Marriage Matters  



Rick knew enough to know that you aren’t supposed to walk out on a conversation. But sometimes he just couldn’t help himself. He tried to just tune Janice out and survive the fight, but eventually it felt like walking out was the only way he could keep his head from exploding. It didn’t usually take long for the pressure to let off. Twenty, maybe 30 minutes at the most. But by then Janice was so mad at him, and he was so embarrassed for needing to leave, he just knew it would be days for things between them to warm up again.

What would you tell Rick in this circumstance? We have all been taught the importance of staying and talking things through. While that’s ideal, it just may not always be possible, or even the best course of action. That’s because when intense information and strong emotion comes at us faster than we can process it, it sets off an alarm mechanism inside the brain that tells us we are in danger. In this state, our base survival instinct becomes to strike out or retreat. It’s a phenomenon discovered by Dr. John Gottman in his ground breaking research with couples. He called it Flooding. While retreating has less disastrous consequences than lashing out, it takes its own terrible toll on a relationship. So what’s a person to do when he feels like his head is about to explode?

The answer comes from understanding what happens in relationships when they are going well. Think about what you say to your spouse virtually every time you say goodbye. Most people make some kind of reference to the next time they plan to connect. “So, I’ll see you at such and such a time or on this or that date.” We do this in all our relationships, with our friends, co-workers, children etc, even if it’s as informal as “see you later”. This ritual takes place for good reason. Among our most basic human instincts is our need to be connected to another human being. We need each other in order to survive and thrive and so the unrest created by even a temporary separation is mitigated by the reassurance of an eventual reconnection. It’s so deeply woven into our rituals of connection that most of us do it without even realizing it.


Now, back to Rick and Janice. Rick can’t think clearly anymore because his brain has gone into survival mode, while Janice is experiencing anxiety around her deepest needs for attachment. The solution is actually simpler than one might think. They need to do exactly what they would do if they weren’t fighting. If Rick said, “I need to clear my head; I’ll be back in 30 minutes,” he’s giving Janice the security she needs. She needs to trust that he will come back, and let him go. He needs to keep his word and be back in 30 minutes. Chances are good that cooler heads will prevail. But won’t they just get themselves worked right back into the same bind they were just in before Rick left? Maybe. But every time they take a break and feel confident about reconnecting, they create a new opportunity to solve their problem. And in the meantime, they have avoided triggering their most base anxieties around abandonment and isolation.

To read more about flooding and stonewalling, see this article.


Henry Sawatzky is a professional Marriage & Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience. He can be reached at 250-878-6943. www.themarriageiwant.com


Making dreams come true



Several years ago we decided to re-do our flooring. Not an unusual undertaking but somewhat daunting none-the-less. If you’ve ever done it before you know what I am saying. While discussing laminate colours with the sales clerk he gave me a quizzical look and asked me if I needed to check with my wife before I made a decision. I assured him it was okay. I was making a purchase today. Another clerk looked up from his desk and said, “Happy wife - Happy life.” I was a bit taken back that these two commission sales-men were actually discouraging me from making a purchase. Maybe they were trying to keep me alive long enough to actually pay the bill. Of course what they didn’t know was that my wife had given me a range of colours she was happy with and really didn’t want to be more involved than that. I knew as long as I stayed away from extremes like lime green or midnight black I was pretty safe. That said, my floor salesmen’s concerns are actually quite insightful. Ask any man who has an unhappy wife. He’ll tell you. The real question is, “How do I get my wife happy?” A lot of husbands are knocking themselves out buying flowers, jewelry and trying to pick the right floor colour and end up feeling bitter because their wife still isn’t happy. The answer my be simpler than you think. It’s really about making her dreams come true.

My wife is an Early Childhood Educator and she’s worked in this field for most of our married life. Some weeks ago we were enjoying an evening in the hot-tub when she began talking about renovating the basement and garage to run the daycare in. Now I have to tell you, this is the last thing I want and everything inside of me wanted to dig my heels in and I instantly came up with every reason we should absolutely NOT do this. I also knew that what came out of my mouth next would set the tone for the rest of our conversation, and beyond, and that I had about three seconds to make a decision. On the one hand, I could tell her “No. This is not an option. I am not even discussing it.” In that moment a chasm dwarfing the Grand Canyon would have formed between us setting the stage for an epic and relationship straining battle that could have gone on for weeks. Or I could make a different decision. I needed to start asking questions. “What do you imagine that would look like? When would you see this happening? How important is this to you? How much have you been thinking about this?”


The first step in making your partner’s dreams come true is finding out what they are. It means you may have to temporarily set your feelings and opinions aside while you hear what your partner is thinking; what they want and feel. I really don’t want to turn my basement into a daycare. And I don’t have to pretend that I do. But I do have to listen to my wife’s dreams. If I want her to be happy that is.

Once I felt I really understood her dream, what made it important to her and what her vision for how it might unfold was, I started talking about my feelings and vision. And she listened. What could have turned the 103 degrees of perfectly ph balanced hot-tub water into a polar ice-berg, instead became an opportunity for us both to be deeply understood and to together plan our future. Oh, and in case you were wondering, there’s no daycare going into the basement. But she knows I would have agreed to it had it been that important to her.

How to change your partner



It was Rex and Maggie’s (not their real names) third visit to therapy when Rex turned to me and asked if he could just go to work while Maggie stayed with me to sort out some of her issues. Why couldn’t she just get up with the rest of the family and make a few lunches? He was certain that would settle everything. Maggie rolled her eyes and pointed out that he must have forgotten the extra slice of humble pie for his lunch she had prepared for him. I could tell I was going to have my work cut out for me.

Marriage educator and author Dan Wile said that whenever you choose a life partner you are choosing a set of problems. It’s true for us all. In even the most perfect relationship there exists a host of annoyances that never really seem to settle. Whether it be getting him to stop piling up three months worth of magazines or trying to make her understand that 15 minutes late is actually rude, not fashionable. Many a couple, who started out with a starry eyed and bright future, end up in the abyss of futile efforts to bring about change in each other. Allow me to suggest three simple steps that I have seen work time and time again in bringing about sustainable and satisfying change.

Step one: Look for what you like about your partner and tell them about it. The things that attracted you to them in the first place, the things you may have come to take for granted. The telling them about it part is the most important. Most couples, even ones who are struggling, have a not too difficult time identifying positive qualities in each other. But it’s easy to forget to mention them. Ask your spouse if they know what you appreciate about them. Then tell them.

Step two: Accept your partner as they are, flaws and all. Putting conditions on acceptance is like pouring battery acid on your romance. If you give your partner the message that they have to change before you hug them, kiss them, tell them that you care for them, or just plain be nice to them, they are bound to become deflated, resentful and become even more resistant to your efforts to have them change. Although there’s nothing wrong with Rex wanting some help with lunches in the morning, he may have to accept the fact that Maggie is not a morning person. She probably never will be.

Step three: Let your partner know how you feel about the issue that is troubling you and name a specific behaviour you would like them to address. Let them know exactly what you would like them to change and what that would mean to you. The important thing is to describe yourself as apposed to your partner. Instead of, “I am sick and tired of being late for everything. Why can’t you ever be on time?” Try something like, “I feel so terribly uncomfortable when we are late. Could we make an extra effort to be on time for dinner tonight?”

It all really boils down to this: Spend more time thinking and talking about the things you like about your partner and back off on trying to make them change. It feels controlling and is bound to take your relationship down a dreadful path. Accept your partner as they are, remembering that you also have one or two annoying habits. The relational happiness pay off will be well worth it.


Do we need counselling?

Barry & Nicole weren’t miserable. They had never talked about divorce. There had not been an affair. Never a hint of violence. But there seemed to be a growing distance between them. They just seemed to get through disagreements without ever really reaching consensus. Nicole wasn’t even sure how to begin to do that and half the time Barry couldn’t even remember what the last tiff had been about. Life seemed crowded. With getting three kids to events, maintaining two careers and keeping the household running, it seemed the only time they came close to connecting was when they disagreed. The memories of fun they used to have when they were dating and early in their marriage were fond but seemed more and more distant. “Did they need counselling” they each wondered secretly to themselves? It seemed expensive. Maybe things would get better once the pressure let off.

Barry & Nicole are a fictional couple, but they could be any of us. They are hopeful that things will improve when the pressure lifts, and they may. But there is a danger here. Most couples will hobble along for seven years before seeking any kind of help. That’s the average number indicated by the research. In the meantime, the fondness of early memories begins to wear thin, if they continue to exist at all, and resentments deepen. All the while the road back to a marriage that feels good becomes longer and harder. So what about counselling? Is it worth the investment? It’s not hard to spend $1000.00 to $1500.00 on a course of treatment for your marriage. That seems like a lot of money. But it’s really a matter of perspective. How much would you spend on a vacation, or a new set of tires for the family vehicle? Most of us truly place a much higher value on our marriage than we do on just about anything else, but somehow we tell ourselves that it will be okay, things will get better. In the meantime, seven years go by. How can you know if you are just in a low funk that you will naturally grow out of, or if you could benefit from seeing a marriage counsellor? Here are some important questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you feel that you more or less know what is going on in your partner’s life, or more that you are losing touch?
  • Do you feel genuinely appreciated by, and fond of your partner? Are you likely to express that fondness, or simply cherish it to yourself?
  • Do you feel that connecting is easy and natural, or more that attempts to connect seem to fall flat? Have you given up all together on trying to connect?
  • During a disagreement, do you feel genuinely listened to by your partner, and interested in his/her perspective, or more picked on and that you have to fight off accusations?
  • Do you feel that your partner respects your opinions or more that he/she sees you as “less than” and that your opinions don’t matter?
  • Does escalated conflict seem to come out of no-where, and result in isolating you from each other?

    How you answer these questions can give you important information about how you are doing in your marriage and whether your love is likely to bounce back by simply being intentional about turning toward one another, or if you could benefit by honing some of your connecting skills.

    By this time you may be thinking “You’re a marriage counsellor buddy, you probably think everyone should go for couples therapy”. Point taken. But if your car’s motor was making strange noises that you didn’t understand, how long would it take you to get it into the shop? I am guessing a lot less that seven years.

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    About the Author

    Henry Sawatzky is a professional Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience.
    He can be reached at 250-878-6943.

    The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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