I recently figured out one of the striking blows that destroyed my marriage. During the last five years of our marriage, I did not feel like my words or actions were given any credence in conversations, problem-solving or decision-making. My husband did not accept my influence. I hope by casting light on this common issue, someone else’s marriage is saved.
I am not just throwing my ex-husband (and all men) under the bus. According to Dr. John Gottman’s study of 130 couples over nine years, the majority of women — even in unstable marriages — let their husbands influence their decision-making by taking their opinions and feelings into account. In conflict, only about 35% of men return the favor.
Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.
— Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
I distinctly remember sitting at the kitchen table with my then husband at the head of the table. Every time he talked, we all listened and commented. Every time I talked, I barely received eye contact, let alone support for my contribution.
The saddest part of this setup, is that after my husband moved out of the house, my sons took over his position. Their conversation subjects dominated. My daughter and my comments were often dismissed.
This may sound like whining or pointing fingers, but I still feel the deep, raw sadness of those times, when I allow myself to think about them. The sense of not mattering remains.
What causes this need for dominance?
In Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, scientist Robert Sapolsky points out that an insecure status is more stressful than being the lowest person in a hierarchy.
Our society with its huge gap between the haves and have-nots, creates an atmosphere of constant status awareness. Even the middle class feels compelled to check their place on the totem pole regularly.
The real trouble in my marriage started after we moved to Minneapolis and my husband took a new job in a hedge fund. The new position paid five to fifteen times what his old job paid. I know he felt a lot of pressure to stay on top. Material wealth and status became a bigger part of our everyday lives.
Our roles within the family became more defined. Our collaboration and teamwork declined. We grew more distant with each other.
All of this, made our relationship less secure, and hence more stressful. Stress breeds a need to win at something, control the situation or feel better about ourselves.
My contribution to the downfall
I cannot put all the blame on my ex-husband for the breakdown in our relationship. It was very difficult for me to show love and affection when I felt disrespected and discredited. No two-way influence, no love. I pulled away from him. I turned toward others who respected and honored my opinion. I spent more time away from home.
I even stopped letting my ex husband influence me. He had always been a sort of authoritative figure to me. I learned from and followed him. After years of having my influence minimized, I could not stand to take direction from him. I’m sure that made him feel alone.
A sign someone is not accepting influence
When in conflict, it is easy to express negativity. During a study done by marriage expert, Dr. Gottman, they found that 65% of men escalated the negativity in a disagreement and brought out one or more of what Dr. Gottman calls the four horsemen — criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
If you raise an issue with your loved one and they respond with increased negativity, including criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling (ignoring, silence, leaving), and no attempt to repair, downgrade the problem or soothe you, then they are not willing to share power or acknowledge your point of view.
How to fix it?
… the happiest, most stable marriages in the long run were those in which the husband did not resist sharing power and decision-making with his wife. When the couple disagreed, these husbands actively searched for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way. — Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
One way to balance the influence in a relationship is to search for common ground, as mentioned above. Common ground takes the other person’s opinions and feelings into account. It shows you know their desired outcome and want to honor it, as well as your own.
Sharing influence is in many ways, like being a good conversationalist. In the NY Times article, “3 Tips to Have Better Conversations”, the author advocates being as interested as you are interesting. Everyone loves someone who listens with their eyes, comments and questions to show they are paying attention and does not try to turn the conversation over to themselves.
Another way to equalize influence is to seek out the other person’s view once you have made a declarative statement. For example, if you say, “We should save our money for retirement and not spend it on a winter vacation”, then you should follow it up with, “What do you think?”. This shows you value the other person’s opinion.
How open are you to your partner’s influence? If you are in a same-sex marriage, how does this show up in your relationship? Do you feel like your opinion matters?