After years spent cultivating a career as a social psychologist and close to 10 years of sharing her insights on Married at First Sight, Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., knows a great deal about relationships — what makes them work and what makes them fall apart. That knowledge has come in handy as one of the experts on the hit Lifetime series, now in its seventeenth season. Schwartz, along with Pastor Calvin Roberson, has been matching couples from the very beginning, with some some success stories, some defeats, and a few truly head-scratch worthy endings. The not-so-successful stories have always kicked quite a bit of criticism and conversation online, chatter she’s used to by now. Still, Schwartz shares in the disappointment of fans when a couple with promise throws in the towel.
“Cal and I often console each other,” she tells ESSENCE jokingly. “We always start with high hopes because we think we have people who can do some magic together. We do a lot of testing to make sure that we get them right, but it’s never enough. We’ve had some massive surprises where I think some people have accused us of going for drama, but no, we know drama will come after us. We don’t have to create it.”
“It’s sad for us. And what’s really frustrating is when we think it really could have worked out,” she adds. “Sometimes it’s just a bad match and a person isn’t who we thought they were. But when we think it could have worked out, and there are plenty of those, it’s pretty frustrating.”
Schwartz believes that with the right combination of factors, including at least one party willing to begin the work to stay together, couples can overcome some big obstacles.
“There are things that can be done if at least one person has the will to do it. If both people have given up and they’re in the contemptuous phase and they’re seeing other people — if nobody is putting in any effort, it’s hopeless.” she says. “But if even one person is saying, I’m going to see this through, I’m going to do everything I can…then I still have hope for that couple.”
That is part of the inspiration behind her new book, Relationship Rx: Prescriptions for Lasting Love and Deeper Connections (out 2/13), which was written with the help of former MAFS veteran expert, Jessica Griffin, Psy.D. The aim of the work is to supply couples with the tools to salvage their relationship, if they’re willing, offering real-world couples and their experiences inside the more than 200 pages of text. The women cover the degrees of issues people have, from the minor problems, which there are “vitamins” for to see improvement, to the more serious issues, which require “medicine,” and the “CPR” level problems, where a relationship is taking its last breaths.
“A lot of couples have small problems that if not treated become corrosive and then get bigger and bigger,” says Schwartz. “But they can be treated and a lot of them are treated.”
We spoke with Schwartz about the book and picked her brain about what tanks relationships, the small but substantial practices that can turn things around, and her biggest piece of advice for couples. Here are five gems.
Leave Old Baggage Behind
“What I see is people bring old baggage, old patterns,” she says of why a lot of relationships begin to tank. “I always say, if it never worked before, why are you bringing it back again? You’ve seen this in yourself. You’ve seen this happen in relationships. Why are you bringing it back?”
Accountability Is Just the Beginning
“If a person can do some recognition, some self-accountability, some self-knowledge, something to work with, then I do believe they can be helped,” she says. “But we are pushing a ball uphill at that point.”
A “Vitamin” Remedy Turns Things Around
“An example of a smaller issue is when one person is not getting the affection they want,” she explains. “If we say, ‘Ok, hold hands when you walk. Remember to give a kiss and an embrace when saying hello,’ they really are at the vitamin level, but they reenergize and bond a couple and stop a cascade of events.”
Affirmations Go a Long Way
“You can never do too much affirmation of your partner. We all want to feel respected and loved,” she shares. “It has to be about something we like to see our partner recognize. It can be at the small level, like, “You look nice today,” because partners start forgetting to tell each other that. You need someone to notice and recognize that. It’s not cheesy, it’s the right thing. A lot of the time we think it but don’t say it, but the other person needs to hear it. Or if a person says something smart or interesting, say, ‘That’s an interesting observation,’ instead of just accepting it. They want to know that something they said registered.”
“It’s all hollow if you don’t mean it,” she adds. “If you focus on your partner and don’t take them for granted, it allows for you to do that. And show that you have your partner’s back. It serves a purpose and you’re building them up. You have to demonstrate to your partner that you respect them, you notice when they look good, you are listening to what they say and congratulate them on what they do. That way, when you have to say something to your partner that’s critical or needs fixing, it’s done in a foundation of affirmation. That way they can take something that’s constructive but needs a change better from you.”
Her Biggest Piece of Advice for Couples
“Be kind to one another. Life is hard and it presents a lot of challenges. It’s going to take some kindness and some grace from your partner to get through the rough stuff,” says Schwartz. “It’s going to take kindness, flexibility and some grace to get through the rough stuff. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go through the rough stuff.”
Relationship Rx is now available wherever books are sold.