At first I thought the headline about not speaking to your spouse was a joke. Surprised to see an article on the benefits of marital silence, I was intrigued.
In fact, the article in Time touts the advantages of not dealing with conflict, especially when talking about marriage as a marathon, suggesting that as we tally up more anniversaries, silence is golden – if you’re in your golden years.
Go figure. I never considered diverting, distracting, or stonewalling success strategies for personal relationships.
Francine Russo’s “How Not Talking About Conflict Could Help a Marriage Last” is interesting on multiple levels, though I find myself ambivalent when it comes to the outcome, based largely on how we define marital success.
Referring to withdrawing or “stonewalling” – in other words not talking about conflict, which generally places more strain on relationships, Ms. Russo points out:
… a new study suggests that the avoidance part of the pattern may not be as damaging as counselors once thought—at least not for long-married couples over age 60… The study… followed 127 couples for 13 years, one group aged 40-50 and one group of long-married couples, aged 60-70.
Reflecting findings that show older (longer-married) couples develop patterns of acceptance when it comes to disagreements (“agreeing to disagree”), apparently mutual avoidance
… did not seem to lower marital happiness. Invoking the practice, in fact, may be neutral or even positive…
There is some speculation that this is a natural part of the aging process. (Might that be perspective? Accepting what cannot be changed?) Whatever the reason, if the couple is not unhappy, I would have to agree with the overall impression that avoidance may offer a reasonable approach to living together in relative calm – under certain circumstances.
Picking Your Battles, “Emotional Tone”
Of course, there’s more to the issue. Picking one’s battles (the important matters) is a skill. And the way in which we broach topics is essential, allowing even complex conflicts to be addressed if both parties are willing.
Moreover, “emotional tone” is critical. Accusations and put-downs are ineffective (and trigger defenses in all of us); there are ways to communicate that encourage discussion – without personal attacks, and paving the way to greater understanding, if not some resolution.
As one who is also fully aware of the many downsides to gray divorce, not the least of which is financial, if older couples aren’t making each other miserable, my personal feeling is to avoid gray (or silver) divorce.
Yet here’s where I bump into my own ambivalence. Is not being miserable enough? Are we looking at 20 more years of “not being miserable?” 30? I don’t see marriage as an institution to be entered into lightly and surely not left lightly. However, when splitting will not result in financial meltdown for either party, and when there are no children involved, I see no point in prolonging what can be a sort of status quo unhappiness, should both parties wish to call the game.
The Successful Marriage, the Failed Marriage
I have a fundamental concern over assessing the “success” of marriage based on longevity, and yet we tend to revere long-term marriages (regardless of their quality) as if the mere fact of the decades together is enough to plant the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on both spouses.
Setting aside the issue of children – critical, I realize – why can’t we look at marriage and say the years together that were good were successful? For example: “We were together for 10 years, 7 were great, and after trying for several years, we decided to move on.”
Why must that always be deemed “bad” or a “failed marriage?”
I’m not proposing conflict resolution or conflict avoidance; the examples raised in the study show there are exceptions to accepted norms when it comes to relationships. I’m not proposing unilaterally trashing a marriage either – at any point. I believe people owe it to each other (in the absence of abusive situations) to try to work through things and rekindle what was once there.
Major Marital Issues: Values, Kids, Sex, Money
Naturally, some issues are significant – very significant – and not addressing them isn’t a good idea. Off the top of my head, I’d say those key differences that can cause catastrophe include basic values, how to raise kids, sex (of what sort and how often), not to mention money.
If you can’t come to terms on these four, aren’t you in for a rough ride?
As for long-term marriages – why some “work” and others fizzle – I have no answers though I suspect the dynamics are complex, and at least one of the partners has the sense to see that a marital “last straw” may be just one more annoyance. The grass is always greener is simply not the case.
Note that the article on conflict avoidance concedes the following:
Any therapist would agree, however, that there are no absolutes when it comes to relationships…
It’s hard to disagree with that statement. But I return to one of my concerns and fervent wishes – that we might stop categorizing human interactions as success or failure – which seems of little use to me.