What would you guess is the most common reason couples come into therapy? The lady who cuts my hair thinks it’s “affairs.” My neighbor thinks it’s “empty nest syndrome.” What do you think?
Couples come into my practice for any number of reasons. Often enough, it’s conflict over finances or in-laws or work-life balance. Sometimes, it’s anticipation of the transition into marriage, followed soon thereafter by the difficulty of managing the transition to parenthood.
I suppose the thing I hear most often is, “We’re having trouble communicating.” I think trouble with “communication” is a myth, or at least a cliche – a catch-all phrase that doesn’t really mean anything specific. I once had a deaf client who was having “communication issues” with her boyfriend. Their issues had nothing to do with her disability. She was, in fact, remarkably gifted at reading lips. They simply didn’t know how to talk to one another. He once said, without an ounce of irony, “I have no idea why she can’t hear me.” Their issues were far more complex than their presenting problem. They usually are.
If there are Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, there are dozens of reasons why marriages fail. Of course there are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, affairs, work stress, and money issues. There are any number of huge challenges that couples all around you are struggling with. But my personal belief is that the main reason that couples are struggling is Wednesday.
You thought W was for Weddings, didn’t you? Wedding chatter has been making the rounds lately, mostly on the backs of this study linking the cost of the wedding to the likelihood for a happy marriage. (The short version: have more than 200 people and spend less than $1,000) I’m also particularly fond of the NPR story on Pop-up Weddings. There’s no shortage of information on weddings. There’s an entire industrial complex dedicated to making sure of that. But as important as that one day is, it’s not nearly as important as Wednesday.
Wednesday is the day you make or break a marriage. Wednesday – today – is the day that you decide whether to learn a little more about your partner. Wednesday is the day you turn toward or away from their bids. Wednesday is the day that you either make a deposit into or withdrawal from the Emotional Bank Account of your relationship. Wednesday is the day that you decide to prioritize understanding over advice.
Dr. John Gottman’s research suggests that the average couple waits six years before seeking help for relationship problems. That’s over 300 Wednesdays of unhappiness. Keep in mind, half of all failed marriages end in the first 7 years. This means the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long. Why, I wonder? I actually wonder, out loud, with my clients why they waited so long.
There’s never a good reason. At least not in hindsight. No one ever woke up one day and said, “Oh wow, my marriage is suddenly not as good as I’d hoped.” It creeps up on you, because you’re not paying attention. Instead, you’re paying attention to things that are louder, more urgent, more essential, and frankly, easier. It’s hard work to steward a marriage every day, but it’s the most important work you can do. For some reason, couples allow themselves to settle into a daily routine that doesn’t look anything like the marriage they committed to on their wedding day.
A friend noted that Wednesday was also “hump day.” He made sure I caught the euphemism in case it was lost on me. (It wasn’t) Indeed, Wednesday is also the day you chose to pursue intimacy with your partner. Maybe today is the day that you re-connect through sex. Or through a different kind of sex. Try a new room or time of day. Take longer or not as long. If sex is not possible or practical, maybe a six-second kiss or cuddle a little longer. Or maybe try sleeping naked for a change.
Whatever you do, do it on purpose. Today is the day you protect your relationship from an affair. Today is the day you solve that nagging solvable problem. Today is the day that you turn toward your partner a little more and a little more intentionally. Today is the day that you work on “communication issues.” Your relationship is bigger than your presenting problems. Take care of Wednesday. I promise you it’s more important than your wedding day.
Bonus: Check out this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The real payoff is about half way through this clip (starting at 2:15) but it’s worth the wait. I like to think this couple is shopping on a Wednesday, when it never is about the copper sink.