Psychologists, therapists, sociologists, etc. all claim through research to have the cure for what has become the modern-day disease plaguing relationships: divorce. There are many statistics out there for the correct and accepted divorce rate. Some sources claim the rate of all marriages ending in divorce is upward of 50 percent, while others cite it as being closer to 30 percent. Whatever the number, it is still disturbing and worthy of inquiry to study why so many marriages end tragically. Being divorce conscious and researching in depth what really makes a healthy marriage or relationship seems counterintuitive. People have maintained successful and happy relationships in the past, so why does divorce seem like such an issue now? Perhaps the answer to the question of why divorce happens is simpler than so much research tries to explain.
My personal experience with divorced parents has shaped the way I view the study of relationships as well as these statistics that so many professionals try not only to explain, but also to prevent from increasing. My parents divorced when I was 10 years old, resulting in my mom leaving the house and moving to a neighboring city to be close to my brother and me. Each of my parents, prior to their relationship with each other, had divorced their first spouses as well. Now, both of my parents have moved on to third marriages. While this may seem insane to some who have no experience with divorce, it became very common to me as I grew up and began to develop as my own person.
As a child, growing up in what is often termed a “broken household,” I quickly became aware that there was barely a difference between my parents and my friends’ parents who were still together after X years of marriage. My parents fought, their parents fought, too. My parents were able to be happy around each other for the sake of their children, and those other parents who were still together were able to be happy despite fighting, too. So what made my parents so different from those other ones who were able to stay together? Only since moving out and coming to college have I discovered any real answer to this question. I can now view my own family from an outsider’s perspective after not living at home for six months or so, but still receive the details of what is going on and who said what in this fight or another. This has helped me realize that the secret to a lasting relationship may be easier to find than I originally perceived.
Communication is key. Yes, I think the solution to keeping two people together indefinitely is as simple as being able to effectively communicate with each other. When referring to communication here, I am not suggesting that talking at one’s spouse will save a marriage. However, being able to objectively express one’s emotions, grievances and thoughts to another person, hearing and allowing the other person to reciprocate and be listened to is the huge secret to the successful maintenance of any relationship. This communication, if completed in a manner that allows both people to feel heard and respected, can resolve any issue that may arise and create an air of intimacy between people.
The research done on the subject of divorce that most parallels this idea of communication being the most important aspect to a healthy relationship comes from the work of psychologist John Gottman, who has studied relationships for more than four decades. His work has shown that when comparing groups of couples who have maintained their relationships to groups of couples who have split up, there are a few defining characteristics that separate and explain why the people who stayed together were able to stay together, and why those who separated were not able to stay together. From this research, Gottman found that physiologically, those who stayed together maintained calmer and more trusting states during conversation while those who had split up were continually showing flight-or-fight responses, even when discussing simple events from the day. The ability to trust and feel respected and happy during conversation comes directly from practicing effective communication.
Proper communication extends further from the topics that are most important to couples, the ones that may cause arguments into silly little conversations that seem mundane. Gottman’s research continued to say that those couples who stayed together were more likely to indulge in their partner’s “bids” or attempts at getting the other person’s attention with some seemingly insignificant occurrence, such as wanting to talk about something funny that happened at work that day. In Gottman’s research, those couples who listened and recognized the need for this simple form of communication were able to make their partner feel heard and emotionally fulfilled. Those couples who split up were less likely to humor their partner and disrupt their own lives to discuss these kinds of topics.
Proper communication for both important and unimportant topics has become a sort of lost art in relationships. People either do not know how to communicate effectively or are not willing to put in the energy to do so, and the institution of marriage has suffered because of it.
Caitlin Heenan is an Editorial Board Member.