When Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver first announced their separation, it left a lot of people wondering what went wrong in their marriage. We have since come to learn about the former governor of California’s infidelity, but that isn’t the only reason that good marriages go bad. So we turned to relationship guru Bree Maresca-Kramer, M.A, the author of It’s That Simple! [one for men and a separate book for women] – who has been counseling couples for more than 10 years — for some answers.
“The major reason is couples stop talking about what really matters,” says Maresca-Kramer, who is also a pioneer in the personal growth movement. “They allow their relationship to become robotic or business-like and they let go of the intimacy, the passion, the romance, and the connection, which is easy to do. It takes work to not do that.”
In this exclusive interview for eHarmony, Maresca-Kramer shares her thoughts on why people cheat, the signs that a marriage is in trouble, when divorce is the answer and more.
What really breaks up a marriage?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: I would say what breaks up a normal marriage is that a couple stops talking about what really matters and they start talking about the function of life, like the bills, the groceries, the kids and the work schedule. And they stop trying. It almost becomes a business relationship. They let go of the romance, the passion and the intimacy of the marriage. There is also spousal neglect, which basically means they don’t make each other a priority. There are financial stressors, especially right now with what is going on. There are sexual problems and ignorance — ignorance meaning that they don’t have the right problem-solving skills.
When couples don’t have problem-solving skills, hurt and resentments build up. I see this as one of the greatest destroyers of all marriages because you can have a lot of little, tiny, built-up resentments. It could be something like: “He threw the towel on the floor and I asked him to pick it up. He forgot and did it again.” It is a little one, but over time, the partner starts taking it personally, thinking, “If he loved me, he would stop throwing the towel on the floor. He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t care about my feelings.” It starts building, building, building and then, when there are unresolved issues in the relationship and they don’t have the skills to solve it, it keeps piling on hurt and resentment on top of each other. Then, it gets to a point where the couple almost can’t talk about anything without it becoming an issue or a fight.
I also think they forget the wonderful things about each other that brought them together and why they fell in love. They end up focusing on the negative things. So if their partner is doing 10 great things and three negative things, they start focusing on the negative things and those become bigger. They let go of all the great things and don’t see those anymore.
Is that why one of the partners might stray? Because these days, it is not just the men that cheat – women also cheat.
Bree Maresca-Kramer: Yes, they do. It is just not talked about. I believe both sides are straying because their needs are not being met in the relationship. We are in such an instant gratification society that we want to feel good. And, if we are not feeling good in our marriage, then we are going to look for ways to feel good outside of the marriage instead of addressing the issue with our partner.
For instance, you can be at work and have had a little grumble with your spouse, when your co-worker at the water cooler says, “You look great today.” It can start as easily as that. You get a compliment and it feels good, so then, you start going into the situation not thinking you are going to have an affair, but thinking, “This feels good.” Then you start opening up to the person and having an emotional affair first — sharing your intimate, emotional self with the person. Then, it leads from there.
What is the first sign that there could be trouble in the marriage?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: The No. 1 thing is if your partner stops talking to you. That is a red flag. Pay attention. I always say if you are fighting that is a good sign because if someone doesn’t care anymore, they are not going to fight with you. If they stop talking, pay attention, get in there and have effective communication, which means really address the issue of what is going on. Also, when you start to see that the physical intimacy, not just sex, but holding hands, kissing, hugging, lying next to each, and, of course, sex, if these things start disappearing that is another sign. If you cannot have a discussion – if it automatically explodes into a fight – that is a huge sign. When you start seeing one or both partners taking themselves for granted — meaning they are no longer trying to look good, they wear sweatpants, no makeup, or the husband is not shaving on weekends and they look like bums — that is a sign. Another big one, especially for couples with children is letting the children get in the way of the relationship. I always say the relationship has to be the CEO. That has to be tended to first because that is what is running the ship. If that is OK, then the family is going to be OK. When that falls apart, the whole family goes down.
It is easy to say that, but how do you address the issues?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: It depends on the issue, but I like to say you want to have clarity of message, knowing what you are trying to say to the person. You want to understand who you are speaking to, so if you are speaking to a man, you are going to say it one way. If you are a man speaking to a woman, you are going to say it another way. Your delivery and the style of how you are going to deliver that message also matter. You want to use your “I” statement. When we start communicating from an attack position: “You did this” … or a projection position: “You did this because you… this is going to happen… you made me mad… or you hurt me,” it immediately puts the other person on the defensive, so no communication is going to occur. It is just going to be a dysfunctional fight.
If you start with the “I”: “Honey, I’ve noticed that we’re not talking. I really miss you. I would love to schedule some time so we could talk and reconnect.” Enter it softly like that. Don’t go barreling at them with issues. That is going to turn anybody off. Just go gently into the conversation and use the proper communication skills, which everybody needs to learn.
At what point does somebody like you come in? When should a couple seek professional counseling?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: It is when there is a lot of hurt, a lot of pain and one person is halfway out the door and they are looking to say that they are doing counseling as a last-ditch effort.
I recommend counseling or coaching when things are going good as a maintenance or as a tune-up. But when you are at that final place – and I do get couples at that time – the first question I get is: “Can we save this? Is it too far gone?” I say it is never too far gone as long as you have two people who are willing to do the work. It takes work to heal all the pain and hurt that have brought them there. But it is absolutely, positively possible to heal it.
What should you look for in a partner before you get married to know if you will be long-term successful?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: You want to definitely be in love and have that passion and attraction. But in addition to that, you want to have a high level of compatibility, which means you like the same things and your life goals and your dreams are on the same page. It is not impossible for people who do not have a high level of compatibility to have a good marriage; it just means they have to work a lot harder than a couple who has a high level of compatibility. It is like your friends. You are going to chose friends who like to do the same things because it makes it easier in the friendship.
Opposites don’t attract?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: They do attract. They are like this sparkly, glittery new item. Look at the new toy. Isn’t that neat? But if compatibility isn’t high enough that is going to start affecting the relationship. If the partners don’t address it, it will end up damaging the relationship.
So the things that may initially attract you could be the things that you later obsess about?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: Right. “If he really loved me, he wouldn’t make me move to Arizona. We would get to stay in New York.” “If she really loved me she would have a baby … or our third baby, but she doesn’t want a baby.” Things like that. I think the major life decisions — things like finances, children, religion or faith — these are huge things that you want to be on the same page about … at least in the same chapter, because these are things that can really tear people apart.
So, at what point do you turn to divorce as a solution?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: I believe in my 15 years of working with people, you want to try every possible solution first, which always starts with willingness. Then, I always suggest a lot of education, relationship help books and then, of course, some counseling and time. It takes time to correct and change dysfunctional behavioral patterns and then it takes time to heal the hurts and the resentments.
I like to work with my couples to rebuild the relationship by actually having them start dating again. We start slowly by courting and dating to rekindle the romance, passion and love. That formula seems to really work. If you do all that and you still have couples who at the end are just not working, then that is the point where you say, “OK. I have tried 100 per cent. There is nothing else I can do.” Then we work on transitioning the relationship from marriage to what the relationship is going to be. Then we focus on getting through the divorce or separation process with as much understanding and compassion as possible and as little damage and heartbreak as possible. That is easy to say and extremely hard to do. Especially when I am working with couples with children who are divorcing. I want to make sure that the parents are conscious of what is happening with the children and how it is impacting them, how to transition the family unit into two happy homes. If there are no children and it is just a couple, how do we move past this and really learn gratitude for what we did share, honor what we had together and now transition through love to an acceptance of we are moving into a different part.
How do you handle a stressful event and get closer as a couple as opposed to being pushed apart?
Bree Maresca-Kramer: I would say No. 1 is having a team-oriented approach. What happens with couples is when a big stresser comes along, instead of uniting together and saying, “OK. We are a united team and we are going to handle this together,” they end up allowing that stresser to cause a divide in the relationship and they start turning on one another. If you were on a sports team and one of your players was down, we help that player; we encourage them because we know that we need them to win the game. It is the same thing if we treat our partner as if we were a team. The team is our marriage and winning is staying together happily. How do you do that? It is about staying conscious and making the commitment to: “This is what we are going to do.” What I mean by staying conscious is: “I am going to be aware of myself. I am going to be aware of my feelings and my actions. I am going to stay conscious of this so I do not act out the stresser on to my partner.” The goal is a thriving, happy marriage.
The getting closer part – in addition to staying consciously aware of yourself, your feelings, your words and not acting out on your partner – is sharing with your partner what is going on.
I get a lot of questions with what is going on with the economy and it really has hit everybody across the board: “How do we not let this destroy our relationship?” If we share our feelings and our vulnerabilities with our partner, that works. If you are stuffing the stress and not sharing about it, what is going to happen is you are going to explode at your partner. It could be something like: “Honey, I am feeling very anxious about our finances,” vs. something like, “Why can’t you make more money?” Those are two very different statements. But if you look at the deeper meaning behind “why can’t you make more money?” — it is fear.
It is really sharing the vulnerabilities of what is going on with each person with their partner. That is how the bond becomes closer. Instead of dividing and attacking each other, you unite and share your raw feelings. When we come from our heart and our truths, it is always received well. When we come from fear and anger that is never received well. Coming from a gentle heart place and a truth place is going to help strengthen the bond.