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Notes on Avoiding Divorce

Some time, sooner than you may think you will, you may find yourself in a situation where your marriage has turned inside out. It’ll hurt worse than you’ve ever known before and you’ll try desperately to hold on, only your initial reaction may in fact be exactly the wrong thing to do. And you’ll step back and try to figure it out, and nothing will make any sense, until you swallow your ego and look back at yourself from your spouse’s eyes, and get some sound advice from friends, therapists, or in this case, perhaps by reading a blog entry that quotes a book.

The following are some of my dog-eared passages from “The Divorce Remedy” by Michele Weiner Davis. I’m transcribing them here since they strike me as sufficiently interesting to share, and because after I transcribe them I can flatten out the pages. A nice book shouldn’t live its life with permanant dog-ears. In all likelyhood, you are not in a crisis at the moment, but if the poop ever hits the fan, maybe you’ll recall that there’s some knowledge to turn to . . .

Divorce Stinks

Now, after three decades of our social experiment with rampant divorce and disposable marriages, I know it isn’t a matter of people keeping their marriages together because they can, it’s a matter of people making their marriages work because they should. Divorce stinks! Why? Recent findings about the long-term effects of divorce speak for themselves.

The book then goes on to explain many of the reasons why people tend to fall into what Weiner calls “The Divorce Trap.” Among them:

Well Meaning Friends: The Biased Shoulder

When you share your unhappiness with loved ones, what they hear is your side of the story. Even though your feelings about your spouse and marriage are valid, they are, nonetheless, biased. Needless to say, if your spouse were in the conversation, the story about your marriage would take a not-so-slight different turn. But the people who love you don’t care about objectivity; they want you to feel better. Although this makes perfect sense, the end result is that the people in whom you are confiding offer potentially life-changing advice without a complete set of facts. If you follow that advice, you may create an even bigger rift in your marriage.

The Walkaway-Wife Syndrome

Although divorce offers the illusion of happiness to people of all ages, races, and personality types, there is one group that is particularly susceptible to the sounds of the divorce siren. It’s women. Approximately two thirds of the divorces in our country are filed by women. What’s going on here? Why are so many women throwing in the towel?

In the early years of the marriage, women are usually the primary caretakers of the relationship. They’re the ones who are doing a daily temperature check: “Have we had enough closeness today?” “Are we spending enough time together?” “Do we feel connected emotionally?” In the answer to these questions is, “Yes,” life goes on. If not, women press for more closeness. They tell their husbands, “You don’t value our relationship anymore.” “We never do anything together.” “Why do you always put work ahead of me?” Often, instead of recognizing their wives’ needs, men simply feel as though they are being nagged and withdraw, emotionally and sometimes physically.

Because of this lack of response or even hostility, women become frustrated. They try another approach: complaining about their partners’ lack of involvement about everything else in their lives . . . Although they are still only trying to get their spouses’ attention, men recoil big time. (I’ve never met a man who moves closer to his wife as a result of being “nagged,” no matter what his wife’s intentions!) After months or years of negative interaction, women finally give up. They tell themselves, “I’ve tried everything. Divorce has got to be better than this. I’ll find somebody who cares about me. Even if I don’t, I’m so alone in this marriage, I can’t take it anymore. I know I’ll be happier without him.” And with that, they plan their escape.

. . . following her decision, the wife is no longer trying to fix the marriage. She stops complaining. To her, this surrender to the inevitable is definitely a bad thing. To him, well, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the husband thinks. He’s thrilled! She’s off his back. She must be happy again, or so he thinks and he proceeds with business as usual. Business as usual, that is, until . . . her obviously devastated husband replies “I had no idea you were unhappy! Why didn’t you tell me?” . . .

The tragedy of this situation is that this is the point at which most men finally understand the depth of their wives’ unhappiness. They are finally ready to do the kind of soul-searching that would make having a great marriage possible. They are willing to do back flips to keep their marriages together. But by that time, most women have built a wall around themselves, one that is impervious to men’s efforts to change. It’s divorce, full speed ahead.

I’m convinced if more women knew the truth about divorce, they might not be so quick to dismiss their husband’s offers to become better people and partners. They might actually stick around long enough to find out that their husbands really mean what they say about changing.

The Marriage Map: Stage 3–Everything would be great if you changed

In this stage of marriage, most people believe that there are two ways of looking at things, your spouse’s way and your way, also known as the Right Way. Even if couples begin marriage with the enlightened view that there are many valid perspectives on any given situation, they tend to develop severe amnesia quickly. And rather than brainstorm creative solutions, couples often battle tenaciously to get their partners to admit they are wrong. That’s because every point of disagreement is an opportunity to define the marriage. Do it my way, and the marriage will work, do it yours and it won’t.

When people are in this state of mind, they have a hard time understanding why their spouses are so glued to their way of seeing things. They assume it must be out of stubbornness, spitefulness, or a need to control. What they don’t realize is that their spouses are thinking the same thing about them! Over time, both partners dig in their heels deeper and deeper. Anger, hurt, and frustration fill the air. Little or no attempt is made to see the other person’s point of view for fear of losing face or worse yet, losing a sense of self.

Now is a time when many people face a fork in the marital road. They’re hurt and frustrated because their lives seem like an endless confrontation. They don’t want to go on this way. Three choices become apparent. Convinced they’ve tried everything, some people give up. They tell themselves they’ve fallen out of love or married the wrong person. Divorce seems like the only logical solution. Other people resign themselves to the status quo and decide to live seperate lives. Ultimately, they live unhappily ever after. But there are still others who decide it’s time to end the cold war and begin to investigate healthier and more satisfying ways of interacting. Although the latter option requires a major leap of faith, those who take this leap are the fortunate ones because the best of marriage is yet to come.

Pretty grim, huh? Well, with a 50% divorce rate, not all that unusual. So, what do we do about it? Especially if one partner is gung-ho about fixing things up and the other partner is walled off? Well, the gung-ho partner has a long, hard, road ahead of them:

MANDATORY DO’S WHEN DIVORCE BUSTING

  1. Be patient. Time is an asset even when it seems to be killing you.
  2. Listen carefully to what your spouse is really saying to you.
  3. Learn quickly that anger is your enemy.
  4. Learn quickly to back off, shut up, or walk away when you want to speak out.
  5. Take care of yourself. Exercise, sleep, laugh, and focus on all the other parts of your life that are not in turmoil.
  6. Be cool, strong, confident, and speak softly.
  7. Know that if you can do a 180, your smallest consistent actions will be noticed much more than any words you can say or write.
  8. Read as much as you can on this subject.

MANDATORY DON’TS WHEN DIVORCE BUSTING

  1. Do not be openly desperate or needy even when you are hurting more than ever in your whole life and are desperate and needy.
  2. Do not focus on yourself when communicating with your spouse.
  3. Do not believe anything you hear and less than 50 percent of what you see. Your spouse will speak in absolute negatives because they are hurting and scared.
  4. Do not give up no matter how dark it is or how bad you feel.
  5. Do not backslide from your hard-earned changes.

Gee? Sounds real straightforward and easy, huh? Well, you knew when you said “I Do” that there were going to be some bad times. Just, you didn’t know it would be this bad. Well, stop panicking and get to work! If you can pull off the above, just imagine the strength you’ll have when your teenage kids start to go berzerk!

Anyway, once you get past the worst of it, there’s plenty of advice throughout the book on how you can get back on track once both partners are on board. I’ll close with one last bit of advice:

Focus on the Problem-Free times

Since you and your spouse are experiencing problems right now, you probably feel that your relationship has been this way forever. But you’re wrong. I know that there are times in the past when things were more loving, times when you argued less, were more intimate, and felt more compatible. It’s human nature to focus on what goes wrong and pay little attention to what goes right, especially when you’re hurting.

When I work with couples, it’s not unusual for them to have several good weeks in between sessions. However, if they have one or two small arguments during the month, they will report that they fight all the time. They fail to notice or acknowledge the peaceful interludes. I realize that it is most people’s expectation to tell their therapists about their tough times, but I see this tendency to focus on problems rather than solutions everywhere I go. We analyze to death interactions that are uncomfortable but overlook or downplay the significance of more pleasurable times. If we happen to notice positive things happening, we consider them to be flukes or accidents, and we never ask ourselves, “How did we get that to happen?” After all, we don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

This is unfortunate because the answer to many relationship problems lies in what we do differently when things are going well with our partners. Good times don’t just happen, we make them happen. We talk, think, feel, and arrange our lives differently when we’re getting along with our partners. You need to become a solution detective and figure out how you and your partner act, think, and feel differently when you like each other so that you know what makes your relationship work.

So . . . as you can see, most of us in relationships are going to hit some real bad patches. And when that happens, you may find yourself feeling terribly all torn up inside, and hurting, and wronged. But, rest assured you are not the first and you will not be the last person to have been in a fix like yours. It happens so often that the local bookstore has a few rows of shelves devoted to this stuff, and there may be a book, a therapist, or a friend who can help you find your way. When the challenge comes, you’ll have to rise bigger than your pain, and be really strong, and dedicate yourself to working toward a better day.

Some mantras that I keep in mind:

“This too, shall pass.”

“We shall overcome.”

Addendum, 2009, August 4: It has been some years since I wrote this, and I am since happily divorced. It was rough, but life goes on, and love is found anew. Today I read a wonderful article in the New York Times, by Laura Munson, who, when confronted by a husband who wanted to leave, realized he was going through his own thing, endured the challenge of giving him enough space without fighting him, and after some months he figured his issues out and they went along happily again. I felt it was good advice, and good understanding, and at the end of the day, if your partner leaves, remember it isn’t about you.

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Categories: Excerpts, Good Reads, Relationship Advice