In a report from the National Survey of Families and Households, of more than 5,000 couples interviewed, 1,000 said they were “unhappily married.” Five years later, the same people were interviewed again. Nearly 80 percent of the couples who decided to stick it out and stay together considered themselves “happily married” and “much happier.” Of the couples who got divorced, less than 20 percent reported being happy.
To avoid an unnecessary divorce, it is not enough to start with a loving commitment, or even with a religiously grounded commitment. With half of the new marriages ending in divorce, many divorces occur to people who start with heartfelt commitment, backed by religious convictions. The battlefields of divorce are strewn with the carcasses of couples who started out with love, commitment, and good intentions. As stresses and dissatisfactions mount, they need marital leadership to stay afloat.
1. Speak Positively
Speak about the good of your marriage, not just about your own good. Instead of just saying, “I need you to listen more to me, and you are not doing it,” you can add, “I’m sure that it’s hard for you that I am so upset with you about this. This is not good for our marriage.”
2. Decide to Change
Decide you are going to work on personal, unilateral change for the sake of your marriage. Some couples divorce because they get into a standoff about who is going to change first. Should the pursuer stop pursuing first, or should the distancer stop distancing first? Someone has to start, preferably telling the other what you are doing and why so that they know what is happening. My colleague Michele Weiner-Davis’s book Divorce Busting is the best guide I have seen to making personal changes to salvage a marriage.
3. Change Expectations
Ask yourself about whether you are expecting your mate to meet all your needs and whether you can accept the fact that some needs you will have to meet elsewhere. I am not referring here to your need for personal safety and freedom from emotional abuse but to the long list of personal needs that no one human being can meet for us.
4. Make Your Intentions Clear
If you are very angry or frustrated with your spouse over an ongoing problem, ask yourself if this is a “marriage breaker” if nothing changes. A spouse’s repeated affairs might be in that category or an ongoing chain of hostile and demeaning behavior towards your children in a remarriage. But if, as is most likely the case, the problem is not one that you would leave over, even if it is not resolved, then say so. Let your spouse know that this problem does not shake your commitment to the marriage, but is nevertheless causing you pain and you want to resolve it. It clears up any doubt your spouse might have about your intentions, and it may help your spouse not get his or her back against the wall during the argument.
5. Take Divorce Off the Table
If your spouse uses the “d” word (divorce) in an argument, say clearly that you do not want to divorce, that you want divorce off the table, and that you will do anything to make your marriage work. Ask for an agreement that neither of you will use that word in an argument because it overwhelms the conversation and can create a momentum of its own.
6. Get Help
Insist that the two of you get help together. This can be in the form of marriage classes to learn how to communicate better or meeting with a therapist who will support your marriage. Don’t accept “no” from your spouse about this. Not seeking help for a failing marriage is a form of irresponsibility akin to not seeking medical attention when a family member is seriously ill. Ultimately, if your mate refuses to go, seek help yourself with someone who will help your marriage, and keep inviting your spouse.
Not seeking help for a failing marriage is a form of irresponsibility akin to not seeking medical attention when a family member is seriously ill.
If your spouse asks you to move out, and you want to salvage the marriage and genuinely change yourself to do so, refuse to move. Say that you are determined to save the marriage and will not cooperate in ending it. But if you have been abusive or your spouse is afraid of you, you should move out when asked, and continue to work on the marriage from a distance.
8. Become Better
Even if you are separated, you can keep working on the marriage by working on yourself. Use the separation as a wakeup call to become a better person and the person your marriage needs. I remember a wife who was determined to be a healthier, more assertive person after her husband left; she actually concurred with his complaints about the person she had become. He was amazed by her changes, intrigued by who she was becoming, and moved back in.
Dr. Bill Doherty says that most couples give up too easily on their marriages. They start down a path and then head toward divorce as if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this excerpt from his book, Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart, he shows the slow path to divorce and the fast path.
Tell us! How do you stand up for your marriage?
Taken with permission from Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart