In working with thousands of couples in divorce mediation, I’ve listened to people express regret about what they wish they’d done, what they shouldn’t have done and what they needed in their marriage but never got. These discussions helped form my top five points to help couples who still want to change their marriage.
Intimacy is more than sex. It is closeness, togetherness, attachment, and affection. But you have to be physically present. Constant opposing workshifts or living apart in the same home strain a relationship. One man regretted his choices saying “I always just took my dinner and ate in my shop. I don’t know why. I guess I was just tired. Didn’t know it was that important.” An intimate restaurant is private and cozy. People love a cozy room or cabin where they feel safe and warm. Even if together, if your interactions are not safe and warm, you will still lose intimacy. “Every dinner she just complained about the kids, the dog, the neighbors – even the laundry. It made me want to go back to work.” Marriages with an intimate atmosphere thrive.
Intimacy is also sex. It’s a way for people to connect, to show and increase love. Don’t withhold sex to punish your spouse because it’s not a weapon. Life, children, in-laws, and work can get in the way. Make space in your marriage for intimate, loving sex. In fact, you may have to change your work schedules or even get a sitter. Sometimes say “yes” even when you’re tired. Once together, break out of the same routine. Try something different, even something small and fresh.
More than anything else, people going through divorce mourn the loss of touch. I’ve listened to people who have whispered, “I haven’t had a hug in a whole year – not one.” Even when we’ve had a rough day and are not in the mood, we need to give and accept the offered hug. Ten years ago, Tim Russert who moderated Meet the Press died from a massive heart attack. That morning, his wife said, “‘I want to give you a hug; maybe I’ll never see you again.” She said she just had a “feeling.” People-cover-story-Tim-Russert-1950-2008. But since the rest of us really don’t know when it’s our last chance, we should give the hug.
Our words have such great power. We can nuture, support and uplift our partner. On the other hand, we can humiliate, intimidate and belittle. Even without explicit names, “You’re too stupid to get that” is degrading. A wife once said to me, “We have to change because we talk better to complete strangers than we do to each other.” Remember, you can always say, “I love you.” If you can’t bring yourself to those words, it is time to see a counselor.
Counseling Prevents Divorce Mediation
Sometimes one partner has repeatedly pleaded and begged to go to counseling. Of those who refuse, the most common response is, “You can go because you’re the one with all the problems. There’s nothing wrong with me.” That same partner is often stunned to be sitting in a divorce mediation session. “Seriously, you never told me that it was so bad.” When reminded about the request for counseling, it still doesn’t register. “But you never said our marriage depended on it!” Here is one major takeaway. If your spouse asks to go to counseling, assume your marriage depends on it. Go. Listen. Try not to be defensive. Don’t quit after two sessions. If you really can’t relate to the therapist, quit. But if you want to save your marriage, promptly find another. Waiting for your partner to call a different therapist might be too late.
If you’ve asked for marriage counseling and were turned down, try going alone. You might be able to recognize and change your own unproductive habits. You might just find a way to be happier and healthier. Unfortunately, you might also find out that you can’t stay married.
But there is an exception. If your marriage involves constant control through emotional or physical abuse, couples counseling is not appropriate. The controlling partner needs to engage in domestic violence counseling. This applies to both genders. Almost 6% of male homicide victims were killed by their former or current spouse. If you need help deciding whether this is an abusive relationship, Mayo Clinic has a list of factors. Mayo-Clinic-Domestic-Violence-Patterns Controlling abusive partners need to get help alone. Similarly, divorce mediation is not appropriate in a marriage with ongoing physical abuse.
Parenting Mode Trap
As my uncle used to say, “The easiest part of children is making them.” Once made, they need our time, attention and love. They need diapers, groceries, stories, clothes, rides, books, spirituality and independence. They need us to cheer them on during their games and like their friends. So, it is not surprising that we slide into parenting mode more often than not. But we have to balance their needs with ours. While it works in the short-term, not paying attention to your marriage is the quickest way to divorce mediation.
Stop Trying to Change Your Partner
The classic song from Guys and Dolls says, “Marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow.” Remember that was a broadway hit in 1950. If it ever applied, it surely doesn’t now. There’s only one person that we can change and it isn’t our spouse. The better song might be “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.
Every marriage has had a time where they repeat the same argument. Whether discipline, money, or work, you feel yourself going around the same problems without success. More telling, you hear yourself yelling the same exact phrases and getting the same responses. Couples in divorce mediation never got out of that rut.
Consider arguing differently. Listen to the other person’s “side” and restate it before trying to get them to hear yours. Once you restate it (even if you disagree), ask if you got it right. “Is this what you meant?” We all want to be heard and we all listen better after we are heard. Even if it doesn’t work, you’ll at least have a different and possibly more productive argument.
I can’t vs. I don’t
Researchers found that the specific words we use frame the goal to affects our willpower to make that change. It is the difference between “I can’t” and “I don’t.” Two groups of undergraduates whose goal was healthy eating were instructed to think either “I can’t” eat something or “I don’t” eat something unhealthy. Saying “I don’t” eat something is an empowered refusal. Authors Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt found that those who said “I don’t” were significantly more likely to reach their goal. Saying “I can’t” was more of an external focus like “I can’t eat chocolate cake until the wedding.” But saying “I don’t” is an internal focus. “I don’t eat chocolate cake because this is who I am.” International Journal of Research in Marketing Volume 29, Issue 4, December 2012, Pages 390-394
We can apply this research to the changes we want to make. Think about what you are going to change to argue differently. “I don’t respond by yelling” or “I don’t sweat the small stuff.” This will help us be the change we want to see to have the marriage we all deserve.