a resilient, lasting relationship.
That doesn’t make them any less lovable. At least not if they are willing to learn the skills.
This article was originally published at Psych Central. Reprinted with permission from the author.