in: Family, People, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #550: How to Strengthen Your Marriage Against Divorce

While the divorce rate has fallen over the last several decades, plenty of couples still don’t pass the test of time. Fortunately, the odds as to whether or not you divorce are not a matter of pure chance, but something you can improve with intentionality. 

My guest has some research-backed advice on how. His name is Scott Stanley, he’s a professor of psychology at the University of Denver and the co-author of the book Fighting for Your Marriage. We last had Scott on the show to talk about the problem with ambiguity in relationships. Today we begin our conversation discussing how marriage issues have changed since he originally published Fighting for Your Marriage in 1994 and the state of American marriage in the 21st century. Scott then shares the biggest issues he sees pop up in marriages over and over again, such as escalating arguments and avoiding conflict. We then discuss communication skills you can use to defuse these common marital conflicts, including uncovering hidden issues and establishing ground rules for arguments. Scott then makes the case that in addition to mitigating conflict, happy couples need to focus on creating positive encounters with one another. We end our conversation discussing how to grow in your commitment to your marriage. 

Show Highlights

  • What’s changed with the culture of marriage since the book was originally published in 1994?
  • What’s the state of marriage in America today? Why is the marriage rate coming down? 
  • Why people expect more from their spouse nowadays
  • The most common problems that pop up in marriage, and the problems that actually lead to divorce
  • Sliding vs. deciding 
  • Making your marriage a safe environment for connecting
  • The biggest communication problems that couples have 
  • How our issues escalate so quickly
  • What is “negative interpretation”?
  • Why do partners withdraw?
  • 3 helpful ground rules for couples to establish 
  • How to take a meaningful timeout 
  • What does a spousal friendship look like?
  • How to grow your commitment and dedication to your spouse

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

"Fighting for your marriage" book cover Scott Stanley.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. While the divorce rate has fallen over the last several decades, plenty of couples still don’t pass the test of time. Fortunately, the odds to whether or not you divorce or not are matter of pure chance, but something you can improve with intentionality. My guest has some research-backed advice on how. His name is Scott Stanley, he’s a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, and the co-author of the book Fighting for Your Marriage. We last had Scott on the show to talk about the problem with ambiguity in relationships, and that was episode number 349 if you want to check that out.

Today we begin our conversation discussing how marriage issues have changed since he originally published Fighting for Your Marriage in 1994, and the state of American marriage in the 21st century. Scott then shares the biggest issues he sees pop up in marriages over and over again, such as escalating arguments, and avoiding conflict. We then discuss communications skills you can use to diffuse these common marital conflicts, including uncovering hidden issues, and establishing ground rules for arguments. Scott then makes the case that in addition to mitigating conflict, happy couples need to focus on creating positive encounters with one another, and we end our conversation discussing how to grow in your commitment to your marriage. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Scott joins me now via Skype. All right, Scott Stanley, welcome back to the show.

Scott Stanley: Hey, thanks, I’m really glad to be back.

Brett McKay: Last time we had you on we talked a bit about … or, a lot about your concept of sliding versus deciding, and we’ll talk about that as well today, but I want to go even broader and even more in depths in some of the research, and work you’ve done with marriage. You have this great book out, it’s called Fighting for Your Marriage, original edition was published in 1994, it’s been updated a few times, and this book is based on a marriage prep program called PREP. So, what is PREP, how to get started, and what kind of issues are you trying to address with it?

Scott Stanley: So, PREP is a program that my colleague, Howard Markman, really started, founded around 1980. He and I have been working together since then on improving and refining it. It started out as a program for couples to use premaritaly and for organizations to use with couples, and it’s become much more than that. We started focusing just on married couples, and any couples, actually decades ago. So, it’s much broader now.

PREP stands for the Prevention and Relationship Education Program, and one of its distinctive features is it’s based on over 40 years of research on marriage and relationships, about what happens in relationships, how people kind of mess things up, what people can do to give themselves a better chance to really strengthen their relationship, and strengthen their marriage, and we’ve had a really good run at it.

So, that’s a bit about PREP, and the book is like the heart of the things that we teach in PREP. One other thing about PREP, it’s a program that a lot of people use in communities in terms of workshops for people to come to, to strengthen their marriages, to strengthen their relationships. So, we do a lot of different things, but our real distinction is that it’s a evidence based program to help couples do better in marriage.

Brett McKay: So, like I said in the beginning, this was originally published in 1994. Has anything changed with marriage since you published the original edition?

Scott Stanley: Well, it’s funny just to think about that question, because a gazillion things have changed about marriage, is the broader sort of context of society, and all the kinds of changes. We can come back to that in a minute, but in some ways, one of the biggest changes that’s relevant to the book, and the kinds of things that we talk about that makes our work, in some ways, even more pertinent than it was when we started, is marriage now … Well, it still has a certain definition, and people kind of have a sense of what they expect from marriage, or what marriage is. There’s a clear sense that people believe that they’re making a commitment for life, and that’s what most people want, but other than that, there’s many things that have changed about expectations within marriage, and beliefs about marriage, and beliefs about relationships.

One of the things that that’s done is it’s moved marriage from something where people just kind of … Well, you got married, and you had a script, and you had a sense, “Well, this is what we do, this is what everybody does in marriage.”, to now there’s so many things that are up in the air other than the broad framework of what it means to be committed for the longterm, that it’s moved to what we think of now as sort of a negotiation based relationship where, if people are smart about it anyway, they have to actually talk through what they are each thinking that means, what they want in their relationship, to work through expectations, because you just can’t trust anymore that everybody’s on exactly the same page. That puts a lot more pressure on the ability of couples to talk well, talk clearly, talk safely, and talk openly.

Brett McKay: I guess the big issue that pops up with all these … this negotiation based marriages, people have these factors they’re negotiating in a marriage, but they are on that old script that, “Oh, we’re in a marriage, we’re in it for the commitment, the long haul.”, but then there’s that unspoken friction that pops up.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, and some of the unspoken frictions are about expectations that people haven’t really talked through, or haven’t really clarified. This happens to a lot of people. You’re thinking you’re modern, you’re thinking you’re not going to do things the way your parents did, you’re thinking you’re like the new generation, and the fact is it’s really easy for us to settle right into what we grew up with. That may or may not have been with parents that were happily married, or successfully married, or that handled things well, and even for those that grew up with parents that were really stable, and sort of happy, there’s still maybe things about how they did things that isn’t what’s going to work in your relationship, and that’s the default if you don’t really talk things through and figure it out.

Brett McKay: So, what does the research say about the state of marriage in America today?

Scott Stanley: Well, there’s a lot of things that have changed. One is, the divorce rate’s actually come down quite a bit, but part of why it’s come down is that the marriage rate has come down. As the marriage rate has come down, part of that is people marrying later and later, and I’ll come to that in a minute, but part of what that means, part of what’s going on with the marriage rate coming down is that some of the people, historically, that would’ve married that maybe were at higher risk are not marrying now, and that’s some of why the divorce rate is down. Part of what is a giant change culturally is marriage is increasingly becoming something that mostly is reliably done by college graduates, but is less and less done by working class, and way less done by those in poverty.

One of the other changes is, of course, cohabitation’s very common, and for many it’s become more part of dating even for a short while. A few decades ago it kind of was a prelude to marriage, but for others it’s become a replacement for marriage, so that’s a big change. But I think one of the biggest changes of all is that we’ve moved to a place where people now expect more than ever in a mate. I, and my colleagues, and others I know have talked for a long time about the idea of people looking for their soulmate, and looking for this sort of perfect partner who will perfectly accept and support them. So, there’s a lot of pressure to that.

The other change that comes right along that is marriage for many has moved from being the cornerstone that you build your life on to kind of a capstone. You do it after you’ve achieved … you’ve gotten your job going, your education’s all set. These are some pretty giant changes, but I think the biggest one is just expecting so much now that there’s pretty much pressure now on a marriage to be perfect, or a partner to be perfect.

Brett McKay: Do sociologists, have they figured out or try … Do they have any ideas why we put this pressure on marriage?

Scott Stanley: There’s a lot of different theories. One person that talks about it a lot in his recent book I think came out last year, or the year before, Eli Finkel, and The All-or-Nothing Marriage, talks about this, Andrew Cherlin talked a lot about this in terms of this idea of it being a capstone. I think in general, and my favorite idea about what’s gone on, is that we’ve moved to a place where our society’s more and more focused on self. It’s more and more focused on us being a consumer, and sort of finding the perfect good, and replacing things routinely if they’re not perfect, or they haven’t stayed up.

I just got a new iPhone. Lots of people … we’re used to now sort of this replacement cycle, and this sense that you should really be able to get everything your way, and that you should be sort of completely self-actualized in your marriage so that it should be possible to find the perfect mate. There’s another angle to this that I talk about, a lot of people talk about those themes, I think partly people are looking for the perfect mate, or looking for their soulmate, the one that would never reject them and accept them and everything. Partly because the way we went through a divorce revolution through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and then really an increasing number of people just not getting married, people got used to, and sort of freaked out by, a lot of instability about marriage, and about family.

I think that partly led to people marrying later and later as a way of self-insuring, “I’m going to get my whole life together as an individual before I would join my life with another.”, and then the other piece that drops in is I think people kind of have this naïve belief that if I can find the perfect partner, the exact perfect person on the planet for me, my marriage is going to work. That’s the ultimate insurance, is I’m going to find the perfect person, and I’m just not going to pull the trigger until I find that perfect person for me.

Brett McKay: So, marriage rate is down, which has led to a decrease in divorce rate, and that has implications. We’ve had Brad Wilcox on the podcast discuss some of those bigger issues of the problems that might come up when you have fewer people getting married. But let’s talk about the people who are getting married. What problems do you see the most often with couples who are married?

Scott Stanley: So, I think there’s two kinds of things that are … There’s things that people argue about, so that list is pretty common, and it actually shares a lot with the list that people give for reasons for divorce. It’s things like … Well, for married people it’s communication, children, hassles about children is usually pretty high on the list, expectations, in-laws. Those are sort of the … money. All these are things that people have commonly argued about over the years. But in terms of how relationships actually come apart, I think there’s two dominant things, two things that are intertwined that are part of the story for marriages that are struggling.

One is a neglect and loss of positive connection over time, sort of letting that go, not nurturing it, not protecting it. The other is not handling issues well, and not handling stuff that comes up well, so that there’s this chronic undercurrent of conflict and negativity, and being on edge that just sort of erodes the sense that I can really be what I want most, which is to be comfortable and relaxed with you, and that you can be my best friend in life, and I’ll be your best friend. So, everybody’s struggling with one of those two things, and some marriages are really suffering by both of those two, neglecting the positive time together, or just not handling issues well together in a way that erodes the positive connection.

Brett McKay: So, before we get into the specific tactics that can improve your marriage, let’s talk about the overarching principles of PREP. You have five of them, what are those?

Scott Stanley: Yeah, we started talking about keys to really keeping a relationship strong maybe about 15 years ago, and I love these. For the moment, I’m just going to highlight three of these for what we’re-

Brett McKay: Sure.

Scott Stanley: … talking about today, because these are the three we focus on most. One is decide don’t slide. Now, the concept of sliding actually comes from a lot of the research that Galena Rhoades and I have done on cohabitation that we’ve written a lot about. People can find a lot about that on the web, where one of the problems that couples get into is they slide into that too easily, and then they’ve made it harder to breakup. But it’s also a great mnemonic, it’s a great idea, decide don’t slide, for just all kinds of things that affect our relationships.

For example, if I’m kind of worn out when I get home tonight, and my wife is fried from something that happened today, and we’re seeing each other later today and something sets us off, it’d be really easy to slide into a conflict, or slide into talking about some problem that we have to solve right then when that may not be the good time to do it. That may be a really bad moment to you can try to have that conversation. So, decide versus sliding. Deciding instead of sliding can be like about the everyday minor things, about getting drawn into stuff at the wrong time, and it can also be able you make decisions in your relationship, and whether you tend to sort of slide into something happening versus let’s sit down, let’s make a good decision about it so we both know what we’re doing. So, that’s one key.

A second one is really to the individual, and it’s do your part. A lot of times people get upset in their marriage, and rightfully so, I mean, this person’s important, the relationship’s important, it has a lot of effect on us day to day, but the first thing that we tend to reach for, all of us, is we tend to think about, “What can I do to get my partner to shape up? How can I change my partner’s behavior? How can I get her to handle this different, do this different, be different in this way?” Whatever it is, we think about them changing more than we think about us changing.

I know it’s a cliché, but some clichés are powerful because they’re right, that the thing we have the most control over changing is ourselves. So, at any given moment, every given day, we want people to be thinking about, “Well, what’s your part? What can you do right now to make the relationship better, to keep it strong, to stay on track?” Not be so focused on what your partner should be doing differently.

Third key, and this is really the central aspect of a lot of what we get to saying about communication, and how people handle conflict, make it safe to connect. I can’t even say enough about that. The secret of a really great relationship isn’t that your partner’s perfect, and it isn’t that you’re perfect, it’s that you’re good friends, and you have emotional safety. You have the ability to talk about anything you need to talk about, to share, and most importantly to kind of be yourselves. That you don’t have to be perfect with each other.

You can talk about things that you’re concerned about, or the things you’re struggling with, and it’s safe to connect around all the good stuff, and around some of the stuff that’s not so good in life, because the two of you are handling things in such a way that you both know that it’s safe to be closer. It’s safe to draw closer instead of push each other away. On any given day, I think we can each be mindful of things we can do as individuals that can make it safe to connect with my partner, and make it safer for her to connect with me.

Brett McKay: Okay so, decide don’t slide, do your part, and make it safe, make connections safe.

Scott Stanley: That’s right. If people actually write those things down, if they try to be more mindful of those three things any given day, any given week, any given month, and they act on one of those today or tomorrow, their marriage is going to be stronger.

Brett McKay: So, a lot of PREP is dedicated to helping couples handle conflict more effectively, communicate more effectively, but before we talk about what ideal marital communication looks like, let’s talk about the common destructive communication patterns you see pop up, that people slide into. So, what are the most common ones you see over and over again with couples?

Scott Stanley: Well, the big one, the one that we always talk about, there’s four we talk a lot about, but the one that, I think, people most … Well, everybody relates to all these actually, but the big one is escalation. There’s a number of ways you can define it, but pretty simply the idea is something little all of a sudden is led to us having this really negative, nasty, perhaps intense conflict, argument, discussion, that isn’t going well where things are getting heated. So, escalation could be sort of on the content. We started out talking about this tiny little thing.

One of my favorite videos that we’ve had of all time that we show around the danger signs in our workshops, and the workshops that people do based on PREP, this couple’s having this blowout. I mean, just this real meltdown, and we were fortunate to capture on the video the guy, sort of as this is going on, makes an unbelievable observation. He says, “What’s going on here? We started out talking about cleaning the house, and now we’re talking about me leaving.” I mean, it had escalated from something about chores, about something about not happening right about expectations, or responsibilities in the house, to talking about the whole relationship ending. So, sometimes it’s the content that is escalated way beyond where it started even to the point of threatening the relationship, or it’s just the emotional intensity has really ramped up, because something right now triggered this argument.

Brett McKay: Why does escalation occur? I mean, so how do you go from talking about chores to having to define the relationship conversation?

Scott Stanley: Well, I think what happens is … one of our favorite models, and I think one of the best things we write about, is issues and events model that we talk about. The idea is that as we move along through life, we’re moving along on the surface of our relationship, but under the surface for all of us in any of our relationships, and especially the most important ones like marriage, there is a set of issues. My wife and I, we have a set of issues, a different couple’s going to have another set of issues, that they’re sort of the chronic things that are the underlying problems that we struggle with, or that kind of keep coming around in a relationship. We could all work more on solving some of those issues, but some of them are just sort of part of the package, that things are the things that we struggle on. The common things on that level are money, and communication, and sex, and in-laws, and children, and chores, and … but different ones are more important in different ways for different couples.

On the surface of the relationship though, we’re just walking along, and there’s what we call events. So, events can trigger issues. Let’s say, this is common for many couples, money is something we struggle a lot with, or the example I gave before, escalation, or chores, responsibilities around the house is one of our common issues. Well, before that argument that day for them, something happened around chores. I mean, something came up right then that triggered that issue that’s just under the surface, and they haven’t resolved it. They haven’t learned how to talk about it well, and all the fury, and all the energy of that issue that’s just under the surface comes exploding through that event that’s triggered it right now.

So, what we’re going to try to do as a couple, which is a bad thing, is we’re going to talk about it right now. We’re not going to talk about it well, it’s going to be an argument, it’s going to be nasty, because the trigger and the issue chose the time. We didn’t choose the time. So, it’s like a minefield, and that’s one of the consequences for couples of having a lot of things that routinely sort of trigger them into escalating conflicts is they feel like they’re walking in a minefield, and they just can’t relax. So, those are the things that trigger escalation. There’s little events that happen, and we have all these issues that are just waiting to be sort of exploding through the surface of our relationship, because they’re things that we haven’t been able to deal with effectively.

Brett McKay: Some of those issues that can be triggered by an event can be hidden, like the couple doesn’t really know what the issue is. I mean, the example with the chores, let’s say the husband doesn’t want to mow the lawn, he wants to outsource that. The wife … They get in an argument, and it’s not about outsourcing, or paying … it’s more like the wife had an expectation, “Well, my dad mowed the yard, you should mow the yard too, because it shows that you’re a good dad and a good husband.” That could be the issue that triggered, or that could be the event that triggered that issue.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, and let’s just add to that. One of the things about hidden issues the way we like to talk about them, they don’t even have to be … they could be subconscious, there’s probably a lot of times that they are, but more often they’re kind of unexamined, or they unconnected, that it’s maybe obvious once somebody slows down and starts thinking about, “Well, where did the fury of that come from?” So, this is a great example, I’m glad you came back to it in that way. Suppose, for example, like you said, that he hadn’t … maybe that’s on his list. That’s one of the things he’s supposed to do, which is mow the lawn, or do something in terms of house cleaning in particular within the house. Maybe the toilets are his responsibility, I don’t … whatever it is.

But maybe let’s add to that in terms of the hidden issue level, because that’s the issue level, that’s like the chores, and have we clarified who’s doing what, and are we each doing our part to be responsible? But now suppose, not only did her father maybe used to do those things, but somehow she had encoded that deeply as that’s a sign of his commitment to our family, to mom, it really meant a lot, she noticed that, she saw it. So now what’s adding to this escalation for them might be not just it’s annoying that he didn’t do this, or that I thought we agreed on this, and he might think we agreed on that, but now it’s got this much bigger thing to it for her about the meaning of it related to the … Does that mean he’s not so committed?

Notice his comment, because what he does … When I say he says, “We talked about … Started about talking about cleaning the house to talking about me leaving.”, he’s actually also noticing there commitment came up in another huge way in terms of a hidden issue in this fight, because now the whole future of the relationship is on the table. Maybe if you typed it out, it sounds like we were talking about house cleaning, but you can really tell what the conversation has shifted to is a big, ugly, nasty argument about commitment and our relationship. That’s going to take a lot of effort to wind down now and get control of. That’s like a particularly strong and negative form of escalation when so much is involved with so much meaning.

Brett McKay: All right, so that’s escalation. Another common negative communication pattern you talk about, that I thought was interesting, was negative interpretation.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, this is actually one of my favorites if I can have favorites of negative patterns for couples, because it’s a little more subtle, it’s a little less obvious. The basic idea is that we all have beliefs that are wrong about our relationship, and we also have beliefs in any given moment that might be wrong, or we’ve sort of taken a more negative interpretation of our partners behavior, what they were meaning, why they did what they did, what it’s about, and you can see that that’s all over the example we just talked about, that that could be part of what’s going on for that couple. The fact is, that when we react to our partners, especially when there’s conflict and things are not going well, we’re not just reacting to exactly what they said, and we’re certainly not necessarily reacting to what they really meant if everything was calm and said just right. We’re reacting to our interpretation of it.

Another favorite example of mine, it’s from another couple we have on video, but this couple’s having an argument, we didn’t film them in the car, but we know how the argument went in the car. So, imagine they’re driving down the street. He’s driving, that’s pretty classic in that he’s the one behind the wheel, and he changes lanes in a way that feels abrupt and not safe to her. Back to the issues and events model, that’s an event. So, driving, he moves over, maybe he sort of gets into somebody else’s lane kind of abruptly. Let’s suppose that his driving is kind of a chronic issue for her, or for them. Here we go, that’s the event, it triggers this, but in the heat of the argument that they’re now going to have, because this event has triggered this argument, as they’re arguing about it she says, “Well, you don’t care about our safety.”

Now, the question is, is that actually likely? Does he actually not care about the safety of her, or the safety of their child? It’s not really likely. I mean, you can find people in the world, and somebody that’s listening to this right now is married to somebody who’s truly unsafe and doesn’t care about their safety, but that’s not likely actually a true statement for her to really believe about him. In the heat of the moment as they’re arguing, he says, “Well, you just want to yell at me.” How likely is it that she just thinks, “Wow, it’d be nice if we could just take a drive, because I want some time to really yell at him today. I haven’t had a good yelling time at him, so I just … What could I say today that would light him up so I could yell at him?”

But they’re each reacting, and they each say this, they each say that negative belief in the heat of the argument, which shows what the idea is behind the argument for both of them, “You don’t care about our safety.” “You just want to yell at me.”, and both those beliefs are just wrong. Now, partly, their struggle at that moment is that they’re sideways, and they have to calm things down, they have to learn to take a time-out, which is something that we teach a lot about. But there’s a general principle here that I like people to struggle with, which is this, that when we’re really continually frustrated with our partners about something, it might be that their behavior is actually really a legitimate reasonable problem, that we should be able to talk about and express. But it may also be that we have an interpretation of what they’re doing that’s unfair and not very reasonable.

Here’s where the challenge comes in. My partner, if I have a negative belief about my wife that’s pretty deep, or it’s one that affects us daily, she can’t do a darn thing to change it. She can’t do anything to change it, because humans are amazingly good at seeing what they expect to see, and disregarding all the evidence of anything else. So, if there’s a chronic issue of sort of negative interpretation in our relationship, the only way it can change is I have to be willing as an individual to ask myself, “Are there some beliefs about my mate that I have that I’m willing to think about … Well, they’re not only negative, but they might be unfair, and I’m willing to push myself to look for evidence that’s contrary to that?” That’s one of the ways to battle negative interpretations.

Brett McKay: It sounds like negative interpretations contributes to escalation, right? So, say there’s an issue that pops up, like a husband doesn’t mow the yard, right? That’s an issue-

Scott Stanley: Yes.

Brett McKay: … but the wife can have a negative interpretation it’s like, “Well, he just doesn’t care about the family, and he’s not committed.”, and that just leads to escalation.

Scott Stanley: Yep, “He’s disrespecting me, he’s whatever.” Yes, I think negative interpretations are a big part of a lot of escalation. Now sometimes escalation doesn’t have to have that, it’s just purely frustrating and annoying, and there’s nothing so much behind it, and other times you can slow it down, and think about, “Well, what was I actually reacting to that got us so sideways?” You might find a negative interpretation once you allow yourself to just sit back and think it through.

Brett McKay: I imagine one of the hard things about overcoming negative interpretations is that, especially if you’ve been married for a long time, you think you know your spouse really well. So, you think you know what they’re thinking, even though you might’ve been together 20 years, you don’t know what they’re thinking.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, and I think what’s important about that is, yeah, you might’ve actually had an unfair interpretation of what they tend to think or do about X, Y or Z this whole time, but you’ve never examined it. It’d be a great place for the do your part kind of … think about, “Well, one of my parts in this relationship is to actually push myself to think about where maybe I’m being unfair in how I view something that I’ve resented, or that I’ve been concerned about, and maybe my partner doesn’t have the motivation that I think. We could talk about that, we could talk about it openly, if we can talk safely …”, that’s an important thing for couples to learn how to do, “… but I can also push myself to really maybe think differently. Maybe I’ve had this wrong, or maybe I’ve had it right, but part of my negative interpretation is they should be able to easily change it.” Might not be that they can easily change that, so now you’ve got some challenges within yourself about how you want your marriage to go.

Brett McKay: So, a common response, or a negative response to conflict, and as you said, conflict’s going to happen in a marriage, it’s normal, but the way you respond to it is a big deciding factor whether your marriage is healthy or not, but a negative response is what you call withdrawal and avoidance. What does that look like in a relationship?

Scott Stanley: So, this is a dance everybody tends to understand pretty well in their relationship. I’m sure there’s some relationships where there’s virtually none of this, but it’s a minority of relationships. The idea is that in many relationships when there is an issue, it may not even have escalated, but it’s just somebody’s aware there’s an issue, there’s a problem, there’s something to be dealt with, or talked about, or whatever, many couples can identify with the idea that one tends to be more the pursuer, and the other tends to be the withdrawer.

Now, we can say classically it does … if you had to bet without knowing anything about a couple where there’s a husband and wife, who tends to withdraw more, yeah, you’re going to win more often if you bet that he’s the one that pulls away. But it’s not so simple in that regard, because there’s some really good research done by Andy Christiansen and colleagues at UCLA, where they showed that who tends to withdraw isn’t … it’s related to gender typical sort of dances that couples do in terms of men pulling away, and women, “We need to talk. We need to talk. Come and talk to me about this.”, or her pursuing him around the house to talk. But what they found out is that partly who pursues is related to who wants some resolution on something.

So, it may be that women are more comfortable talking, or feel more responsible on average to bring things up, but it may also be that women on average want more change in relationships. That’s not exactly a shocking thought for most people that are married. But one thing to keep in mind there is it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s the male or the female who tends to withdraw, there’s a lot of men that tend to be the pursuer with the female being the withdrawer, maybe even about one-third of the time it tends to go more that way, but the thing we like to highlight about that is it almost doesn’t matter so much who tends to be the pursuer and who tends to be the withdrawer, the important thing is to get out of that dynamic, because it’s one of the … Well, it’s why we call it a communication danger sign.

It’s one of the hallmarks of a relationship that’s not going to do well in life, and it also has negative interpretations that are partly at the heart of it, because when a couple gets really strongly into this dance where one’s really pushing and the other’s really pulling away, it’s very easy for the pursuer to think that the withdrawer doesn’t care about the relationship. It’s very easy for the withdrawer to think that the pursuer just wants to stir conflict up, or control them, or whatever. The much better interpretations there … Here’s just a couple of examples.

We think a lot of withdrawers, some of them yeah, they’re just less committed, and they’re just putting their partner off and they’re not going to deal with stuff, that happens. We think much more often, if you’ve got a partner that withdraws from you and doesn’t want to talk with you, it might be because they associate talking with fighting, and that they know that when we start talking about that, or talk about any one of these things, it doesn’t go so well, and we end up having a big, nasty conflict.

What they may be trying to avoid is not you, but fighting with you, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just you have to learn to do something different. Same with the other side, the withdrawer could really think more generously about the pursuer that well, it’s not a bad thing to want to deal with stuff, and try to deal with stuff right now instead of waiting for an event to trigger it. So, partly it’s about changing how we think about it, and then the real battle then as a couple is learning to talk more safely and openly at times when you really need to.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about what couples can do to be able to have this safe communication so you don’t have these negative communication patterns of escalation, pursue and withdraw. You talk about in the book that one thing the couple can do, and go a long way to help having productive communication about their marital conflicts, is to establish some ground rules. That can be different for every couple, but what are some ones that you found useful with your work in PREP?

Scott Stanley: So, let’s talk about three ground rules that I think are really important for couples to think about in their relationship. One’s a little more technical, but I’ll give people the idea, and we can tell them where they can see a video if they want. But the first one, and I think the fundamental one, you can see how important it is from everything we’ve been talking about, is agree to take a time-out when things are escalating, when things are not going well.

Now, time-out is one of the simplest things that we have taught forever in our materials, and I like to say to couples, “You know what, we mean simple conceptually, we don’t mean that simple always means really easy to do.”, because the whole idea of a time-out is it’s something you have to do together when things are escalating, when nothing good is going to come from what’s happening right now. You have to have a way to put the brakes on it, because you’re not going to convert it usually to a great discussion right then. Sometimes that happens, but a lot of times you’d just be better to have an agreed upon way to put the brakes on.

I like to tell couples, “Look, think about this, this is not a time-out where like you say to your three year old, ‘You need to take a time-out, there’s the corner, get to it.’ Think about a sports team. When they take a time-out, they’re not putting each other in time-out, they’re taking a time-out as a team to get their game together.” If you think about the NBA, here’s a game, and the other team’s just running up the score on you, it’s time to take a time-out, and get your act together as a team, and figure out what you’re going to do to stop what’s going on right now that you’ve lost control of that’s the best way.

The key to this, there are a couple of things that two people can talk about and negotiate, agree upon the signal, which could be verbal, could be the words time-out, could be the hand signal for time-out, could be any other word they want to use, but they both have to agree when one of says that, it doesn’t mean the other’s blowing me off, or that it’s withdrawal, it means that’s the signal that we agreed to chill, to stop, to put the brakes on, to each do the best we can at that moment to do our part to reign that in. Then the other thing is to agree that after we’ve calmed down, maybe in a day or so, they can work this out, they can decide to come back together in a couple hours, or the next evening. They can make that a key part of the decision that you’ll come back and talk about what needs to be talked about from what happened, if something does need to be talked about. They’ll come back and talk about it later when they can talk better, and things are calmed down.

Another ground rule that we recommend, and this gets to a whole communication technique that we recommend for people, and I’ll just describe it really briefly, is to use what we call the speaker listener technique. We teach a particularly structured way to communicate better, and it’s not the way people would communicate most of the time. It’s a way to try to communicate better when you either know it’s a really important conversation, or you know we need to kind of chill and bring more structure to it right now. What we encourage people to do when they’re using the speaker listener technique is to actually sit down, pick an object that they both agree is what they’re going to call the floor. Could be a pen, could be a piece of paper, could be our book, could be whatever they want it to be, but basically the idea is that you’re going to have a conversation where you make it really clear at any given moment who’s the speaker, and who’s the listener.

The floor can go back and forth, in fact, it should go back and forth a lot, but let’s say I start with the floor. I’ve got that object, I’m going to say a bit, not a ton. I’m not going to give a whole speech. I’m going to say a bit, and stop, and what the listener’s going to do is just tell me what they heard me say. Just feed it back, “Okay, so you’re really frustrated about blah, blah, blah.”, and then I’ll say a little bit more. I’m still holding the floor through all of this, because the floor says who’s the speaker who’s the listener, and then she paraphrases some more. Maybe I say a little bit more, she paraphrases. Then I’m going to pass the floor, it’s her turn. Now she’s going to say something, I’m going to tell her what I hear her saying. I’m going to be listening carefully, I’m going to try to tell her what I hear her saying. I’m paying attention, my message is off the table now because she’s got the floor.

What the floor is doing is it’s sort of telling both of us whose radio station our couple radio is tuned to right now. So right now she’s got it, and that floor can go back and forth lots of times in a good conversation. People will say, “Well, that’s so artificial.” Yeah, it is. It actually is pretty … it gets way less artificial if people practice it, but I like to say back to people, “Well, tell me what you naturally do. You don’t like artificial? Okay, great. Tell me what you naturally do.” What a lot of you will naturally do sounds a whole lot like the danger signs. So, it’s a structured way to bring a little bit of order to a conversation when you really need to do a good job and make it safe to connect. People can find out more about that, we have a video on YouTube about the speaker listener technique if they just look for the PREP channel and look for that. We have a nice 17 minute video there that does a great job at teaching that.

One more ground rule I want to highlight, Brett, because it really gets to the positive side, and in some ways I think this could be one of the most powerful things that we say to people, because it’s simple and basic. Make the time for the positive things, like fun, friendship, central connection, whatever kinds of other ways we connect, make the time, and protect those times from issues and conflict. So, people are often not making the time anymore, and then when they finally do have time, like they’re going out, or they’re just taking a walk, or they’re kind of in relax mode together, so they let things come up during that time that starts to trigger the tough stuff, and away they go, and they’ve trashed that sense of peace, and safety, and time just to be connected.

Brett McKay: So, these are great, and it seems like the first two are … first ground rules you established are geared towards prevent, or reducing those negative encounters with a couple, and that last one is there to … Or, on the outside that last one there is also there to prevent … you’re playing defense a bit.

Scott Stanley: Yes. It’s offense and defense, you’re exactly right. That last one, it’s bringing in one and two, because it’s like if you’re getting good at one and two you’re going to be good at three. You’re going to have a better chance, say … Think about this, a couple’s going to … By the way, it doesn’t have to be going out on a date, that’s just an easy example. I think a lot of people have just really great time walking around the block, or doing something together on a project. Whatever it is, it’s the time where they feel most safe together, and relaxed, and as friends, but then one thinks, “Oh, right, we’re going to have to deal with that Visa bill.” Time-out right there, just get that back out of that time, you put that in a different time where you’re controlling things, you’re deciding this is a good time to deal with things, and have times in your relationship where all that kind of stuff’s just off limits and you can relax.

Brett McKay: Yeah, don’t kill the mood.

Scott Stanley: Yes.

Brett McKay: So, this goes to this idea of research from John Gottman about this ratio for a healthy relationship, this idea of five to one, so that for every one negative interaction you have with your partner you have to have five positive feelings to keep that balance. This is rough, I mean, it’s not exact-

Scott Stanley: Exactly right.

Brett McKay: … but this goes to his point if you … just spending your time on trying to reduce or eliminate those negative encounters with your spouse can go a long way to improving the quality of your relationship, because that one single encounter can just do a lot of damage.

Scott Stanley: So, exactly right. If we’re routinely having those negatives … and a lot of the negatives they’re like little hits, and I don’t even mean violence, they’re little like, “Ouch, you just said that, or you knew that would dig, or I think you knew that that would dig.” Those little things that the negative stuff, whether it’s five to one, or 20 to one, or whatever, the idea is we are so reactive to the negative, it’s so salient for us, and it really puts us in a hole. You can think about it as like deposits, and the negatives … If you’re writing checks all the time that you can’t cover, your relationship’s going to suffer, and the importance of just having that regular making deposits, putting it in the bank for our relationship by having that downtime, that fun time, is so crucial.

I talked earlier about a minefield, and it’s a great metaphor for what’s gone so wrong for a lot of people in their marriage, because instead of feeling like, “I can be more relaxed and let down with you than anybody on the planet, that if I have to keep my guard up, because we have all these negatives we’re not managing, you’re the last person I can relax with.”, boy, if that’s your marriage right now, boy, you got to turn that around, you got to reverse that positive and that negative in a big way.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about playing offense a bit more. In one way you talk about that couples can increase the amount of positive interaction that they have is becoming the friend of your spouse again.

Scott Stanley: Yeah.

Brett McKay: What does a spousal friendship look like?

Scott Stanley: It can probably look like a lot of different ways. I think part of why it’s so important is I think it is the number one thing that people really do reasonably expect to have in their marriage. Yeah, there may be some gender things where a lot … It’s going to be true that more women than men have some other female really best friends and stuff, and the male might have sort of a more limited network on average where she is really kind of his best friend, but that’s neither here nor there. People really want like, “You are my best friend in this regard in life. We’re doing life together as friends.”

If you think about what friends do, it’s pretty different … I mean, I have a guy friend that we have lunch about every month. I mean, it’s just a great longterm friendship where … and that’s what we like to do. We’re not going out hunting, or whatever stuff, we have lunch together, and we have a reliable routine. We will talk about tech, politics, and then maybe some other personal stuff what’s going on in our lives, but we always go through tech and politics, and that’s sort of the nature of our friendship.

My wife and I have a different friendship with different things, but think about back to my friend for a second. We do this about every month, how long would we stay friends if the next time we sat down together one of us said, “I want to talk about something you said last time. You said blah, blah, blah, and I didn’t like the way you said that, or I didn’t like it that you were five …”, whatever you can imagine, something that’s sort of grinchy, something that’s sort of more conflicted something that sort of sounds a little bit more like what marriage can be like for a lot of people. Well now, it’s like, “This isn’t what I’m looking for in a friend. This isn’t what I was looking for.”

With your spouse, yeah, you got to deal with that stuff, you got to have it, but what you really want in a friend is to be relaxed, is to be able to talk about whatever, to be able to be yourself, say things, and to talk about the kinds of things that friends talk about, which are things that you’re interested in, things that are fun, things that you’re curious about. That’s the stuff friends talk about, not about all the stuff that’s conflicts of life.

Brett McKay: I imagine a lot of couples they know what that is, because they probably … when they first started their relationship it was a friendship. That’s when you’re dating, you’re on the phone talking about life goals, politics, books you’ve read, but then yeah, that life stuff, you get married, you have kids, there’s bills, that can start crowding it out and you forget how to be friends.

Scott Stanley: And that’s where both the making the time, and the protecting the time from issues and conflict comes in so important, because everything else does conspire to crowd this out. Your kid really does need stuff tonight, and needs stuff tomorrow morning, and your work is demanding, and you have to get in there, and you have to do stuff or you might not have a job. There’s probably more pressure of that sort … Maybe, I don’t know, if there’s more pressure like that than ever, but there’s a lot of pressure in a lot of ways. So, life does get crowded, and we really don’t have the time like we used to have, which makes it all the more important to make some pockets of time that work for the two of you that are reasonable in the amount of time you have.

One of the things that my wife and I do pretty often that is really good friend time is we take like half hour walk and we’ll talk about stuff. Whatever, it can be all kinds of things we’ll talk about, but that tends to be … it’s a very relaxed time. We’ve never have a conflict, or a fight, or an issue coming up during that time. I think we just sort of both know this is the time for that, and we make it happen often enough … We could make it happen more often, by the way, but that’s the quintessential essence of the friend time, is having that time where you’re connected, and you’re not working on anything, and you’re not working on each other.

Brett McKay: To have that friend time, you have … going back to that overarching principle, you have to decide not slide, because the easy thing you just said talking about you get home from work, your wife’s home been with the kids, or she’s been at work, the sliding thing would be just like, “Well, we’re just going to watch Netflix, and that’s it.”

Scott Stanley: Yep, yep.

Brett McKay: But you have to purposely decide, “No, we’re going to set aside this day, this time. It can be 30 minutes, an hour, we’re going to do this thing.”

Scott Stanley: Yeah, and that … Perfect, I’m glad you put that in there, because you have to actually make that decision where you both understand, “We’re trying to do this. We’ve decided. We’ve elevated it into something we’re not just going to let slide anymore.” Does that guarantee perfection in your marriage? No. Does that guarantee that it happens? No. But it sure ups the odds, because you’ve looked each other in the eye and said, “Let’s try to make this happen.”

Brett McKay: All right, so we’ve talked about avoiding conflicts or mitigating them. We’ve talked about increasing those positive interactions. Another aspect of this PREP program is growing commitment in your marriage. What does that look like, and what do you mean by that?

Scott Stanley: You know this from our earlier show, one of the things that I’ve done a lot of research on and thought a lot about over the years is how commitment works in relationships. You can break it down into two broad categories. There’s the things that what I call constraint commitment, are the things that sort of keep us together whether or not we want to be together. That’s not a bad kind of commitment, by the way, but it’s more of the static side of commitment. It kind of just is. You have a life together, and you build up constraints and that’s normal. It’s actually fairly healthy in some ways as long as your relationship’s healthy.

But the other side of commitment is the dynamic side. It’s the side where we can make decisions, and we can decide and do things differently. There’s a couple things that I like to focus on early too, it’s what I call dedication. It’s the part of commitment where it’s what you can choose, it’s “I want to, I’m going to act on this, I’m going to make this a priority.” Here’s two specific things that people can do to really grow their dedication, maintain their dedication, keep it going, whatever the right way to describe it is for the person that’s listening right now.

One is, is to protect the priority of the relationship, to make it a priority. We just talked about all kinds of examples about that, making the time. The thing I want to layer into that, the secret to that for many of us, if you identify with being a busy person, with a lot of things you have to do in life, and a lot of requests on your time, you’re going to find that the secret to making your relationship a priority is not only making the time for your relationship, but it’s getting good at saying no to stuff that’s lower on the list. A lot of us have trouble … We say yes to too many things, and a secret to maintaining priority in our relationship is actually saying no, and saying no to the things that are lower on the list.

The best expression this ever came from my second son before he turned six. Of our two sons, he’s the one that came from the factory sort of more than the other tuned, let’s just say less towards compliance and more toward the word no. So, you ask him to do something, he said, “No.” “Hey, would you go clean up your room?” “No.” Sometimes the no was nonverbal, sometimes the no was very verbal. But one day before he was six I said, … and this is not a good psychologist question, but I was just having some fun with him, I was like, “Hey, you’re always saying no. Why don’t you try saying, ‘Yes.’? It sounds like this, ‘Yes.’ Come on, say, ‘Yes.’ Say, ‘Yes.'” “No, no, no.” So, this sort of verbal tickling, we’re going back and forth. I asked him not looking for any serious response, I said, “Why do you always say no?” There was no pause, and he said this, this is the exact sentence, I wrote it down in my diary I keep for both of my sons. He said, “Because yes takes too much times.”

Brett McKay: That’s out of the mouth of babes. I love that.

Scott Stanley: It blew me away. I sat down for a moment, and I thought, “Wow. That’s like profound.”, because that’s the secret that many of us need to learn. Okay, the other thing about commitment, here’s something that people can do, and this will be a nice thing to focus on in terms of what people can take right out of this show in terms of something they can do this very minute. It relates to the idea that one of the hallmarks of being really dedicated in a relationship is we tend to feel good about occasionally sacrificing for our partner, doing things that aren’t maybe so much what we wanted, or what were really sort of best for us. But I can do this for him, I can do this for her, I can give a little bit here, we can go your way. There’s a give and take, and in a healthy marriage, both have that mindset, both have the give and take, both sacrifice for the other.

One of the things I like to challenge people with though is this thought that relates to sort of deciding and not sliding with regard to some little sacrifices, and it’s a task that goes like this. Take out a piece of paper, write down just a few things that you know on any given day, or at least any given week, you can do, that’s very doable, that’s easy to do, doesn’t take a lot of time, doesn’t take a lot of effort, and your partner really likes it. You know they like it, you’re not deluding yourself. “When I do this little thing she likes that. When I do this he likes that.” Think about things that fit that list. It’s small, it’s doable, it’s something I can do probably yet today, certainly yet this week, and I know she kind of likes it.

And one more thing to define this list, “I’m not really likely to do it this week. I’m not likely to do that thing. I can write out the list, I know what’s on that list, I know a few things that are definitely on that list, and I’m not really likely to do any of those this week.”, and decide to do that. Do one or two of those this week. Remind yourself next week, do one or two of those things next week. I think we all have this list where we know this works, it’s totally within my power, it’s totally doable, but I’m not likely to do it, and we can nudge ourselves, we can remind ourselves. Do more of that stuff, because that’s that stuff that’s going to make the biggest difference in your marriage day to day.

Brett McKay: I love it. Well, Scott, there’s so much more we can talk about. Where can be people go to learn more about the book, and the work you do?

Scott Stanley: So, if they want to learn a lot more just about what we do with PREP, and all the different kinds of things, the best single place they can go is, and the first thing there if they want to actually learn more about the skills and strategies, there’s a online program we have there that’s the first link they’ll see at It’s also at a webpage called It is our ePREP program. It’s an online program for PREP, and it’s a program they can do in the privacy of their home. They can work through at their own pace. It’s inexpensive, I think it’s about 25 bucks. It’s got very good research on it in terms of getting results, and it will teach a couple the kinds of things we’re talking about today, and give them ways and more information on how to avoid the negatives, how to increase the positives, and protect their relationship.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Scott Stanley, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Scott Stanley: Thanks a lot, Brett, I really appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Scott Stanley, he is the co-author of the book Fighting for Your Marriage. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere, and if you want to find out more information about PREP you can go take the online course at, and also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives. There’s over 500 episodes there, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years over on relationships, how to be a better husband, better father, personal finance, you name it we’ve got it. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code manliness to get a month free trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or IOS, and start enjoying new episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast ad free.

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