Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Summer 2003

Only You Can Prevent Divorce

A Special Thank You To all our clients, friends, and audience members who have been in our lives this year. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to live our mission of helping you live lives of greater peace and happiness in your families and the world.

This summer, our family vacationed near Capitan, N.M., the area where the discovery of a bear cub in the midst of the charred remains of a forest fire launched Smokey the Bear's media campaign. Somehow our conversation went from the effects of forest fires to the effects of divorces. Of course you want your marriage to be strong so that you get what you need out of the relationship, but like a match carelessly tossed in a dry forest, careless sparks in a dried up marriage can destroy your dream for a happy relationship.

Divorce Busting

This term was coined by marriage therapist and author, Michele Weiner-Davis as the title of her first book to show her insistence that most divorces are unnecessary. Two thirds of divorced people wish they had stayed to work on their marriages.

Divorce is an expensive process. Demographers point to the loss of income, an increase in mental and physical health problems for parents and children, and a lowered work and school achievement as just some of the direct and indirect effects of divorce. Divorce also leaves a legacy into the next generation as children of divorce are twice as likely as children from intact homes to end their own marriages.

Couples can be on a slippery slope towards divorce without even realizing it. By the time they seek professional help, usually 4 years after one of the spouses first suggests it, certain divorce-promoting attitudes and behaviors can be well-established. This rigidity of thoughts and behaviors can lower the chances of benefiting from the professional help they do receive

Stinkin' Thinkin'

Here are some of the most frequent thought patterns we hear from couples that make them divorce vulnerable.

  1. "Our problems are so great, they can't be fixed."

    Research by Dr. Norm Epstein at the University of Maryland shows that couples who hold this attitude look for confirmation that the status quo is supported. Many people attribute their marital problems to some deeply ingrained personality characteristic of the spouse. They think their spouses' difficult behavior is static, fixed and unchangeable. They miss the obvious signs that their partners are making sincere efforts to change or they discount the changes as "something you are just doing because the therapist asked you to."

    If you see your mate's actions as responses to specific situations rather than as deeply ingrained personality traits, you will more likely create the changes you want. Retrain yourself to notice that your partner cares by writing down the changes requested and tracking any steps toward them. If your mate refuses to talk about your requests, change your behavior and thoughts first and see what happens next.

  2. "We don't feel in love anymore."

    Couples on the brink of divorce describe feeling unconnected to their partners, leading separate, parallel lives. The feelings of being in love ebb and flow in a normal marriage depending on what activities you are engaged in and on the general atmosphere of your marriage.

    Don't confuse "love" as a verb, describing what you do in your marriage, with the "feelings" of love. To feel more in love, plan fun activities just like you did when you were falling in love. Love flows more freely from what we give than from what we get. Ask yourself in what ways have I been sharing, giving love lately?

  3. "We fight all the time and never agree on anything. We're just too different."

    Marriage research shows that differences alone are not the problem; it is what you do with those differences that matters. Studies on conflict skills training programs show they can cut the divorce rate in half.

    Improve your conflict skills by reading books or taking a seminar (see Phil's communication seminar August 9, 2003 in the Up and Coming Workshop section below).

Divorce Remedy

In her new book, Divorce Remedy, Michele Weiner-Davis has written about 7 steps that you can take to save your marriage. We have adapted some of her terminology.

  1. Start with an Open Attitude.

    In our 20 years of working with couples, we have found that the best predictor of which couples will succeed in counseling is not the seriousness of their problems but open to changes in themselves rather than just in their partners.

  2. Know What You Want.

    Get clear with yourself before you talk to your spouse about your needs.

  3. Ask for What You Want.

    Turn complaints into requests and you will get more of what you want. Instead of "you never...," ask "I would like, could you...?" The more specific those requests, the better your chance of getting what you want.

  4. Use Success Strategies.

    Put energy into activities that you can do to change the atmosphere of your relationship rather than waiting for your partner to change first. One marriage educator recommended greeting your spouse at the end of the day with as much attention and affection as a Golden Retriever greets his master. Would your spouse notice if you were cheerful and made eye contact when reconnecting at the end of the day? Spare the drooling, though.

  5. Experiment and Monitor Results.

    Weiner-Davis suggests that instead of randomly trying strategies for a day and a half before moving on to other things, become more systematic in giving your marriage-saving approaches time to work. Learn to "read the results" after you've tried something new and do more of what is working.

  6. Take Stock.

    Stand back and evaluate how much progress you┬╣ve made since you've started the program. Get clear about how far you've come, so you know exactly what you still need to do to reach your goals. Areas to look at: the balance between couple and individual time, family activities, ways to have fun, and your sexual relationship.

  7. Keep the Positive Changes Going.

    Learn how to prevent minor setbacks from becoming a downward spiral. Keep a few simple strategies in place for maintaining the gains you have made. For example:

    • TALKING TIME. Couples who report high levels of happiness spend an average of 20 minutes a day talking, while other couples including those at risk for divorce spend around 5 minutes. Those 20 minutes don't have to be all at once. The minutes can add up across meals, walks, or during pillow talk before falling asleep.

    • FUN. Surprisingly, happy couples don't go out very often - slightly less than once per month. But they find ways to have at home dates and more fun on a regular basis. It's the regularity that counts.

    • REGULAR SEX. After the initial novelty of marital sex wears off, couples erroneously wait to have sex until they feel sexy. You have a long wait. Even happy couples often report not feeling sexy until they start affection. Instead, they put themselves into the right conditions for sex and let the feelings take care of themselves. What are your best conditions for good sex (not just being in Maui)?


Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers managing emotions and finding meaning & purpose.

For more tips on divorce prevention:

Michelle Weiner-Davis. "DivorceBusting" & "The Divorce Remedy-The Proven 7-Step Program for Saving Your Marriage"

Copyright 2003 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information.

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