As a divorce lawyer and mediator, my job is to sort through the wreckage of a marriage to help clients find a post-marriage equilibrium of safety, fairness, and a modicum of peace. I read the signs of the breakdown like reading tea-leaves. The clues are everywhere. The patterns I see repeat themselves over and over again.
The History of a Breakup
Here is a typical pattern: Two people get together. They love each other. They are, in fact, “in love”. They then get married and perhaps have children. The children occupy their attention greatly. The husband (usually) spends great time and effort in the workplace trying to earn enough money to support the family to provide a good and secure lifestyle. The wife (usually) has a less demanding schedule, but pours her part of her effort into creating a home and raising the children.
The wife begins to feel that the husband’s work is more important than her. The husband begins to feel that the wife cares about the children more than she cares about him. They spend little time alone together. They each feel abandoned by the other. Their relationship starts to suffer. They find themselves feeling alone, feeling badly used, and angry at the other partner.
Several years later … at this point, they are almost not talking to each other. Their feelings of love have turned to feelings of hatred and contempt. Many angry interchanges (some in front of the children) have occurred.
They are each ruminating about the possibility of divorce many times during each day. If you counted the times, it would probably exceed 200 each. Thoughts of divorce are obsessing them, much like the proverbial bee in the bonnet.
Why Marriage Counseling “Didn’t Work”
There were a number of reasons that this couple saw “no results” after four sessions with the marital counselor.
The couple thought results should happen in four sessions after many years of a poor marital partnership. Their full and complete effort was stymied by their obsessive thoughts. They were simply unable to let go of their private mental thoughts contemplating divorce. The couple was unable to appreciate perhaps the one single kernel of useful advice that could have turned around their marriage. They expected the marital counseling to solve everything. They could not let go of the common (really universal) idea that the problem was in the other spouse. This means, that in their view, they could “do better” with another future partner. (This is statistically not the case!)
Our hypothetical couple quits marital therapy. They each see a divorce lawyer (or jointly see a divorce mediator) to execute their divorce and destroy their marriage once and for all. The divorce lawyer or mediator does what he/she was hired to do. The marriage is ended. They go on to a highly restricted financial life, hope that their children are not too badly harmed, find another partner, and start all over again. Years later they admit that if they knew back then what they knew now, they’d have known that the first marriage was not fatally flawed. They realize that they could have worked on the first marriage, and it could have succeeded! But back then, they were young and callow, and they simply just didn’t know the skills involved for having a successful marriage.
How to Succeed in Marriage
Marriage is a very complicated art. If you ask anyone who has been married for a long time, you’ll get the response that marriage is one of the hardest things in the world. It is a learned skill. It takes patience, care, determination, forgiveness, and humility. It is as difficult as learning how to be a nuclear physicist or playing the violin. A successful marriage takes many hours and years of deliberate practice. People in long-term marriages have become expert at doing it. Although this may sound rather grim, there is a wonderful feeling between long-term spouses, and a rich shared history that can only come with the passage of time and navigating life’s many setbacks and experiences together.
So what do you newlyweds (and not so newlyweds) need to do?
Don’t let thoughts of divorce overcome you. They become an obsession which will not let you deal with the present – your marriage, your spouse, and your life together. Divorce may come, but don’t speed it up by these thoughts. Remove that bonnet with all its bees! If a thought of divorce comes into your mind, banish it. It is merely a thought, a mental fantasy. It is not something in the present. It is a made-up future.
See that the glass is half full, not half empty. Marriage is all about visualization. Appreciate the good things that come in the relationship; try to let the bad things roll off you.
Get into individual therapy. In many troubled marriages one or the other partner has emotional difficulties. Work on them. Psychological work can really produce results. Find a therapist you feel understands you and can provide helpful feedback. Find a new therapist if this is not happening for you. But remember, the therapy is there for you to gain insight and find a solution for your own problems. Also remember that therapy won’t solve all your problems. If you learn one or two things in therapy, these can be enough to move yourself from a place of stress and unhappiness. Therapy is helpful, but not a cure-all for everything.
Don’t blame the other spouse. Many spouses in a marriage in trouble overuse the blaming game. You can’t control or change your spouse’s behavior except to a very minor degree. That’s just the way things are. Accept it. Take responsibility for your own life. Own your own destiny to create your personal happiness, contentment and fulfillment. Marriage is not supposed to provide this mutual satisfaction. It is your self-actualization into fulfillment of your own separate lives that will produce the best marriage with another like-minded person, your spouse.
Use marital therapy as a resource. Seeing a marital counselor together can provide a warring couple with useful tools. Again, do not expect the marital therapy to solve all the flaws in your marriage. This is work you need to do as a couple, and also work on your individual selves. If you expect marital therapy to solve all your marital problems, you will leave the therapy thinking it is not a success and proceed to divorce court. Be grateful for the few things (even only one thing) that you might learn in marital counseling, and practice them in your relationship. A marriage proceeds and improves by tiny, incremental steps. If you make it to the next day, you have the opportunity for further change and improvement in your marriage.
Employ all the resources available. These include books, CDs, web material, and workshops. My favorite books are The Relationship Handbook, by George Pransky, and Taking the War out of Our Words, by Sharon Strand Ellison. Read the books with your spouse over and over again. Learn the techniques. Practice them. Things can and will get better.
Try Marital Mediation. Mediation is a dispute resolution technique that has worked in many business, workplace, and legal contexts. Most people know that “divorce mediation” exists. However, people are beginning to use mediation as a tool for preserving and improving their marriages. Search “Marital Mediation” and “Mediation to Stay Married” on the internet, and find someone in your area willing to work with you and your spouse. Marital Mediation can be very effective. For more information, visit my website www.mediationtostaymarried.com. Marital mediation is good for couples who are envisioning “marriage” rather than “divorce”.
Be patient. Your marital difficulties did not build up in a day. Don’t expect improvement to be immediate. Improving your marriage (and your marriage skills) will take some time. Work on it. Believe it can happen. Do everything you can. It is possible to turn the direction of your marriage. It is pretty much all in your head and within your capabilities.
Let thoughts of a happy, committed marriage be the new bee in your bonnet. You may find that you enjoy the new spousal relationship you and your spouse have forged. And you may be very thankful that you did not throw your marriage away.