I was having lunch last month with a colleague, Nathan. At 65 he’s at the height of his research career, earns a good salary as a university professor and has been married to Sheila for 35 years. They have three adult children, all grown and living close by.
Sheila, 64, is a public relations consultant, and one of her clients is the local professional basketball team. She loves her work and doesn’t mind putting in up to 50 hours a week.
Our conversation started with work, politics and the cold snap we were having but quickly turned to Nathan’s marriage and the fact that lately he and his wife seemed to be fighting all the time. “When the kids were living with us, we were more of a united front: Us against them,” Nathan said with a half-grin. “Now we seem to snip and contradict each other a lot."
I sensed he was looking for advice from me as a relationship expert. Nathan had heard me discuss the findings from my long-term study on marriage many times and even enjoyed reading my book based on the findings. So I invited him to come to my office later that week and discuss strategies from that research he might use at home.
Getting Out of a Communication Rut
The first question I asked Nathan was what they disagreed about so I could gauge the seriousness of the situation. “We don’t have rip-roaring fights,” he said. “We seem to squabble over household stuff, like who’s going to deal with the roofer because we’re both so swamped at work, and how we’re going to pay for it. Or why she made plans on the night I thought we were having dinner together. Or what we should do with my late dad’s Lincoln that’s been parked in our garage. Just stuff like that.”
But then he added, clearly frustrated: “She misinterprets everything I say. I make an effort to hear what she has to say, but it isn’t working.” He also expressed the feeling that she was more critical of him than he was of her. He looked at me with fear in his eyes and asked, “Is our marriage in trouble?”
My study of long-married couples shows that the real block to happiness and marital success isn’t the amount of conflict; it’s the ratio of positive to negative experiences. I’ve found that the positive times need to outweigh the negatives by a factor of about 5:1.
I felt that Nathan and Sheila’s areas of disagreement weren’t too serious. What’s happening here, I told him, was that they had fallen into a pattern of poor communication. But, I told him, by paying more attention to how they were speaking to each other, they could get themselves out.