David Sbarra, a professor and a clinical psychologist at University of Arizona, has been studying this phenomenon for years. His book, Love, Loss, and the Space Between, features relationship advice essays, including Why Is It So Hard to Appreciate Your Partner?, 21 Minutes to Save Your Relationship, and When Leaving Your Ex, Love Yourself.
I connected with David to talk more about his research on relationships and divorce.
You found that divorce is linked to poor health outcomes. What might explain this finding?
We suspect that the reason is stress. For many people, marital separation means substantial financial upheaval, relocating, co-parenting conflict, loss of friendships and social networks, and a host of psychological challenges, including development of a new sense of self: I without my partner. And we know that chronic psychological stress has health-compromising effects.
Are there any benefits in separating from a partner if the relationship isn't working?
Absolutely. We've found this is especially the case for women in very low quality marriages. Women experience substantial gains in their life satisfaction when they end poor quality relationships, and we do not see the same effect for men.
Often, I am asked a question like this, "So, are you saying that even if I got out of a very bad, awful marriage, my health is still at risk?" My answer on this is unequivocal: No, that's not what I am trying to say! The divorce-health connection is one of statistical averages and the association does not mean that if you feel happy, satisfied, and more fully realized person after your separation that it's still bad for your health; in fact, it might have been the best possible thing for your health, but this is not what we see when we study average statistics.
In your clinical work, what if any patterns do you notice in precursors of marital dissolution?
There are many, but one process I often key-in on is the so-called “secret thought of dissolution”. People often begin with a private thought that something is really not right, then they begin to form this thought into a secret that is communicated to friends and given some public "air time" before they begin sharing the thought around more generally, which is often when they articulate it to their partner and their family.
Another frequent reason for divorce, and this comes from John Gottman’s research, is that one person is not open to influence from their partner, which is a big problem. You have to be willing to deepen your trust with your partner, then make the changes that he or she is requesting. Being open to influence from your partner means you can stop talking, complaining and/or blaming to truly listen and try to behave in a new way. This can make all the difference.
David kindly allowed me to publish an excerpt from his forthcoming book. Below is an example of advice he gives on how to resolve conflict.
I like to think about moving from “intolerable” to “tolerable” difficulties. Even the best couples will move into the intolerable range from time to time. Step #1 for solving your relationship problems is to ask yourself a question Are you experiencing an intolerable problem? If your answer is “Yes,” you must first articulate the problem to yourself.
Rather than a blanket statement like, “My husband is lazy,” identify a specific complaint. If you can be as clear as possible about the problem to yourself, it will be easier to express the problem to your partner when the time comes. That requires clear, respectful communication. Can you talk with your husband or wife without the conversation ending in a fight? If not (maybe your husband is contemptuous and rolls his eyes when you talk, or maybe you feel so upset that you start criticizing who he is rather than what he’s done), then improving your communication skills is a necessary first step.