How To Save A Marriage
If only every couple knew how to fight fair. The right words can make the "for worse" part better.
In our case, the answer was a drama in three parts. Act One: Walk away from my budding television career. This wasn't as hard as I expected. Despite positive outward appearances — me actually winning The Next Food Network Star, taking a victory lap on The View, appearing in Bon Appétit, winning a beautiful new car, filming my own show on my very own gorgeous Food Network set — the months immediately following the reality show were...sad. The victory was hollow, and emotionally draining. More than anything else, I wanted to stay married.
And so, Act Two. Thanks to that shiny new car (worth a pretty penny on the open market) and some unique and fortuitous telecommuting flexibility on Greg's part, we moved to France for seven months with the express goal of working on our marriage. We holed up on a friend of a friend's isolated Burgundy farm, vowing to become newly skilled at kindness, compromise, cooperation, and romance — or else.
But what if we couldn't have gone to France (because, let's face it, most couples can't)? Andrew Christensen, Ph.D., a couples therapist and professor of psychology at UCLA and author of the book Reconcilable Differences, offers some perspective there. "Couples have differences large and small — some trivial, some fundamental, many complicated and interesting. Flip side: Couples also have shared values and experiences, large and small — some trivial, some fundamental, many complicated and interesting," he says. France was something that Greg and I shared — not just our memories of it, but our appreciation of it. It was a kind of glue for us, and that gave us a foundation for changing our behavior. For another couple, the glue could be faith, nature, a love of great books.
One of the glories of marriage is the collective out-loud dreaming: staying up all night talking about your hopes and plans for the future. Though the term "intimacy" has become conflated with that other awesome form of staying up all night together — sex — this is true intimacy: trusting, sharing. When you're falling apart as a couple, look for the glue.
Regardless of where we were, Act Three was, of course, the hardest part: getting out of the bad behavioral rut that had us sniping at each other all the time. Our extended stay in France was our own marriage lab. Besides how to make a killer lapin á la moutarde, here is what we learned:
1. Stop with the Threats
No one knows the kind of dangerous territory Greg and I were in by always threatening each other better than Laurie Puhn, a lawyer and couples' mediator and the author of Fight Less, Love More: 5 Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In. How many empty threats to leave a marriage have landed a couple in divorce court when deep down inside they wanted nothing more than to stay in the relationship? "The most important thing you need to do," says Puhn, is "recognize that this is just a bad verbal habit. You're not a bad person; you have a bad communication habit. Throwing out these caustic threats is just a habit; you're barely thinking. You've got to separate the person from the problem. That's the only way to diminish your own self-hatred, the only way to stop thinking, Why did I say that? This also helps you diminish the hatred you may feel toward your mate for the things he's said."