Schwarzenegger, divorce, and an old joke about directions


This week we bring you another fantastic guest post by Imago Executive Director, Tim Atkinson that originally appeared on The Relationship blog.

The break-up between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver reached such epic proportions of tragedy last week, that I prefer to start this post with a joke.

I was visiting Washington, DC, and got horribly lost.  I asked a passer-by directions to the White House.  He looked me up and down and finally said “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

A colleague and I were just talking about a study that’s due to be published soon, which says that people who get divorced usually don’t get any happier as a result.  So imagine yourself in the situation of the ex-Governor of California and his delightful actress wife, with their 25 year-old marriage and four children.  I guess you heard the news, it turns out that there’s a fifth child, by another woman, born over 8 years ago.  Ms. Shriver only just heard about it.  You can read all about it in the NY Times and probably every other publication in the country.

It’s a pretty spectacular “infidelity” story.  But for most of us, lacking the amazing thick skin and tolerance of major celebrities, it only takes an affair, and perhaps a little lying to our partner, to put us right at the kind of relationship low-point that appears to be a “Terminator” (groan!) for this couple.

Now, if you believe the stats that divorce isn’t going to make you happier,  I would say that if you want to be happy in life, you probably don’t want to start off at the point where your partner is furious that you were unfaithful, and has lost complete confidence in you because you lied about it for a long time.  Or even a short time.  Although if you are in that position we did recently publish an article in YourTango that can show you the way forwards.

I am talking from first-hand experience, from my first marriage.  I did divorce my first wife after she was unfaithful, and although the story wasn’t as spectacular as California’s previous first family, it felt pretty awful to me.  And the divorce was followed by a ghastly period in my life, until my second wife rescued me from misery.  I’ve learned a great deal about couples therapy since then, which is probably why I’m enjoying my marriage more each day, after over a decade of wonderful experiences.

Flickr / orvalrochefort

I think there is a simple lesson from the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Don’t ever let if get that bad.  I’ve been surveying couples for quite a while now, and it seems to me that many of us have quite a high tolerance for relationship problems.  We will unhappily slog on, putting up with coldness, distance, anger, fights and all the rest of it, believing somehow it will sort itself out somehow.  Meanwhile things get worse, and that’s when people get vulnerable to a kind word from an attractive, caring person, who provides the attention and admiration that they are missing from the marriage.

Who can blame a partner for seeking the love they need elsewhere, if they can’t get it from their spouse?  But if you want to be happy, and most of us do, it just doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about it.

Sadly for many couples, they don’t actually see much alternative.  I surveyed a couple of hundred visitors to our website, and asked them why they were a bit hesitant to try out couples therapy.  It turns out that most people I surveyed are worried that their relationship is beyond hope, because somehow they are with the wrong partner.  They see therapy as a process which will just stir up all sorts of hidden problems, and make things worse.

Gosh – there has to be some good news here somewhere.  And there is!

There are hundreds of thousands of couples, who through Imago, discovered that they really did get it right when they fell in love with their partner.  When people fall in love, we don’t get it wrong.  We’re attracted to our partner for very real and important reasons, often closely connected with our past, and our emotional needs.

Here’s another piece of good news.  Practically every couple goes through some kind of struggle together – we call it the power struggle.   The reason that’s good news, is because if you are in a struggle with your partner, it means that you are just like the rest of us.  If your struggle is harder or more challenging, then it might mean the forces that attract you are stronger too.  And if your energy has gone flat, and the relationship feels dead, it might simply mean that you are the kind of people who tend to protect yourselves against difficult emotions.

So let’s revisit the old joke about directions.  If you want to be happy, try to avoid having to start by picking up the pieces after infidelity.  If you want to be happy, a great place to start is where you first find you are having problems in your relationship.

Flickr / Dano

Your relationship problems are the direction arrows to deeper love and more connection.

Now when I read sentences like the one above, I often get a bit worried.  Maybe it sounds a bit too optimistic?  A little too hopeful?  Unrealistic?  Impractical?

Not in Imago.  Imago is all about going underneath the problems and frustrations in your relationship, and finding out what is really happening at a deeper level of emotional need.  It’s a non-judgmental process, no-one gets blamed, or comes out as the bad guy.  You come out feeling good, and finding ways to live your life in a richer way.  It’s an amazing experience, getting to know your partner on a deeper level.  But please, if you want to be really happy, try it out when the problems first come up.  Don’t let yourself get to a place where divorce seems unavoidable, because the chances are breaking-up won’t make you happier.


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