I have just returned from 3 glorious weeks in New Zealand where, as usual when I travel, I have been studying the culture.
I asked the questions there that I typically ask wherever I am: What is the divorce rate here and what is the infidelity rate?
Now, New Zealand, as you may know, is more rural than urban. It is comprised of much farm and camping country. Then there are the cities like Auckland and Queenstown
I began my questioning actually in Taupo which is outside of Auckland and in the North Island.
The guides and the locals were surprised by the questions. They universally did not seem to know people divorced or having affairs and the number they chose was twenty percent—maybe. “Why,” I asked. Everyone responded the same. “Because on the farms we are close to our families. If there are problems they help us. “. The men come home from the fields at night and talk to their partner and hang out with their children. The families are tight.
This is validating for the world Dr. Frank Pittman describes in his second book, Man Enough. Men stayed home close to their families until the Industrial Revolution. After that, men stayed away from home for more hours than they were with family. Their focus changed as did the applause. Men began looking for applause at work, spent much less time at home, and the conversation between partners dwindled. Families began to disintegrate
So what of families in Auckland and Queenstown? They weren’t nearly so stumped. Divorce and infidelity? 50 percent came the answer. Men are traveling. Family relationships are diluted. When the conversation stops the relationship goes on the skids.
The relationship is carried in the conversation. No conversation, no relationship.
John and Julie Gottman, longtime marital researchers in Washington state report that their single best predictor for marital success is the degree of response between couples. One person says something and the other one replies. “It looks like rain.” This is followed by “yes”, “do you think so?” Something is said.
Recently a new client called me. He was interested but anxious, understandably. He was belittling people who seek help. He wanted to know who saw me—he guessed people who were violent. This wasn’t his problem. He said that he and his wife just fight all the time. And, by the way, she starts to tell him a story, he is quiet, and she stops in frustration, saying, “oh well- you aren’t interested anyway”! But that’s not a big problem. Yet he was calling me.
I thought it was a big problem. You fight all the time is suggestive of the fight to be right—a sure ticket to divorce according to the Gottmans— and me too. Then his wife gets angry and doesn’t talk to him for several weeks—stonewalling. Another ticket to divorce. There is also blaming—another horseman of the apocalypse according to the Gottmans—and the last one is criticism. These four habits will destroy a marriage.
These bad habits are implied in “we fight all the time”.
The last issue, “My wife tells me a story, claims I am disinterested, and stops. How ridiculous! What am I doing wrong?”
“Yes you aren’t physically beating her”-that I know of— but there is no connection here and things are not headed well.
So, I said, “ when your wife tells a story, you need to make listening noises. “Mm- really— what did YOU think?” The caller was amazed. “Really”, he said. “Thank you sooo much!” And he scheduled their first appointment.
Relationship work is NOT useless if it provides concrete tools for change. Relationships require the conversation throughout the lives of the couple. The conversation must include praise, affirmation, inquiry into how the other one sees things, and be absent criticism, blame, and the fight to be right. It cannot tolerate withdrawal into unexplained silence which feels like love withdrawal.