DIV Design Agency offers a type of couples' facilitation of difficult conversations to benefit what Amy Baker calls the trinity of relational life: Self, Other, and the Relationship Itself. Here are some questions she has gotten from clients that they said would have been useful for them.
We’ve gotten into some negative behaviors with each other—she rolls her eyes every time I say something and I have to admit I kind of tune out the sound of her voice. Is there really anything we can salvage here? I don’t even think she respects me anymore.
When people start to take one another for granted, contempt and disrespect have room to creep in. It sounds like you both have skidded over toward disrespect and disregard for one another, so contemplating the two-way nature of that flow is going to be necessary if you want to right it. The same way we practice at anything, we need to practice at mindfulness within our close relationships so that we don’t totter off into mindless, or neglectful, practice with one another. What we think about and feed, we give our mind and attention to. Whether you let your mind wander or you actively tune her out, you have chosen in that moment someone with a higher priority than the sound of your wife’s voice. And if she’s rolling her eyes, not because she thinks your cute and corny, but because she thinks you’re not, then you are both treading dangerously in the arena of disgust, apprehension, and distraction. Contempt and disgust both imply a negative dispositional evaluation and disrespect toward the target of the feeling, and they trigger avoidance and exclusion action tendencies (Miceli, Castelfranchi, 2018). John Gottman says if there's anything to avoid in a marriage, it is Contempt.
We have a quiet agreement that we never talked about. I do my thing and he does his. It works. I don’t think we’re even lonely with each other anymore, but we never talk either unless it’s about the kids.
My question for you would be: is this working for you? Is it working for him? Do you ever make love anymore? Do you want to? Marriage is going to slide into a coma if it is not nurtured and tended to, just like any other thing you have to tend. You wouldn’t think your car was just going to keep running if you never changed the oil, added fuel, or tuned up the engine, would you?
I don’t think there is anything left here—people aren’t really meant to be monogamous for 40 years. She was a good mother and I am happy to give her anything she wants, but working this marriage out isn’t very likely. Why do you think we’d be a good candidate to come in for couples’ mediation?
For starters, you’re talking to me. You’re looking for something. You’re thinking about your marriage in a real way, taking stock, probably starting to put numerical values on her “good mothering.” Then there’s the part about taking stock on monogamy. It sounds like you’re lonely. It sounds like you still have a sex drive. It sounds like you are disappointed and long for companionship, intimacy, and sex. It sounds like you are afraid of being rejected by the mother of your children, and you and she have gotten out of the habit of talking to one another, of reaching for one another, of nurturing and protecting the primacy of the relationship the two of you share as the nucleus of this family, and it also sounds like you might feel left out. Do you want back in? Do you need help with that conversation? Because it can be really scary asking for what you want when you feel you haven’t gotten it for a long time. She’s probably going to have some things that she’s been sheltering as well, feelings she’s shut down, some resignation. Monogamy for 40 years is a death sentence if you don’t stay in the conversation and you don’t stay connected and you don’t even get to have good sex—or any sex.
We’ve been going along like this for a while now—she has a good job and I take care of the kids. I don’t think her family respects me and everything I do for our family. They don’t think it’s “man’s” work, and honestly, sometimes I don’t think she thinks of me that way anymore either.
Do you think of yourself that way? Is there a specific reason for your insecurity with your extended family? How has your historical relationship with them been?
Sometimes we imagine things, and sometimes our Spidey senses kick in and we sense things in advance. When already stressed or anxious, we become sensitive to the slightest hints of danger (we are programmed to do this) because all of our awareness is on a specific point.
Family systems can be big and messy, and intimate partnerships do best with just two people running the show. Having the in-laws get a vote (or kids or anyone else) in the way a couple runs their household or family life is just not how this culture typically works, and when someone is part of another culture, then they already know what the score is and they work within the parameters and understandings of the family members (such as in multiple generation households or arranged marriages). If you’re feeling insecure about your place in the family due to labor for earnings vs. labor for the family, this is a big conversation in and of itself to have, especially if it is nuanced or layered with tropes of masculinity and worth. If you sense that your wife has been feeling apart from you and you want connection, that is another nuanced layer. If you find that it is difficult to have a productive conversation about any of this with your wife, you can ask her to come with you to have help with this conversation, and the bigger ones that could come from that.
He thinks I don’t know about his little “indiscretions,” but I do. I suspected nothing for a long time. I don’t even know when they started. I only have solid proof of one, but he travels a lot for work and he has ample opportunity. After that first one, I started sleuthing all the time, and then I just stopped—I’m not a detective and if he wants to sleep with other women, he just won’t sleep with me. I like our lifestyle, but I will never have sex with him again. It turns my stomach when he touches my shoulder.
When a partner has betrayed the trust of the other partner, it is hard to rebuild that trust, especially if you believe it is ongoing or that your partner feels like they have gotten something over on you. It is really disrespectful, and it sounds like it is on that level that you have no use for your husband himself. He has never made amends. He has never sought redemption or forgiveness, but it also doesn’t sound like you have forgiven yourself—for what, I’m not sure. For your ethics around the lifestyle? For being complicit in his trysts? For whatever you tell yourself or your friends or your children about the quality and satisfaction of your lifestyle? And you certainly haven’t forgiven him—for his infidelity, for the satisfaction he may or may not have for “getting away with it,” for putting you at a health risk, for damaging your ego, for damaging your trust, for damaging your family… What would it look like if you had this conversation with him? Then what it would look like if you either changed your marriage to re-connect over time, or re-negotiated the terms to look more like what it is now, but open and without shame and guilt? Marriage is what the two decision-makers negotiate it to be. If you want your lifestyle and never want to have sex with him again, and you don’t want to be duped or humiliated, you could negotiate different terms that give you both ethical non-monogamy, but to quietly seethe because you are virtuous and he is not, you are clean and he is dirty, you are the Madonna and he consorts with whores…well, that’s just a setup for self-flagellation and resentment. How do you want your life to look?
Him: We made it all this time and now we really want different things. She loves our house and I want to travel. I love our house, too, but I don’t want to be tied down to something that takes this much work, time, and money, while we’re still young enough to finally enjoy ourselves.
Her: Yeah, and I’ve become more anxious and irritable with him because he doesn’t get that I’m not ready to retire yet. We’ve always done our money separately, and I don’t have as much. And I am not going to have as much, so I need to work longer. When he pressures me, it makes me tell him he should just leave me.
It sounds like you two are at different life stages with different concerns at these life stages. You have several options: you can lay down your fears to one another and then discuss rational options to solve them as individual problems or puzzles, or you can really go down the route you’re both threatening and go ahead and dissolve your partnership at this late stage in the lifespan, which is definitely going to have the effect that neither of you will get the house and the travel you want to do will be alone and the working a few more years will be in a smaller house or apartment. What is the fight really about? It feels like you’re playing chicken with no real threat on the table. Do you just like to tussle so you know you’re alive? Some Spencer Tracy-Kathryn Hepburn schtick? Get to the underlying foundation of your asks, and you can work this problem out. You can drill down on what it is that you both are really asking for support with in as little as 1-3 sessions.
The best possible outcome would be that couples work toward resolution within the framework of the relationship.
Couples' mediation involves the use of identifying interests and issues and creating actionable items for resolution. Unlike psychotherapy or counseling, we seek to identify parties' interests rather than focus on underlying pathologies so that resolution can be found in identifying behaviors and communication styles that can result in immediate action.
It does not always happen that marriages or partnerships stay intact, though, and it is empowering to choose divorce as a measured resolution rather than reaction. With divorce and domestic partnership dissolutions that involve dependents, it is often part of the cycle to experience feelings of grief, loss, anger, and resentment.
Reducing feelings of anger and resentment has a long-term benefit to both parties to the dissolution and for the children. Research shows that long-term wellness of children and parents is promoted through lowering conflict, as well as contributing to a deeper commitment by the parties to co-parent amicably.
[Miceli, Maria and Castelfranchi, Cristiano. 03 January 2018 "Contempt and disgust: the emotions of disrespect." Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, https://doi.org/10.1111/jtsb.12159]