When does a couple divorce? How long is too long to wait for help?

April 2, 2009

Research has shown two divorcing periods over the lifespan of marriages.  Early divorcing occurs within the first seven years of marriage ( on average of 5.2 years). Late divorce occurs  between May 16 and 20th year of marriage (on average at 16.4 years) (Gottman, 2005).  When a couple divorces during the early years of marriage, it is mostly the result of poor communication patterns – criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal, and contempt.  Later divorcing is often the result of significant indebtedness emotional bank account that positivity is drained  (humor, joy, happiness) from the marriage and a significant amount of negativity is present or feelings of  isolation and loneliness.

Secondly,  couples do not attend marriage therapy until six years after the time they realize there is serious marriage problems (Buongiorno, 1992).   A majority of time, the couple is looking for validation  and/or approval to exit the marriage.

Lastly,  an estimate suggests that  less than 1% of couples who divorced in 1990 had any marital therapy or counseling during the year of their divorce (Gottman, 2005 citing Neil Jacobson).

I share this information to raise  awareness of the epidemic problem facing marriages today. Marriages are dying off at significantly high rates  without receiving any treatment. If you  or a couple you know is struggling, don’t wait to get help. There are many competent therapists out there.  In a future blog, I will address finding a competent marriage therapist/coach.

Keep the faith!

The Love Dare: Does it Work? What does the Research Say?

March 29, 2009

Recently, there has been a firestorm of excitement among the Christian community. “Fireproof” has been endorsed by many Christian ministries. For a review, visit ChristianityToday.com.  The movie focuses around a firefighter and his spouse whom are on the brink of divorce. The husband commits himself to taking “The Love Dare” for 40 days with the idea his marriage will improve after 40 days.  Not withstanding, it is difficult concept to appreciate for a marriage on the brink of divorce. The movie portrays well the negativity that has settled in to the marriage, even when one partner is committed to inject love and hope back into the marriage.  The book love dare follows Biblical scripture and provides day to day practical activities to heal an ailing marriage.  For Christians, it is clear how it works and it’s power.  Non-Christians may dismiss it due to the spiritual content and as one more attempt to “push religion.”  The question that they may be wondering about is, “How does the book “Love Dare” with is practical, day to day advice, measure up against the marriage research on injecting love and passion back into a lifeless marriage? And, why should I take it?”


First, know that Christian’s divorce at the same rate as Non-Christians. Divorce is non-denominational. Research shows that all marriages have an “emotional bank account.” Imagine that each person can make deposits into and withdrawals from the account based on each and every interaction they have with each other. The marriage itself keeps track of the day to day deposits and withdrawals, much like a checkbook register. Each person may have their perspective on whether or not the interaction was positive or negative. I propose that if it is viewed by one person as negative and a withdrawal, it counts as a withdrawal regardless if the other counts it is a deposit. Why? The marriage keep track of the withdrawal in the register vs the deposit.

Couples who eventually divorce have a ratio of deposits/withdrawls as do couples who remain happily married. For the former, for every $125.00 in withdrawls made, only $100.00 is deposited into the account. Mathematically speaking, it is easy to see how a couple who is married for only a short time can quickly be headed for divorce. They are overspent and in deep indebtedness. The marriage will foreclose rather quickly.

For the later, for every $100.00 in withdrawls made, $500.00 is deposited into the account. Small, day to day, positive interactions during non-conflictual times serves as a huge reserve against times of crisis and serious repair. These marriages  can and do weather the storms.

Example 1: Happy Couple

9AM: Husband smiles at wife and gently rubs her back. Wife smiles at him and tells him she loves him. Deposit: $100.00

9:30 AM: Wife makes coffee and brings husband a cup in the bathroom. Both smile at each other and make eye contact. Deposit: $100.00

9:45 AM: Wife makes a comment about the news she is watching; husband responds with an interesting comment back. Deposit: $25.00

10:00 AM: Wife complains because spouse forgot to take out steak from the freezer the night before like she asks. Husband responds defensively and goes and gets it. Wife is upset because this has happened many times before. Withdrawal: $75.00

and so on.

Example 2: Indebt Couple

9 AM: Both roll out of bed, don’t say anything to each other: Both want attention but neither gives. Withdrawl: $100.00

9:30 AM: Husband makes coffee and has breakfast by himself. Wife comes out and gets her own coffee.  Wife longs for him to bring her coffee while getting ready. Withdrawl: $50.00

9:45 AM: Wife comments on something she sees on TV: Husband stonewalls (does not say anything). Withdrawl: $75.00

10:00 AM: Husband has gotten the steak out the night before and has left a love note and small gift on the table for his wife. Wife appreciates his remembering and the gift. Deposit: $100.00

Still in debt…

Frequency, not intensity, and duration

While grand gestures may have a large qualitative value attached to it as a deposit (as in the end of the movie ‘Fireproof’), when withdrawals have occurred numerous times daily and over the course of time, large value deposits are effectively worthless against the debt that is owed. This is the reason why a spouses attempt to do something grand and/or expensive to help an ailing marriage (like a vacation, jewelry, chainsaw) often has very short term value without changing the day to day deposit/withdrawal ratio.

Take the Dare

This is where the value of the “Love Dare” lies for non-Christians and Christians based upon marriage research. Remember, Christians divorce as the same rate as Non-Christians. Divorce is politically, gender, socio-economic, and religiously neutral. The “Love Dare” with it’s slow and steady approach can begin to investing in the marriage on a daily basis. The dare-taker can have their negative perspective of his partner reset (more later on negative perspective), thus giving the marriage more time to heal. The more indebted the marriage, the more time it will take to get out of debt and obtain a positive balance – just like finances.  40 days may not be enough, and yet, God-willing, 40 days may be more than enough. It will take time, patience, and faith. It will then take a daily renewal of your marriage for the rest of your life.

1 Corinthians 13:13

“Now these three remain: Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

God Bless.

Why Can’t We Talk to Each Other?

March 29, 2009

After 30 years of research, we now know what is predictive of divorce and what is predictive of happy, stable marriages.    Professionals can successfully predict the probability of how a couple’s conversation will end (moving towards each other or away from each other) through observing  the first 90 seconds of a couple’s dialogue.  I will describe how we are able to tell.


Imagine it’s Monday. Both partners and had a wonderful weekend with each other away at a romantic resort. They part ways in the morning giving each other kiss goodbye and off  to work they go. Both are relishing in the delightful weekend they have just had as they were able to spend time together following the demands of the previous week. The husband and wife stayed late at work the week before to complete tasks knowing they would be gone on the weekend. Additionally, the wife  finished extra work around the house to get ahead so she would be less anxious and more relaxed while away with her husband.

Now the day goes on, and each get caught up in the business of life and work. Work is demanding as usual and soon the delightfulness  that they each carried with them to work is tucked away in the bottom drawer of their busy schedule, daily tasks, and stressful demands.

Fast-forward to the end of the day.  The wife picks up the children from school and heads home to begin her late afternoon and early evening routine. Typically, her husband comes home late from the office. He knows that she has dinner ready at 5:45. She knows that he frequently gets caught up in his  tasks and often runs late.  Mealtime is very important to both of them as a means to connect. All the wife has ever asked her husband to do is to please call when he is going to be late so she can keep his dinner warm  and know that he is safe  or so she can possibly put dinner off a few more minutes so they can eat together as a family.

After their delightful weekend, the wife is really looking forward to seeing him tonight.   She has a smile on her face as she is getting everything ready and thinking about his return re-creates the warmth from the weekend inside her. She notices she is aroused sexually as well just thinking about it and so, the romantic weekend will continue on a Monday night – which is very unusual for this couple.  She feels comfortable and relaxed with this idea  because she still has most of the household task completed from the previous week. She knows he must be thinking the same thing!

Unbeknownst to her,  today is no different than most other days and the husband gets caught up in his tasks and is running late. He neglects to call her because he is thinking he just wants to get home as soon as possible.  He rushes out of the office to get home because it is important for him to be home and have dinner with the family and he is really looking forward to a relaxing evening at home after a long day at the office.    He is not thinking about the delightful weekend as he is goal-directed and singularly focused on “GET HOME.”

The husband comes home about 30  minutes late for dinner and is just glad to finally be home. Meanwhile, the wife has finished dinner and during the course of dinner and talking with the children as slow and silent change occurred unseen and unheard by anyone. The glow she had is now a burning frustration and demoralization.  She is thinking – “I can’t believe he did this again after our weekend. He is NEVER going to change. Doesn’t he care about anyone but himself? Doesn’t he know what he is missing out on? I don’t know what to do anymore…”

Meanwhile, he pulls into the garage and gets out of his car with a sigh of relief thinking “I am so glad to be home.” He keys the door, comes in and….the wife is at the sink washing dishes. He smiles and says, “HI!  I am so glad to be home finally!” The wife slowly lifts her head, looks at him and does not return the smile and says,  “Why can’t you EVER  be considerate of me and call when you’re going to be late?”

He freezes.  All the air has left his lungs and feels like he was just punched in the belly…The smile leaves his face and a glare comes over his eyes…”What the heck is your problem?! WHY do you ALWAYS jump on me the MINUTE I walk in the door!”  He goes off to his room and sits down at the computer…

Game over. No recovering tonight.  Both are now thinking, “So much for this weekend – what a farce..”


Clearly, both partners are hurt. Most couples think the other person is to blame thus the cure for the ailing communication and marriage lies within the other person. Both hold the same creed and battle-cry  –  “if only you would change.” The truth is more in the middle – like the proverbial ‘chicken or the egg.’ Both are feeling attacked and defensive and believe the other person ‘started it.’

The above example contains what is known as a  harsh start up (Gottman, 2007).   Both open the dialogue with a criticism of the other. This is not complaining but is a criticism, which is one of the ingredients in negative communication. Most of the time when a couple is talking in this manner, it means that this has happened hundreds of times at this point. Each partner is feeling hurt, rejected, and abandoned in some capacity. They may have begun gently complaining early on in the relationship, however; neither has felt the other has heard their complaints. As time has moved, complaints become criticisms and it feels as if  the problem has become more intense and more frequent. So, after the 105th time of feeling rejected  and hurt, both partners  are defensive and ready for battle.  While it is understandable, it is a toxic ingredient to marriages when it is mixed in on a regular basis.

Stop and Think

Remembering to stop and think that your partner is not malicious and giving them the benefit of the doubt may be the first step towards softening the start up. Approach them gently with how you feel and what you want to see happen in the future in an encouraging way. For example, “I know you are real busy at work. I love your work ethic.  Remember, I love you as well and want some time with you daily.  Please be home tomorrow on time” or “I know you feel hurt that I was late again. We had a wonderful weekend together and I know how much you plan for our evenings.  Please be more gentle with your words with me when I am late in the future.”

Even if it is the 106th time, the old addadge of “Accept what you cannot change” holds true. Keep your expectations of your marriage – don’t let those go (that can be the death knoll for a marriage). Express yourself differently.  Talk to each other about how a potentially hurtful topic can be opened for discussion with sensitivity – including the when and the where.  What does your partner need to hear to prepare themselves for the news that they have hurt you in some way?  Sometimes, it is as easy as “Can I talk to you about something that has really been bother me that I am hoping we can work on for the rest of our marriage?” Marriage is a lifetime. You have that long to work on it. Keep the faith!

Protecting Your Marriage During Troubling Financial Times

March 11, 2009

The four biggest conflicts that couples have difficulty reaching agreement about are money, sex, household chores, and parenting.   During these tumultuous and distressing times,  the threats to  marriage are exacerbated tenfold.  Your marriage may be testing thinking “How are we going to get through this when we can’t even talk about some of the smaller things or when we fight about small things all-time?”  Times such as these test even the healthiest of marriages.  Every individual and couple faces difficult challenges, trials and tribulations, and tests of endurance. We seem to find strength – day by day.  Of course, budgeting, compromise, and discipline are key ingredients – but how does a couple appreciate each other during these times and draw closer together?  The following exercise is designed to help you  draw upon strength and to find hope in the bleakest of moments.

Triumphs and Strivings (Gottman, 2007)

This exercise is designed for you to write about some aspects of your own life and
your own personality that will help both you and your partner understand you better.
In your own notebook, answer the following questions as candidly as you can.

  1. What has happened in your life that you are proud of?
  2. Write down the story of the psychological triumphs you have had in your life,your gains, times when things went even better than you expected, periodswhen you were better off after coming through trials and tribulations. Includethose periods of stress and duress that you survived and mastered.These events might have been small events, but they may still have a greatdeal of importance to you. They might include your childhood or your adultlife. They may be challenges you have met, even if these were challengesyou created for yourself to meet. They may be periods of power, withglorious events or fine people, events of closeness and intimacy, great timesof friendship. They may include previous, very positive relationships orpositive moments within them.
  3. How have you coped and gotten through these hard events and periods in yourlife? How have you endured? What glories and victories have youexperienced? What were the lasting effects on you of going through these things?
  4. What did you take from these positive events in your life? How have theyaffected the way you think of yourself and your capabilities? How have theyaffected your goals and the things you strive for? Did these events strengthenyou?
  5. What has been your own history with the emotion of pride and with praise? How did your parents show you that they were proud of you when you were achild? How have other people responded to your accomplishments in your life?What role does pride in your accomplishments play in your marriage or relationship? What role do your own strivings have in your relationship? Areyour goals and strivings honored and valued? How so? What do you want your partner to know and understand about these aspects of your self, your present, your future plans and goals, and your past?
  6. How can you draw upon these with each other to face the most current threat to your marriage?

“Why Can’t You Say It This Way?”

January 30, 2009

Do you ever find yourself in the midst of heated conversation when, all of a sudden, your partner says something that just takes your breath away? S/he might as well stop talking at that point because you are no longer listening to a word being said. All you hear is that little voice inside your head bellowing, “I can’t believe he just said that,” “She is such a jerk.” You lick your wounds and prepare your retort.

But as you mull things over, you realize, “It’s not what he’s saying, it’s how he’s saying it,” or “If she would just word it differently, I might be able to respond less defensively.” So, in your effort to resurrect the conversation, you tell your spouse, “Why can’t you just say it this way,?” and you proceed to reword the statement in such a way that it feels less toxic. And just when you think you should receive the Nobel Peace prize for your obvious communication acumen, your spouse replies with an ungrateful, “Why do you always try to tell me what to say and how to say it,?” or “Since you know what I should be saying, why don’t you just have a conversation by yourself?”

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

If you’re someone who tries to educate your spouse as to the best way to approach you, you want to be sure to hit the “share this” button below so that you can get the word out to him or her that at least one expert agrees with you. If you, on the other hand, are someone who feels offended that your spouse always seems to be trying to put words into your mouth, please read on. This could be marriage-saving advice.

I have worked with several couples last week whose patterns of communication closely resemble the example offered above. In trying to get his wife to use what therapists refer to as “I-messages,” a strategy that assumes personal responsibility for feelings and leads to less defensiveness, one man said, “I wish you would stop saying that I’m controlling when I ask you to spend less time on the phone at night. Instead, why can’t you say, ‘When you tell me to get off the phone at night, I feel controlled by you.’ I could handle that. But when you tell me that I try to control you and everything you do, I get really angry. I don’t try to control you even if you think I do. My being controlling is not why I want you to spend less time on the phone.” “Well put,” I thought, but apparently his wife thought otherwise. In fact, she took his suggestion as further evidence that he was manipulating.

Chances are, even if you’re the sort who detests when your spouse “tells you what to say,” you might see the logic in the previous example. It just makes good sense that people should take responsibility for their feelings rather than ascribe malicious intent to their partner’s actions. But consider the next example and see if you can understand why things can get a bit more ambiguous.

A woman in my practice asked her husband not use a particular word that for her, was emotionally-laden. But her husband felt that his choice of words best described his feelings and was unwilling to use a less inflammatory alternative. Furthermore, he didn’t like being told what to do. Suffice it to say, their conversation didn’t go too well.

Language is an extremely powerful tool. The words we choose can mean the difference between loving, constructive conversations which result in real intimacy, or verbal competitions ending in misunderstanding, emotional distance, and even divorce. With that in mind, the next time you hear, “Why can’t you say it this way,” remind yourself that your spouse is not saying, “If you want to talk to me, remember, I am the playwright. Your only job is to memorize your lines. Don’t improvise,”-that’s not what this plea is about. Your spouse is really saying, “Please be gentle. Say what you need to say in a way that I can hear you and not become defensive.” Then, honor the request. Back up a step or two and try again- even if you think your spouse is over-reacting. Do it as an experiment. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

2009 Michele Weiner-Davis Training Corp. Reprinted with permission of Michele Weiner-Davis. Subscribe to the FREE “Divorce Busting” newsletter at www.divorcebusting.com, the place where marriages become stronger and more committed.

La Crosse Marriage Counseling

June 3, 2008

Marriage & Couples Counseling in La Crosse

Our team of expert therapists and counselors are here to help restore lost nurturing and tenderness in your marriage. Formerly located in the heart of downtown La Crosse, we have relocated to Onalaska near Valley View Mall. Our new facility allows for onsite parking and easy access. Be assured our discrete location ensures confidentiality. Please call us for an appointment at 608-785-7000 x21 or complete the appointment request form. For more detailed information, please read the blog below titled “Holmen, Onalaska, West Salem Marriage Counseling.” 


Holmen, Onalaska, West Salem, Marriage Counseling

May 28, 2008

Marriage & Couples Couseling

We have been serving the Coulee Region for the past 7 years, helping our neighbors develop stronger and loving marriages. Our team of professional counselors and therapists are well trained,   up to date on the latest research on marital therapy, and know what is functional and what is dysfunctional in marriages.  

Following a thorough marital assessment, we offer a brief educational session followed up with brief therapy (5 to 6 sessions) for common problems in marriages. Other, deeper injuries and lost dreams in marriage may require more sessions (6 to 12). After the initial martial treatment,  a relapse prevention session will be conducted with the couple once every six months for two years. The following issues are applicable for the education and brief therapy module:

  • improving a dull but otherwise functional sex life
  • sex and mismatches in desire
  • sex therapy (erectile dysfunction, impotence, premature ejaculation, anorgasmia, dysparunia)
  • financial management, budgeting, planning
  • stress and time management
  • maintaining marital intimacy after the birth of a child
  • setting personal/couple goals for a purposeful life
  • career planning and balancing the needs of marriage
  • exploring dual career issues (sharing housework, family planning) 
  • creating fun together
  • creating a spiritual life together
  • creating enjoyable conversations on a regular basis
  • gender differences (what is true and what is not)
  • pre-marital counseling, exploring important areas of marriage 
  • adjustments to major life transitions
  • dealing with traumas that affect marriage
  • life organizing skills
  • adjustments to career or job change
  • managing a chronic illness
  • special issues unique to blended families
  • involvement and role of extended family 

Our counseling services and workshops for couples have been shown to:

  • Increase intimacy and closeness in a relationship
  • Decrease criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawl during conflict
  • Build a culture of praise and appreciation
  • Increase teamwork in a marriage
  • Assist couples learning to keep conflict from burning out of control
  • Stop couples from pushing each others ‘hot buttons’
  • Start couples working towards comforting each other and delighting in each other
  • Teach couples to negotiate and talk about the most important of aspects of their marriage in a safe and secure way
  • Solve challenging problems of communication, sexual relationships, finances, co-parenting, household chores, fun and recreation, In-Laws, religious differences, and intimacy
  • Craft a marriage the way both partners envisioned the marriage

Benefits include:

  • Increased fondness and admiration
  • Improved friendship
  • Increased positive perspective of your partner
  • reak through and resolve conflict when feeling stuck and spinning your wheels
  • Increased understanding between you and your spouse
  • Keeping conflicts calm
  • Making life dreams come true and honoring each others dreams
  • Creating shared meaning
  • Keeping love alive and going throughout your marriage

Click here to take a “Relationship IQ” quiz.

Click here to take a relationship quiz on How Well Do You Know Your Partner.

Click here to take a relationship quiz on Bids For Connection: The Building Blocks of Emotional Connection.

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