by Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.
Marriages have been studied by a lot of very intelligent men and women for decades, and almost anything you can think of has been looked into, from what ingredients tend to produce long-term happy marriages to what behaviors predict divorce, and every Marriage & Family Therapist knows what they are.
If your marriage is on the brink, we know there are dysfunctional interactions and behaviors that got you in the fix you’re in, but the question is, how motivated are you to do something about it, and how able and willing will you and your partner be to heal from the damage done and move forward in a new and healthy dynamic? When you are in marital crisis, your relationship is on fire, so it’s not time to buy furniture. First we need to put the fire out and survey the damage. That means that right now we need to get you to cool off before we can answer these questions with any certaintly. Part of managing the crisis is to get the leaning-in or rejected partner to stop pursuing their leaning-out partner so they can settle down and catch their breath and find out how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. They simply can’t think clearly or make wise decisions while in an agitated and fight-or-flight state. The goal is to get both of you motivated at the same time, and that is quite a feat! I tell clients all the time, “It is crucial that you follow my wise advice during this fragile time or you may be ensuring that your marriage ends in divorce.”
So when couples in crisis come in, they go through the very same process you are going through now on the Marriage Crisis Manager web site. The only thing missing is that I am not looking at your personal, family and relational history, and not having a personal interaction with you. If you want that you can contact me for a personal consultation, so you really do have access to the best marriage crisis information available in this day and age.
So, the couples I see are confused about what to do about their dysfunctional marriage and are desperate to hear what I have to say. I take this very seriously because I know that, to them, their life and future is hanging in the balance. Their marriage is red hot, cold as ice, or the battery has died, and at least one person is about to walk. The questions of two anxious and emotional people are, “Should we separate? Divorce? Do marriage therapy? What’s going on? Is there hope? No hope? What’s going on? What should we do?”
I get it. That’s why I developed this unique diagnostic process you are working on right now. I tell couples that once we go through the questions, I will give them the answers they are looking for. By the end of that first session they cannot believe that someone has pinpointed them and how they are feeling so accurately. That is not because I am psychic, it is because human beings are predictable, how a marriage gets sick and deteriorates is predictable, and how couples react and respond during and after “The Straw,” that horrible moment when a spouse finally tells their partner how unhappy they are, is predictable. The marriage crisis dynamic has been studied and the way most couples react during a potential split is very similar.
I use the ARE diagnostic tool to assess whether or not marriage therapy to repair the marriage while they stay together is a viable option at the present time. I use the words at the present time because another thing that is also predictable about couples in crisis is that their feelings and emotions about whether they want to stay, go, separate, work on it, end it for good will flip back and forth, and up and down, and is an ever-changing crazy cornucopia of uncertainty. While Julio may want a divorce today and Julia absolutely does not, they may switch places several times during the entire process. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get both partners on the same page at the same time in their desire to save the marriage? Sure, and it may be possible, but right now we need to get your relationship stabilized so that you don’t do any more damage than you have already done.
The ARE diagnostic tool is the first step in diagnosing your marriage, and the second step should be the Marriage Circles diagnostic tool, which you can find by clicking here.
ARE is a concept created by the amazing Marriage & Family Therapist from Canada, Sue Johnson. Johnson created a theory known as Emotionally Focused Family Therapy, which posits that the key aspect to having a healthy relationship has to do with having a healthy and strong attachment with your partner. This means that in a relationship that is healthy and working, you would feel a rock solid sense of security in the partnership and you would feel strongly that your partner is there for you. What hurts a relationship at its foundation is if one or both partners are either avoidant of connection (you’ve heard the terms emotionally unavailable … I always describe it as a person you want connection with who keeps you at arm’s length), or anxiously insecure in seeking connection (This person would be needy and grasping, always wanting you near). Johnson’s theory has strategies for couples to move past they walls they may have up, or learn to feel secure and relaxed in relationship, and develop a strong sense of feeling open and secure with each other.
It is next to impossible to do marriage therapy with two people who do not possess the sugar, flour and eggs that a marriage needs, the ARE factor. If a couple does not have it, then we need to see if we can get them open to developing it. Here is what it is:
- Accessibility – Can I reach you? Staying open to your partner even when you have doubts and feel insecure. Wall-free.
- Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally? If your partner asks for you to connect or be there, you do it.
- Engagement – Do I know that you will value me and stay close. This means your into your partner and show it with your actions.
To me, ARE is a litmus test for whether you are open-minded to dropping your defenses and do what it takes to connect with your partner. If a couple has lost these components and a person tells me that she can’t imagine doing any of those with her partner, then that tells me one person has zero motivation to work on the marriage today. Remember, it could change later this afternoon or tomorrow, because the process of marriage crisis creates a state of chaos and constant change and uncertainty and people are so freaked out that they often pivot between extremes of I want to stay, and I want to go on a frequent basis. It’s just telling us that at this moment, a two-way conversation regarding give-and-take, negotiations and compromise cannot take place successfully.
If a person’s words, “I am done,” were solid and irrevocable and we absolutely knew that the decider would never come back, the purpose of this web site would end now. But because the deciders so often change their mind, I work to keep the union intact for as long as possible to see if we can hit that magic moment when both partners are all-in and wanting to work on the relationship.
I now would like you to take an ARE quiz to help you clarify where you stand in the process. This was written by Sue Johnson and comes from her book, “Hold Me Tight:”
An ARE Exercise
Read each question and mark True or False. To score the questionnaire, give one point for each true answer. You can complete this and reflect on it alone, or you and your partner may each complete it and discuss your answers together. If you’d like to print one, you may download and print here.
From your viewpoint, is your partner accessible to you?
- I can get my partner’s attention easily. T / F
- My partner is easy to connect with emotionally. T / F
- My partner shows me that I come first with him/her. T / F
- I am not feeling lonely or shut out in this relationship. T / F
- I can share my deepest feelings with my partner. He/she will listen. T / F
From your viewpoint, is your partner responsive to you?
- If I need connection and comfort, he/she will be there for me. T / F
- My partner responds to signals that I need him/her to come close. T / F
- I find I can lean on my partner when I am anxious or unsure. T / F
- Even when we fight or disagree, I know that I am important to my partner and we will find a way to come together. T / F
- If I need reassurance about how important I am to my partner, I can get it. T / F
Are you positively emotionally engaged with each other?
- I feel very comfortable being close to, trusting my partner. T / F
- I can confide in my partner about almost anything. T / F
- I feel confident, even when we are apart, that we are connected to each other. T / F
- I know that my partner cares about my joys, hurts, and fears. T / F
- I feel safe enough to take emotional risks with my partner. T / F
- Do both my partner and I want very much to save our relationship and are both ready and willing to do the work right now to save it. T / F
Scoring. Give yourself 1 point for each true answer. If you have scored 7 or above, you are well on your way to a secure bond, if you scored below 7, then we can say pretty confidently that right now, if your relationship is lacking the basic ingredients we need to do marriage therapy. If you answered false to the final question, then we know for certain that you are not ready for traditional marriage therapy today, but there are things you can do, and that is what this book is about!
The I-want-to work-on my-marriage-scale
Last but not least, I want you to circle the level of motivation you have for working on your marriage today:
I do not want to = 0
I absolutely will do anything and everything to work on my marriage today = 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Now, ask your partner to do the same on the scale below. (If your partner is unwilling or not available, just put in what you think he or she would say).
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Of course 10 is the number every therapist hopes to find from both partners. With that we can get a lot done toward helping your marriage and separation would be a highly premature idea. However, if one or both of you is a 5 or below, that means there is not enough wind in your sails, or motivation, to navigate through the work that we will be needing to do to get you back on course. If one person is a zero, then this would be an enormous influence toward making a decision to separate, but more on that later.
So, as you continue to gain clarity about your marital crisis, I think it will be helpful for you to understand why you chose the person you did in the first place. This information will serve as background for your decision-making process and come in handy as you decide how to handle your situation in the days and weeks to come. So, please check out the page on Why we Choose the People We Do.
 Johnson, S. Hold Me Tight, seven conversations for a lifetime of love. 2008. Little, Brown and Company. New York. PP 49-50.