When I was in grad school, my dad generously offered to give me his old car. All I had to do was drive 56 hours there and back to pick it up. So, during fall break, I set out on a road trip with my boyfriend and my mom, blithely unaware of what could go wrong.
Here’s one thing that went wrong: We didn’t understand South Dakota hunting seasons. Turns out, pheasant hunting is a big deal in those parts in November. Every hotel we stopped at had a “no vacancy” sign and a parking lot full of trucks loaded with crates of baying hunting dogs.
As midnight approached, the only place left for us was the South Dakota version of the roach motel from Schitt’s Creek. We slept in our clothes. If we had hats or anything else we could use to provide a barrier between our faces and the pillows, we used it. The doors were flimsy and didn’t lock securely — my mom slept in a chair shoved up against the door. Nobody slept soundly, and our skin prickled with imaginary cooties. As soon as the first glimmer of dawn broke on the horizon, we loaded up and were out of there.
The next day, we arrived safely, and I got my car and eventually married my boyfriend, so our stay is a story that we still like to tell — but it was hell to live through.
The experience of staying in a “roach motel” is an image used by world-renowned relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman, and looking back, I can see that my husband and I spent more than just a single night in one.
For a time, our marriage was in crisis mode. We didn’t have any mentor couples we could rely on for advice. We didn’t have any local counselors we trusted not to waste our time in merry-go-round conversations we had already spent hours analyzing on our own. We were stuck and tired.
The depressing irony is that we loved each other deeply but didn’t know how to make our relationship anything more than a seemingly useless tug on our heartstrings. We kept falling into communication snares and deep resentment patterns.
When we had reached one of the lowest points in our marriage, I finally prayed and then searched online for help. That’s when I discovered the Gottmans, two amazing psychologists who work in a “love lab.” Over the years, they recorded thousands of hours of physiological and psychological data from couples communicating together. They discovered key, verifiable emotional patterns in what makes intimate relationships work. The Gottmans have honed their conclusions to the point that within 15 minutes of observing a couple, they can predict with 91 percent accuracy whether a relationship will stand the test of time or fall apart.
As my husband and I read their book, What Makes Love Last, the image of the roach motel for relationships hit us hard. We knew the discomfort they described intimately. It starts when a couple no longer gives each other the benefit of the doubt in their daily interactions. Fear, mistrust, contempt, competitiveness, stonewalling, criticism — it’s a negative emotional spiral nobody wants to get trapped in, yet few know how to get out of on their own. Thousands of couples end up spending years in the roach motel.
Most traditional marriage therapies give you a long list of things you are not supposed to do. In contrast, the Gottmans spotlight things that a couple can do to build positive equity into their relationship — all based on what they observed from successful, real couples.
These practices didn’t take our stress away, but they taught us as a couple how to process it well. They didn’t magically stop us from fighting (the Gottmans actually think most conflict is healthy) but they did teach us how to fight with respect and dignity. Fundamentally, these habits taught us how to invest in our relationship to build a safeguard against the hard times that inevitably come with life. We began to build trust — over time, we wasted less and less emotional energy in the roach motel.
One of my deepest regrets is that we didn’t find the Gottman principles sooner. I wish I could slip a book under the arm of the younger me as she raced down the aisle after getting married. It would have saved us years of deep mistrust. But I’m glad we found this research when we did — it saved our marriage.