State College, Pa. – Today's couples are quick to squelch the
urge to argue with each other. But just because you seldom argue
doesn't mean your marriage is strong. The real silent killer of
marriage is distancing yourself from your partner.
The solution? Don't worry so much about your
fight response – that
instinct to duke it out verbally. Instead, focus on your
flight response – the
instinct to avoid your partner.
If we can learn to spot the
distancing pattern in our relationships, we can help prevent family
problems and divorce.
Recognizing flight mode can be tricky: things like working late,
switching on the TV, or spending more time with the kids may seem
harmless, but they can be a slippery slope leading to a distant
When families come to me for coaching, their symptoms vary but
there is often a simple distancing pattern that causes much of their
suffering. Here's a classic example:
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
come to me trying to save their marriage. Mr. Smith has had an
Mrs. Smith, devastated, seems to be the hapless victim.
Certainly, cheating on one's spouse is not something to
rationalize away, but behind such behavior there's a common pattern:
Soon after they married, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were surprised at
some of the tension and dissatisfaction they felt with each other.
At first, they tried to talk it out.
Over time, this didn't seem
to be working, so they'd lose patience and argue more often.
But open conflict is unpleasant, and pop psychology has taught us
that arguing and anger are bad things that doom a marriage.
So the Smiths (subconsciously) decided to keep the peace, and
avoid the touchy topics.
They communicated less of their true thoughts, feelings, and dreams
to each other. As they distanced themselves from each other,
he filled the gap by focusing on his career and she focused on the
kids. Everything seemed fine, because he was succeeding at his
career and she could meet her need for affection with the children.
But over the years, this pattern slowly, insidiously, became a
problem. Mr. Smith's job obviously couldn't meet his intimacy needs,
so in a moment of temptation he unwisely stumbled into an affair.
Mr. Smith's affair is a symptom of the distancing pattern that's
been going on between them for years. By the time a couple call me,
all they focus on
is the affair, which they believe is the problem. Neither party is
aware of their distancing, or its consequences over time.
Both spouses play more of a role than we realize in the
development of a marital problem. But the good news is that
once we understand
distancing, we can prevent future problems by taking steps to build
an intimate friendship that lasts a lifetime.
we can eat, walk, and talk our way to a happier marriage and family
Eat. At mealtimes, have each family member share their
highlight and "lowlight" of the day. Rather than saying, "I enjoyed
my walk from the train to the office," try to focus on one moment in
time. For example, "I was walking to work when I noticed a lovely
oak in all its fall colors. I felt one of those 'happy to be alive'
Sharing the lowlight of our day feels good because if we
commiserate with our partner, we won't feel so alone in our
suffering. Instead of muttering, "I had a crummy day at work today,"
try to capture a moment in time: "When I borrowed the office
projector for my presentation, the receptionist grilled me about how
long I'd keep it, as if I were some kind of selfish jerk who hogs
everything. It really ticked me off."
Sharing one's highlight and lowlight at meals may sound simple,
but it can become a pleasurable habit that gives a sense of shared
intimacy and preempts future problems.
Walk and talk.
The greatest gift to modern marriage is a walkie-talkie with a
voice-activated switch, because it works like a high-tech baby
monitor. After the kids fall asleep, set the monitor beside them and
then take a stroll around your yard with your spouse. Stay close
enough that, if a kid wakes up, you're never more than a 20-second
sprint from them. Some people may be afraid to leave the kids
sleeping, but you can probably hear more through this walkie-talkie
than a parent who's watching TV downstairs.
Every night couples can enjoy 30 minutes of exercise, fresh air,
and the chance to share what they're thinking, feeling, and
Sure, avoiding our partner feels easier in the short term, so we
may have to force ourselves to interact at times,
but putting our spouse
is win-win: Building a dependable friendship with our spouses
stops us from "marrying" our children, and it frees up our kids to
learn self-reliance. What a great example for their future
• David Code is an
Episcopal minister, family coach, and author of "To Raise Happy
Kids, Put Your Marriage First."