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8 Ways to Breathe Life Back Into Your Failing Marriage (Says a Divorce Attorney)
So you or your spouse have decided it’s time to bring “happily ever after” to an end. Sometimes it really is the right thing for you. If so, it’s time for your lawyer to outline the plan to help you move on to a better, more hopeful chapter of your life.
But what if it’s not so clear, and your divorce lawyer asks, “Are you sure?”
Good family lawyers know when you’re hesitating, and they’ll ask. And for good reason: divorce is an ordeal. Nothing is more emotionally challenging for you, let alone your children. It is often expensive. It always hurts. That’s why some lawyers who hear hesitation will recommend you hold off on divorce unless you’re fully committed to it.
But what if you’re not?
What if you’d rather recommit to your marriage?
It happens more often than you’d think. A couple has reached the end of the line; someone files the papers to officially end it. And it’s only when they’re at the brink that one realizes, and the other agrees, that they haven’t tried hard enough.That’s when you can do better than waffling on divorce.
Instead, you can “deep water” your marriage.
The Mighty Oak Tree
Sure, the metaphor of marriage as a tree is cliché. But it’s also under-appreciated. Think of factors that can help kill an oak tree during a drought. The tree might rest in shallow soil that renders it more likely to be toppled by strong winds. It might grow on steep terrain or within undergrowth that make it more vulnerable to drought.
Such conditions can cause a tree’s leaves to brown and drop during a drought – causing the tree to look like it’s dying, though this leaf drop is actually a survival mechanism to allow it to conserve water that it would otherwise lose through its leaves.
So how do you prevent the tree from dying? Deep watering. By watering around the tree for a couple of days at a low flow, you let the water percolate into the soil rather than washing away, giving it the greatest chances to survive.
Too often, we allow drought to devastate our relationships. The flow subsides; the passion, love, appreciation, and affection that once poured into our marriages dries up almost entirely. Our marriages are vulnerable. They rest on the steep, rocky terrain that is life, and they can be overwhelmed by the undergrowth of the thousand trifles that interfere with a deep, sustaining relationship: the demands of work, financial stress, and the creep of the mundane.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Say one of you has filed for divorce, the marriage is heading there, your marriage is lonely and dissatisfying … or you simply don’t want your relationship to get that bad. Practice these eight ways to “deep water” your marriage.
1. Make your choice.
If you’re going to commit to your marriage, then commit. Do everything possible to make it better. If it doesn’t work out, don’t let it be because of lack of effort.
This marriage is your oak. Sure, maybe it’s a little gnarled over the years, and there was that one time when you and your husband forgot to water it for, oh, a year or three. Forget all that; it’s time to make it work. No half measures here. It’s your choice.
And saying that you don’t know, or you’re not sure, what you want to do about your relationship is every bit as much of a choice. It’s a choice not to fully commit yourself to making a happier marriage. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. Inertia and inaction had been familiar companions. Instead of committing to doing something each day to bring my wife and me closer, I let other things—well, everything else—get in the way. Drifting apart just seemed to happen – but it was a choice I made constantly, whether I realized it or not.
Marina Pearson notes in “The Five Biggest Mistakes that Lead to Divorce” that this is a common mistake:
“Somehow, we seem to think intimate relationships will run on their own fuel without putting much effort into them. This is simply not true!”
And not putting effort into it leads directly to ignoring issues as a couple. This, Pearson says, lets little problems become so massive that they can tear your relationship apart.
Think of this as failing to plan for a marriage, according to Brittany Wong’s post summarizing the advice of various divorce experts, “11 Be-All-End-All Marriage Mistakes that Lead to Divorce.” There, Dr. William J. Doherty observes:
“We have a big cultural myth that love and compatibility are enough: the marriage will take care of itself. … We never learned to be mindful, intentional, and energetic about a marriage.”
But what if your husband has started a divorce, and you want to try to stop it? It may not be too late. Commit. The first step, according to Dr. Susan Heitler’s “7 Strong Steps to Stop a Divorce”:
“If you are serious about wanting to stop a divorce, … soothe the panic, skip the moping, and make an action plan.”
2. Foster the right feelings.
Part of commitment is recognizing that your emotions don’t simply happen to you. You can foster positive feelings – and refuse to indulge your negative feelings.
Yes, I’m paraphrasing “Accentuate the Positive.” But it’s spot on here.
Think about someone convinced that love is something that just happens to you. Maybe he lives for falling in love and being in love. But time goes on, and the rush isn’t the same. He feels he is no longer in love and gives up on the relationship, either ending it officially or simply checking out. If you tell yourself that once the spark is gone, it’s gone – then you will be absolutely right.
This is similar to the self-sabotage that Elizabeth Stone warned about in “6 Fatal Relationship Mindsets and How to Fix Them”:
“It was like once the initial feeling of roller coaster courtship excitement wore off, I was left with a lingering feeling of ‘this might not be right since I’m not enthralled and excited, every single moment.’”
Back to your tree: you can choose to richly fertilize the soil in which your tree grows. That’s positivity. What about when you see the negative – say, underbrush that interferes with the oak’s growth, or the beginning signs of fungus that can cripple its health? You don’t ignore it, but you act to remove it.
Get rid of counterproductive ways you think about your marriage. Stone cautions against obsessing about how you could do better than your mate, which can cause you to focus on the idea “you’re somehow missing out” by staying in your relationship.
So too if you measure your marriage against fairy tale romances or romantic comedies. If you base your marital expectations on the 5-minute closing scene of a 105-minute film, you will harvest countless little disappointments. Over time, these erode the soil in which your tree grows.
Cultivate kindness instead. Emily Esfahani Smith’s article, “Masters of Love” studies the work of Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the relationship psychologists who founded the Gottmann Institute. Their advice?
“Think of kindness as a muscle. … It can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. … You have to exercise it to keep it in shape.”
Anyone can be nice in the beginning. Anyone can be kind when he’s in a good mood. It’s deep into a relationship and when you’ve had a miserable, exhausting day that it takes effort to be kind to your spouse. Those are the moments where you can enrich your relationship by choosing to be a caring spouse, partner, and friend.
As Lori D. Lowe captured it in “Seven Lessons for a Stronger Marriage”:
“We can act lovingly, even when we don’t feel like it. ‘Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing,’ said C.S. Lewis. ‘It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling.’ The loving action is distinct from the feeling, and that action is what is needed in strong marriages.”
Sheryl Paul clarifies in “Love is a Verb”:
“Love is primarily a verb, and to love someone is an active experience. Love is action. Love is commitment.”
Choosing to love means choosing to water and care for your tree.
3. Choose to see the good in your husband.
When you’re white-water rafting, the key to avoiding the rocks is not to look at them. If you focus on them, that’s exactly where you’ll go. Instead, you look in the direction you want to go.
Same thing in marriage. Don’t focus on your spouse’s problems. (Here, I don’t mean very serious behaviors such as abuse, adultery, or addiction. I mean leaving the toilet seat up.) Look for the good in him.
There’s always something about your spouse you can be grateful for. No matter how much things have changed since the golden beginning, there is almost certainly something still there that you used to adore. Couples can choose to remember why they fell in love and married in the first place. Kiran Ferrandino, in “Why I Decided Not to Divorce My Husband,” wrote about her husband’s traits, which helped her realize that they should recommit to each other: his loyalty, passion, kindness, and sense of humor.
In a rough time, my wife and I talked about each other’s traits that we remain grateful for. She mentioned my perseverance when working ridiculous hours to try to take care of our family and the fact that every day I make it clear that I think she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. (She is.) For me, I live for the texts she sends during the day, her dedication to ensuring the family gets time together, and her passion for teaching. Remaining grateful has helped us weather some of the fights and the occasional night on the couch.
Part of choosing to see the good is deciding to see each other’s good intentions. It’s all too easy to read negativity into an event that simply isn’t there. A wife is late getting home from work, even though she knew she had to be on time if he was going to get their daughter to the game on time. He might assume this reflected her carelessness about his schedule – or he could withhold judgment and be sympathetic when she talks about the unscheduled parent-teacher conference that sprang up at the last minute.
What kindness and seeing good intent do is help you continue to admire your spouse. When you’re mindful about the things you admire, you’re more likely to treat your spouse with the love you’d want to receive yourself.
And it avoids contempt, which the Gottmans have found to be the biggest factor that destroys marriages. Think of your nastiest fights with your spouse. Have either of you ever treated another friend, colleague, or stranger nearly as badly as you did when lashing out toward each other with contempt? It’s devastating to your marriage, to your spouse, and to yourself.
Contempt is the ultimate rot; once it firmly takes hold within your oak, death is on its way.
So never give into it. Because you already know that a kind, grateful, and committed spouse wouldn’t.
4. Communicate; don’t blame.
For better communication, start by avoiding the urge to blame each other. If there was a problem or mistake that’s in the past—not an ongoing problem—then who cares whose fault it was? If an in-law ruined a vacation or holiday, then you gain nothing by arguing about whose idea it was to invite Uncle Joe in the first place. Turning to deeper matters, if things have grown distant between you, or you’re feeling betrayed at your spouse’s talk about ending the marriage, then now is not the time to focus on why it’s the other person’s fault things have gone downhill. Don’t spend time playing the victim.
Instead, choose to focus on kindness. Remember you’re talking to the partner that you love.
Let go of being right all the time. A friend once recounted a fight with her boyfriend. They were arguing about some question of fact, which prompted her to bound up the stairs to retrieve something to prove she was right. Her boyfriend trumpeted, in his best Mighty Mouse voice, “There she goes to prove me wrong!” If you routinely focus on proving yourself right, he may conclude you’re more interested in that than you are in truly listening to him.
And if you’re dedicated to being “right” in the little things, you’re more likely to want to “win” the arguments and conversations in heftier matters. Hey, I get it. I’m a lawyer and a former Marine machine gunner to boot: I love a good fight. But even Patton said you should never fight a battle in which you gain nothing by winning.
As Dr. Thomas Bradbury pointed out to Stuart Wolpert in “Here Is What Real Commitment to Your Marriage Means,”
“Everybody has the opportunity to engage in a conflict, or not, to say, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right.’ … The successful couples … shift their focus away from whether ‘I win’ or ‘you win’ to ‘Are we going to keep this relationship afloat?’ That is the ideal.”
I’m not saying you need to bury your feelings or ignore ongoing problems. No happy marriage requires a submissive Stepford Wife. But when you communicate—and fight—remember the purpose of the conversation, don’t prioritize being “right,” and strive to temper your words with the kindness and love you feel for your spouse.
5. Accept his attempts to connect.
Deep watering is critical when your oak tree is facing drought. By running a hose at a very low flow for a couple of days, you allow the water to soak down deep into the soil. But you don’t water around the trunk of the tree; you do it around its drip line. That may seem strange not to go for the “big part.” But it is the small roots, farther from the trunk, that drink up the water, so those are the roots you aim for.
Similar idea in marriage. The everyday little things, the low flow or trickle stream, means more than the grand gestures ever will. Each day is a chance to connect. And I don’t mean just the “I love yous” or “Can I get you somethings.”
As Smith describes Dr. Gottman’s critical discovery during a 1990 study:
“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.”
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
Turning to your partner means showing interest and support; turning away means ignoring the bid or responding nonchalantly while going on with whatever you were doing. Couples who last, Dr. Gottman found, turn to each other almost three times as often as couples who don’t.
The takeaway? When you or your spouse asks the other you to come watch a funny commercial, weigh in on a new pair of shoes, or smell that jar of mayonnaise that expired a year ago, accept the invitation to connect.
And, have more sex; sometimes even when you’re not initially interested. As Dr. Tammy Nelson stated in Wong’s post:
“Avoiding sex or giving up on it can start the slippery slope to infidelity or even divorce. … Having sex, whether you are ‘in the mood’ or not, is an important part of staying connected and feeling in love.”
Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall claims that the most pernicious myth about sex is that it should always be spontaneous, and he suggests various ways to increase desire and intimacy. Dr. Elizabeth Vliet calls sex the “glue” in a relationship and recommends “maintenance sex,” suggesting “that regular sex is necessary for high-temperature erotic encounters to be born.” K. Aleisha Fetters, in “The Vast Majority Of Divorces Are Due To Inertia—And 7 More Marriage Insights From Divorce Lawyers,” quotes attorney Vikki Ziegler who recommends having more sex, especially for couples who struggle to maintain closeness “as they work more, have children, and get older.”
This goes for your husband too; many women become dissatisfied with the amount or quality of sex in their relationships as well.
Your sex life can indeed be a barometer of your relationship, but you can choose to take affirmative steps to improve it. Pick up a book like Dr. Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.
And don’t overlook the importance of simple affection. Dr. Terri Orbuch emphasizes the importance of nonsexual affirmation in Elizabeth Bernstein’s “Divorcé’s Guide to Marriage: Study Reveals Five Common Themes Underlie Most Divorces.” She underlines regular cuddling, kissing, hand-holding, and similar expressions of affection. Indeed, Dr. Orbuch’s study suggested:
“Men seem to need nonsexual affirmation even more than women do …[;] when the husband reported that his wife didn’t show love and affection, the couple was almost twice as likely to divorce ….”
Forgive the big things if you can. But forgive the little things because you must.
That can prevent the smaller issues from growing large enough to destroy the marriage. Lowe emphasizes the importance of forgiveness:
“I think a marriage that harbors negativity and lack of forgiveness in the small, everyday things can be in bigger trouble than a marriage that has one big obstacle to overcome. … Withholding forgiveness can be emotionally and even physically harmful …. We may even be holding grudges for misunderstandings or trivial matters. Forgiveness is one of the essential keys to a happy marriage.”
Forgiving your spouse for the greater sin of failing to live up to all of your expectations remains just as important. But nurturing disappointment can kill your marriage. As high profile divorce attorney Laura Wasser says:
“What ends most marriage is … failure to accept the person you are married to, yourself or the relationship for what it really is. … If couples can weather the storms, communicate and accept that marriage is not always wine and roses they are far more likely to stay together.”
Two divorce attorneys told Fetters why it’s critical to forgive a spouse’s imperfection:
“You can’t change anyone but yourself, so stop trying,” [Vikki] Ziegler says. “Accept your partner—period.” Likewise, you need to come to terms with the fact that your spouse was never perfect in the first place.
“The taller the pedestal on which you place your significant other, the further they will fall when you find out your hero has feet of clay,” says attorney Arkady Bukh, a partner with Bukh Global Law Firm. “No one can live up to fantasy expectations forever,” Bukh says. “Everyone is a flawed human. The best relationship is between two people who view each other as equals and admire and respect each other.”
Maybe you’re disappointed in your spouse for any number of reasons. He’s not as indestructible, extraordinary, handsome, or noble as you thought. He’s no longer the Adonis he was—or appeared to be—in the beginning. So much the better! Isn’t it more authentic and profound to love a human being rather than a demigod?
7. Don’t try to do it all at once.
Back to deep watering. You can’t nourish and enrich a water-starved tree by opening up a fire hydrant next to the tree. Unleashing a torrent of water will just cause must of it to rush away from the tree. Rather, you want a steady, low flow to ensure that the water drops down into the soil and reaches the roots.
So look for the little opportunities each day, and let your deep watering take place over time. Grand gestures are fine, so far as they go, but it will be the trivial things done regularly that rejuvenate your marriage. Each day there’s a chance to squeeze a shoulder or share a smile.
“Do something to demonstrate that your partner is noticed and appreciated every single day …. It can be as small as saying, ‘I love you,’ or ‘You’re a great parent.’ It can be an action rather than words: Turn on the coffee pot in the morning. Bring in the paper. Warm up the car. Make a favorite dessert. Give a hug.”
Choose to continue to share your gestures of affection.
Each conversation is a chance to strengthen your connection: whether one of you had a good day at the office, found a good deal at a store, enjoyed a good day at school, or saw a good commercial on TV.
And while you control only yourself and can make positive changes if you choose, you can still find ways to influence your spouse’s behavior – and even present an example he can follow. In Amy Sutherland’s brilliant article, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” she describes her use of animal training techniques to influence her husband’s behaviors – and her husband’s eventual reciprocation. (For those readers who happen to be my wife, I’m not saying we’re merely animals – I’m saying instead that everyone responds to incentives, and this article is filled with great incentives to apply.)
8. Remember that it takes two.
Sometimes one spouse is dead-set on divorce and there can be no saving the marriage. If the tree is well and truly dead, no amount of watering will bring it back.
But some trees can drop their leaves, remain gnarled through years of wanting or incomplete care, but remain alive. And deep watering and careful care can restore them.
So too with marriages, even in cases where one spouse initially decided to divorce. My colleagues and I have had clients file or almost file a petition for dissolution, only to later drop it because the couple decided to make it work. If one spouse is committed to saving the marriage, sometimes the other spouse will come around to recommitting as well.
Successful examples abound. Dr. Heitler’s “Ted” and “Maria.” Kiran Ferrandino’s own marriage. Rebecca Woolf’s “Almost-Divorce.” Any of the examples in Lowe’s First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. I’d even suggest George and Martha at the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – though I recommend strongly against adopting them as the model for marital bliss.
And if you’re in a truly unsalvageable marriage? Then, whether you want to or not, you can move on to a happier life with the promise of a better, more successful relationship in the future. You control what you take from your experience. Choose to remember what was good, while learning from the factors that contributed to the breakdown of your relationship. Commit to deep watering in the future and paraphrase Maximus from Gladiator: “I will have my happy marriage, in this one or the next.”
So why would a family law attorney be so adamant about helping you save your marriage rather than get a divorce?
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, divorce is the right thing for you and your kids. In such a case, I’m proud to help you protect your children as well as the time and sacrifices you’ve poured into your marriage. My job then is to help someone feeling overwhelmed get past a devastating situation – and find hope and positivity again. Notwithstanding the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” family lawyers know that’s just not true.
But I’ve seen almost-divorces turn into stronger marriages, and I’m always thrilled when that happens. Legendary family lawyer Margaret Klaw says it best in “Keeping It Civil: The Case of the Pre-Nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer“:
“… Aren’t we divorce lawyers? Aren’t we supposed to be deeply cynical? Shouldn’t we be so blinded by the dark side of marriage that we can no longer see beauty and hope in a wedding?
Emphatically, no. … We have an intimate knowledge of the importance of marriage in people’s lives, because we have a unique window into the depth of the pain when it doesn’t work out. We see up close how divorce makes people miserable, how it can play to the worst side of their nature, how it can make otherwise good people greedy or violent or destructive …. And we also see the incredibly powerful draw of marriage. Despite the misery, so many of our clients navigate the choppy waters of divorce, land on the other shore, and then … remarry.”
I hope this helps you. In the meantime, I’m knocking off work early today. I’ve got some watering to do back home.