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Q is for Questions

I have to confess, when I opened up my column to your questions, I was really hoping to get a bunch of benign inquiries like: What’s your favorite novel?

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I have to confess, when I opened up my column to your questions, I was really hoping to get a bunch of benign inquiries like: What’s your favorite novel? Where did you honeymoon? Cats or dogs?

But your questions were not benign. They were filled with pain and longing and betrayal and confusion. I am grieved for you. I am sorry that your relationships are struggling. I’m sad that you’re not enjoying the fruits of intimate, trusting, joyful relationships.

Peter* laments, “Affection, touch, sex. I want it. She does not… almost never. 1-2 times a year at best. No kissing, no touching, I’ve pretty much given up after years of rejection.” Then he asked, simply, “Why?”

An almost identical question came from Annie, “My spouse has put me in the Friend Zone – wants to be friends, co-parent, co-habitate, hang out – but without romance, passion, or even lovemaking. We’re only 40!” She asks, “What can we do to ‘fall in love’ again?”

Why? What can we do? Simple questions. Powerful. Devastating.

The honest truth is that there aren’t simple answers to these questions. Part of what makes satisfying relationships so rewarding is that they’re hard to create and maintain. And when you lose focus on the relationship, even for a moment, you can slide into habitual patterns of disconnecting pretty easily – even without noticing.

No couple ever woke up one day and decided to stop being affectionate. They accepted, sometime much earlier in the relationship, that intimacy wasn’t a priority. This is super subtle and can be seen in Dr. Gottman’s theory of bids and turning towards.

Both Peter and Annie are describing relationships where at least one partner has stopped making bids, likely because the other partner stopped turning toward previous bids. Why? Who knows. That’s part of why therapy is really helpful. What can we do? Start by focusing on bids.

First focus on turning toward your partner’s bids. Let them know that you’re paying attention to them. That you think they’re interesting. Funny. Attractive. Prioritize intimacy, even if it’s not sex. Become an expert at turning toward the bid. Then re-evaluate the strategy for your own bids for affection and attention. Get really good at holding hands, then hugging, then the six-second kiss.

The relationship got knocked off-track way back when. It’ll take hard work and patience to get back to where you deserve. But it’s the tortoise’s work, not the hare’s.

If there was one dominant topic in your questions, it was jealousy and betrayal. Specifically, how to avoid jealousy and recover from betrayal. This issue, just like the intimacy questions above, ultimately boil down to how well a couple can make and respond to bids for affection and attention. When you do that well, you will protect yourself from the perils of infidelity. When you don’t, you sow the seeds for the small betrayals that can lead to the eventual affair. But what about after the affair?

Sarah wrote about how well she and her husband have been doing in the aftermath of his affair. They’ve both done a great job taking responsibility and re-investing in their friendship. They are talking together and working through conflict and distress more and better than before. Still, they’re having a hard time trusting in the “new norm.” “How long,”she asks, “does it take to create lasting overall confidence and trust?”

Of course it would be silly to try and offer a precise timeline, but I tend to think it boils down to perspective. The further away you get from the incident, the more it fades into the distance. It’s natural to have some post-traumatic stress in the wake of an affair and to continue to struggle with confidence and security. But at some point, the perspective (and the story) will shift away from the affair and toward the recovery. The Gottmans refer to a process of Atonement, Attunement, Attachment. Trust that process and continue to lean into the new norm. At some level, simply committing makes it so.

Secure attachment goes a long way toward mitigating jealousy even when infidelity has never been an issue. Justin asks, “How do I lovingly connect to my jealous wife while not giving up who I am and what I enjoy?” I suppose it really depends on “who you are” and “what you enjoy.” Certainly some things are inappropriate. The best way to lovingly connect with your wife is to discover your wife’s dream and honor it. Her jealousy is attached to some portion of her dream that has not been heard or respected. If you want to mitigate betrayal in your relationship, focus on atonement, attunement and attachment.

The final theme that came up in your questions, and perhaps the most telling, is how important it is for you to be heard. More than a few of you sent me paragraphs about your relationship. I imagine it must have felt good to believe, if only for a moment, that someone was willing to hear your story and offer empathy and insight. Or maybe just the act of writing your story down helped you make sense of it. In any case, I want to encourage you to consider therapy as a means to understand your struggle. A good therapist is infinitely more effective than some guy sitting at a keyboard.

Cheryl wrote, “My husband is so controlling, at this present moment he hasn’t been talking to me for two weeks now. He even moved out of our bedroom and stopped eating my food. The only time he talks to me or things are normal is when I compromise my happiness and do what he wants, and I am tired of living my live through making him happy at the expense of my happiness.”

Ashley said, “My husband and I have been married for 15 years and been experts in the four horseman since we walked down the aisle. We’ve lived parallel lives for most of our marriage. Lately, we’ve been trying to stop the four horseman cycle, to nurture our fondness and admiration and turn toward each other. It’s not working well enough (yet) for me to imagine staying in this marriage much longer.”

Cheryl and Ashley are asking the same questions: Can my marriage be saved? When is enough enough? Are my expectations too high? Help.

Sometimes, the answer is “No, your marriage cannot be saved. ‘Enough’ was a long time ago. Yes, your expectations are too high.” Most couples are unhappy for an average of six years before they seek help. Even then it could be too late. Dr. Gottman often refers to the “Story of Us.” If your “Story of Us” is fraught with contempt rather than admiration, more “me” than “we,” and more disappointment than satisfaction, it may be time to try telling a different story.

Dr. Gottman says, “If there is clear compelling evidence that your relationship is already over or unsalvageable, and you want to move on, I believe it’s okay to let it go.” I agree. Even as a relationship therapist, I’m not in the “Stay Married At All Costs” camp. But I’d urge you to get some help before you decide to walk away. A good therapist will help you identify the strengths in the relationship that may simply be hiding in the midst of some present chaos. Minimally, it’ll be a good opportunity to tell your “Story of Us” and get some insight and empathy. Check The Gottman Referral Network to see if there’s a good Gottman trained therapist in your area.

I can tell you this for sure: you are not alone. I get questions like yours all the time. I hear stories of pain and longing and betrayal and confusion. But I also see couples recover and reclaim the best of themselves and their relationship. Again, it’s the tortoise’s work, not the hare’s.

By the way, my favorite novel is The Brothers K by David James Duncan. My wife and I honeymooned in Bermuda. And I don’t have the pet gene, so my preference with regard to cats and dogs is “neither.” Thanks for asking.

*Author’s Note: The questions and quotes in this column are submitted directly from readers. All names and identifying information have been changed. Some questions have been edited for brevity.

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Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.

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