Marriage-Saving Lessons from Couples
By: Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW
Learn how to avoid divorce from people who went down that path
One of the most unexpected sources of good marriage advice? Failed relationships. The couples below—frontline survivors of love’s emotional battlefield—want you to do as they didn’t (and don’t do as they did). Learn from their mistakes and make it to happily ever after.
- Don’t take his shortcomings personally. When he doesn’t replace the lid on the dog food jar or instantly leap to wipe up a spill, it’s not an attack on you. “I’d feel betrayed and taken advantage of, like he was doing this purely to piss me off,” says Lynn Forbes, of San Carlos, CA, of her first husband. Years after their divorce, she came to realize, “He wasn’t anti-me. He just didn’t notice messes.” Lynn’s M.O. in her second marriage: “I come from a place of kindness. Leaving a penny on a counter isn’t a federal offense!”
- Avoid bringing up small things that may hurt his feelings. You know he’ll be upset if you confide that his mother’s laugh annoys you, but you blurt it out anyway because marriage is about sharing. Or, as Hillary Schwaf of Taunton, MA, did in her first marriage, you tell your partner “every thought at every moment. I felt better by unloading, but my husband became unnecessarily burdened.” Obviously, you should always discuss big concerns. But certain confessions, like how much you’d love to jump in the sack with George Clooney, are better shared with a friend than your partner.
- Don’t be too proud to apologize. “I got married when I was emotionally still a kid,” Forbes admits. “I didn’t have the confidence to allow my husband to know I felt foolish sometimes, or say, ‘I’m sorry.'” She adds, “I didn’t realize it was OK to be vulnerable and completely myself with the person who shared my life. And we fell apart.” More in tune with herself when she recently remarried, Forbes lets her second husband all the way in: “I can now say, ‘I messed up.’ He’ll love me no matter what.”
- Make every day Spouse Appreciation Day. Don’t assume your husband knows how much he’s valued if you’re not making it clear in words and deed. Lisa Mattson from Sonoma, CA, who got divorced after four years, explains, “Whether it’s compliments, affection, chores, text messages or massages, you have to give selflessly and expect nothing in return.” (Though in a good marriage, you’ll get it all back.) Everyone needs affirmation—especially from a partner.
- Stop being Super Spouse. While it’s important to show how grateful you are to your mate, you must take time to nurture yourself too. “I felt I would be worthy only by heroically caring for my husband and kids beyond all expectations,” says Philadelphia-based Adina Laver. “Sacrificing my own needs didn’t lead to appreciation, though—only deeper feelings of inadequacy.” So offer a regretful but firm no if a proposed favor for your partner will stretch you too thin. As Laver now knows, “The more I love myself, the better able I am to love others.”
- Don’t sweep a major difference of opinion under the rug. Phil Barry of Boston let a problem in his marriage go unchecked for too long. “Resentment and anger built up, and our communication and sex life went downhill quickly.” His advice: “Never wait to address an issue. Talk, fix, keep talking.” If the two of you together can’t resolve whatever’s caused things to go off-track, get a marriage therapist’s help.
- Support each other’s biggest dreams. Sinita Wells of St. Louis, MO, divorced her husband for one reason: He didn’t believe in her career goals. “When we married, he knew I was an actress, yet he was always angry about long rehearsal schedules. He told me after our divorce that he never bought into my dreams.” Yes, couples should compromise for the greater good of the relationship. But your partner isn’t going to abandon the parts of him that give him the most joy. As Wells says, “We can make changes, but your core blueprint is what it is.”
- Don’t lose your sense of self. For 15 years, everyone regarded Christina Kirk of Oklahoma City, OK, and her husband as the perfect couple. The lawyer and doctor “tried so hard to be Clair and Cliff Huxtable—ideal in every way as parents, business people and spouses—that we lost our separate identities.” After their divorce, Kirk began discovering the pieces of her she’d disregarded for so long. “I’m learning who Christina is and what she likes.” And until you know that, you can’t really love yourself or someone else.
- Don’t expect him to be the key to your happiness. “My ex and I did lots of fun things together—camping, golf, downhill skiing,” Jacque Small recalls. She adds with a sigh, “The problem was we were both unhappy people.” No man can fill an aching void in your soul. Small, who moved from Canada to Mexico after the divorce, discovered joy and meaning “through attending personal development workshops.” When you’re happy with yourself, your partner is a wonderful addition to your life, not your reasonfor living.
- Never take his love for granted. No matter how secure you feel in your relationship, if you two aren’t “bringing your all to the table every day,” as Laura Campbell who lives outside New Haven, CT, puts it, everything can disappear. When she married at age 18, Campbell thought she’d reached the pinnacle—”big wedding, nice man, on the road to having children,” and life from then on would be a breeze. Divorced with two sons, Cambell now says, “Love is not ever set in stone.” And that’s why you can’t expect it always to be there without putting effort into it.
By: Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, “Learn how to avoid divorce from people who went down that path”, Used with permission.