A long time ago in a world far, far away, the word "divorce" was unspeakable. Married couples were supposed to fight it out, put up with the hardships, and, most of all, stay together
"People think that if they change partners, their problems will go away," says Jill Fein, an LCSW, Certified Imago Relationship therapist, and facilitator of Dr. Harville Hendrix's "Getting the Love You Want" couples workshop in Chicago. "So they change their partners, but end up keeping their problems."
"A marriage that is not based on love, mutual respect, equality, accommodation to each other's needs, friendship, caring, empathy, forgiveness, and relevant communication not only cannot be saved, but should not be saved," says Mel Krantzler in Divorcing. "A loveless marriage that makes you feel less than human is not worth saving. If you are feeling this way, however, make certain, for your own subsequent peace of mind, that you are not misinterpreting your situation."
The warning signs The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) released a study last year identifying the top five reasons people get divorced: financial difficulties, poor communication, lack of commitment, mid-life crisis or major change in priorities, and marital infidelity. They have also identified several other important reasons for marriage failure, such as physical abuse, substance abuse, or gambling.
These warning signs are all inter-related. Perhaps financial difficulties are causing problems in a marriage, and one spouse (the husband, in this example) refuses to talk about them, choosing to submerge himself in his work rather than deal with problems on the homefront. Now his wife feels abandoned, and perhaps she finds the support and attention she needs from another man and starts an affair. Of course, real-life relationships are rarely as simple as this example; every situation and couple is different.
Start here to see if your relationship is salvageable:
- Money Woes
- Communicating With Your Spouse
- What's Your Commitment?
- Overcoming Major Changes or Infidelity
- Getting Back Together
- When It Has to End
Money WoesTo most people, money is a powerful symbol attached to our deepest needs and yearnings. To some, it symbolizes security: if you have "enough," you'll always have a roof above your head and food on your plate. To others, it might mean love: "if my partner lavishes expensive presents on me," they believe, "it means he or she must love me a lot." Still others equate money with control: those who have money can and will control the destinies of those who don't. It's easy to see how the failure to understand what money means to your spouse could drive a wedge between you.
Trish and Pete met as undergraduates at Columbia University. They married shortly after Trish graduated
"Pete loved the academic life so much he didn't care that we were living in a dark basement and eating macaroni and cheese three times a week," she says. "We had lived like that for seven years, and I simply couldn't stand to live that way any longer." Pete was shocked when Trish left him. "Sure, we had debts, but we'd have been able to repay them after I started work as a lawyer," he says. "It's not like we were starving or homeless, but Trish always acted as though we were."
How could the same circumstances look so completely different to Trish and Pete? The answer probably lies somewhere in their pasts: they developed their attitudes about money from watching their parents manage
If you're like most couples, you probably didn't have a frank talk about money before you got married. You may have had no idea what your partner's assets and liabilities were
The first step is to ask yourself some questions about money: how you feel about it (scared, helpless, powerful); what your financial goals and dreams are ($10,000 in the bank, maximum pension plan contribution, being debt-free); what material things are important to you (a house, a car, two vacations a year) and what you can live without (a house, a car, two vacations a year). Then you need to sit down with your spouse and have an honest discussion about money, sharing the thoughts and feelings each of you identified in the first step.
This is where communication skills come into play: money is always a touchy subject, and both of you will have to manage your participation in the conversation to avoid having it degenerate into a nasty fight. Avoid phrases such as "You always..." or "You never..." Absolute statements like these put all the blame on your partner, who will then retaliate
Communicating With Your SpouseHow can you tell if your marriage can be saved? A good sign is that both spouses are willing to communicate
Some conflicts can be solved, but if your marital troubles are deep-rooted, be prepared to work long and hard. The process may be frustrating, but if you're both working toward the goal of staying together, your hard work will be rewarded. It can be useful for couples to continue marriage counseling during their separation, she adds, noting that it usually takes six months to a year of counseling for couples to decide whether their marriage can be healed.
Communication experts such as Dr. John Gray and Dr. Deborah Tannen believe that men and women have such different conversational styles that confusion and misunderstandings are more or less inevitable. "Recognizing gender differences frees individuals from the burden of individual pathology," writes Tannen in her book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. "Many women and men feel dissatisfied with their close relationships and become even more frustrated when they try to talk things out." She admits that communication styles don't explain all the problems between men and women, and that relationships can be destroyed by "psychological problems, true failures of love and caring, genuine selfishness." But she also believes it's crucial to learn to speak each other's language
What's Your Commitment?Some people like the idea of marriage, but not the work that's involved in keeping a relationship alive and healthy. "Some people are naive about the alternatives: they have an almost romantic view of divorce," says Jill Fein. "They don't realize that they're going to be the same person attracted to the same kind of people after their divorce."
Love and marriage are hard work. And here's a fact no one likes: even great marriages require constant nurturing. You and your spouse have to actively participate in your marriage: to take time every day to have meaningful conversations with each other; to listen with the same intensity as when you were courting; to say "I love you" often; to touch, hug, and show affection; to tell each other how you feel about your marriage; and to talk about your goals for the marriage and your lives.
Showing respect and love for each other through actions and words is important in our hectic lives. Our days are full of stress, and everyone deals with it in his or her own way. Work adds a lot to that pressure because it's such a large part of our lives
"Working differing hours and evenings and on weekends leads to the conclusion that the career has taken precedence over one's spouse," says Krantzler. If you're a workaholic, think about cutting your office hours from 80 hours per week to something more reasonable. Make regular dates with your partner
Sometimes spending too much time taking care of your own "needs" can cause problems. You (or your spouse) can get overly immersed in a hobby or recreation that you enjoy so much
Walk your talk Laurie Grand is encouraged if she sees a couple honoring each other's requests for behavior changes
Grand suggests asking yourself: "What are my goals?" "How do I want my life to be?" and "What do I want to be different?" Make a list of specific things you'd like your partner to do
Overcoming Major Changes or InfidelityWe all know what a stereotypical mid-life crisis is: the red sports car, an affair with a younger lover. It's usually associated with men, but women go through mid-life crises, too. As men and women reach middle age, they start to evaluate their lives, asking themselves: What have I done with my life? Why am I still working at this job I've hated for 20 years? What am I going to do now that I've been laid off? What am I going to do now that the kids are at college and/or married and on their own?
When people make a major change in their lives, it will inevitably affect their loved ones
Marital infidelity "Believing something is wrong with a marriage because the romance has died often sends people searching outside the marriage to fill the void," says Michele Weiner-Davis, the author of Divorce Busting. "The newness of the affair is likely to offer the kind of excitement that has been missing. This misleads the searcher into thinking that his or her spouse was the source of the problem after all. However, the real disillusionment comes when the fire of the affair inevitably fizzles out, a realization which often comes too late for the marriage."
"If we want passion to last, there has to be monogamy," asserts Dr. John Gray. "Some men say that they want open relationships, to be able to fool around, but there's no way they can do that and still have great passion with their wives. Give me a break! If you had great passion with your wife, you wouldn't need to fool around. It's as simple as that."
Unless you take steps to keep it alive, the romantic flame tends to go out. "When spouses grow very accustomed to each other, they can take each other for granted," says Weiner-Davis. "They stop flirting, stop giving compliments, and stop taking notice. Paramours, on the other hand, are good at doing these things. They make spouses feel attractive, sexual, and understood again.
Getting Back TogetherAfter a seven-year marriage, Don and Alicia had grown apart
She started feeling resentment toward Don, and their lines of communication broke down. Wanting to mend their relationship, they tried marriage counseling for six months, but "the only way to get him to go to counseling was threatening him with divorce," she says. They went once a week for about three months, but it didn't work. "He was in denial. He kept asking what was wrong with our marriage and didn't understand where my hostility came from," Alicia says.
The situation got worse. Living together proved to be too "tense" so Alicia moved out of the house and in with a friend. While Alicia considered this action a trial separation, Don considered it a permanent step despite the fact that Alicia left behind most of her belongings.
"We didn't see each other for months, and I missed him terribly," Alicia recalls. Luck brought them together when they bumped into each other at a party, and decided to try reconciling. It still didn't work, however, because Don was still angry at Alicia for leaving. "He felt the need to punish me with words," she says. "We argued a lot. It was like being in a torture chamber for three months." Despite "duking it out" with each other, they still felt that there was hope for their marriage. "Pleasant memories constantly came to me," Alicia explains. "I came to realize what a wonderful man Don is, and how much we had in common in terms of attitudes, interests, and values."
Reconciling was a "natural progression" for them, and they eventually worked out their problems themselves.
When It Has To EndWhile every effort should be made to save your marriage, there are relationships that are beyond repair: for instance, when physical, emotional, alcohol, or drug abuse is present in the relationship. If the abuse is serious and/or chronic, you need to seek legal help in addition to therapy.
Not every irreparable marriage is the result of abuse. Some couples have problems that just can't be worked out, no matter how hard they try. Yasmine had to face the reality that her husband Alex was gay. She started noticing trouble in her six-year marriage when their once-mutual goals slowly began fading away, and Alex began withdrawing from their relationship. For example, he started refusing to join her on their regular weekend trips to their cottage, opting instead to go out on his own with his new friends
Alex initially denied that there were any problems with their relationship. Yasmine knew the relationship was in trouble, although she didn't know what the actual problem was. Yasmine and Alex tried to save their relationship through counseling, but although Alex still hadn't come to terms with being gay, he already knew that he couldn't experiment with his new life within the confines of a heterosexual relationship. Counseling couldn't save their marriage, but it did help the couple communicate better than they had before. "It gave us a forum to speak freely and have our discussions mediated. With a counselor there to interpret it for me, I was able to finally understand what he was going through," she recalls. To help herself cope with her separation, Yasmine also joined a divorce support group.
Accept the challenge If you believe your relationship is worth saving, you'll probably need help and support to do it. You and your spouse have grown as individuals since you made your commitment to each other, and your relationship has grown, too; if both of you are willing to nurture and care for it, you can end up with a rewarding relationship that's even stronger as a result of its brush with divorce.
Divorce Magazine provides advice and support for those coping with separation, divorce, and remarriage. For more tips and stories, visit www.DivorceMagazine.com.