Therapy, Talk Can Help when Couples Work Together to Avoid Divorce, Experts Say
There may be ways to pull a marriage out of a crisis situation, and some experts believe it begins with getting help from outside the relationship.
Almost everyone would try something to save a troubled marriage, according to a recent poll from GFK Roper Custom Research. The poll, commissioned by Wevorce.com, showed that 85 percent of people who have thought about divorcing their spouses are willing to make an effort to save their marriages. Most people, 58 percent, said they would get help from a marriage counselor.
The next most popular option, from 46 percent of people, is to move to another town or city. More than one-third of people would ignore that a spouse is cheating if they thought it would save their marriages. Slightly less popular as a choice, from 30 percent of respondents, is the option of changing their minds about children: They would either have kids or not have kids if they thought it would rescue their relationships.
Seventeen percent of people said they would quit their jobs if it would help their relationships. At the bottom of the list, just nine percent of people would switch religions to salvage their marriages, and 6 percent would have plastic surgery.
The poll was conducted by phone in September. More than 1,500 people responded to questions about a variety of marriage- and divorce-related issues.The margin of error for the study is plus- or minus-2.6 percent.
The poll results reflect the kinds of things counselors are seeing in practice. Mark Rogers, who works to help couples repair their relationships when they are in crisis, said he can divide what people do to salvage their relationships into two categories: smart stuff and stupid stuff. Rogers, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology, is a cofacilitator for the Relationship Rich training workshop for couples in Texas.
THE STUPID STUFF
The stupid stuff, as Rogers calls them, are things people do out of desperation to keep their relationships intact. Rogers said those actions include getting pregnant to keep a spouse, begging or going on expensive vacations. “You can’t buy a marriage back into health,” Rogers said, and certainly, you can’t make a marriage better by adding a whole ‘nother person into the mix.”
People make irrational choices when they are desperately trying to save their marriages, Rogers said.They might move, accept a spouse’s infidelity or make other deep sacrifices. One thing they all have in common, Rogers said, is denial that the relationship is failing. He said moving doesn’t work because it just relocates the problem. Ignoring cheating doesn’t work because the spouse is disregarding the fracture in the relationship.
The point at which a person is willing to make such sacrifices is marked with panic at the crisis stage in the relationship, he said. “I think when people get to the desperate stage, that’s when they start to do all kinds of dramatic gestures to stave off the apparently inevitable disaster at all costs,” Rogers said. “Once things get bad, they are willing to try. But at that point, it is probably too late”, Rogers said. “By the time the desperate spouse realizes the intensity of the problem, the other partner has likely given up”, he said. “No matter what the partner does, the other has already decided to leave.”
Once that decision is made, it is difficult to go back, he said. “That usually means that the switch has been flipped, by the time the person says they will leave,” Rogers said. “Once that switch has been flipped, it’s pretty hard for the switch-flipper to flip it back. Sacrificing a piece of oneself to make a partner stay is no way to repair a marriage”, Rogers said. “That’s a really bad way to get the relationship back,” Rogers said. “That’s not a good partnership.”
THE SMART STUFF
Instead, Rogers said he recommends spouses in crises look at the smart stuff, ideas that can help get a relationship back on track. The smart stuff usually has to do with psychological repair on one’s self and the relationship, he said. His first recommendation is to get some sort of outside help, whether it be from a counselor, a therapist, or a clergy member.
“It’s really rare for people who have reached a crisis to be able to put it back together without outside help,” Rogers said. “What you need is someone in an objective sort of position who can reflect it back to you.”
The next recommendation Rogers offers is to look at what one is doing to contaminate the relationship. It is easy to blame the other person, but analyzing how one is infecting a relationship is necessary to the repair process. Rogers’ third recommendation is to frame the problems in the relationship as maturity issues rather than character flaws. He says that couples that act maturely can improve the way they treat each. “If you do that,” Rogers said, “You get a lot farther down the road.”
“Finding someone outside the relationship can help guide a couple back to a healthy relationship”, said Karen Sherman, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York.However, the couple needs to seek help sooner than later, she said.Sherman is the co-author of “Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It and Make It Last.”
She said she usually sees couples after the woman in the relationship has encouraged her resistant partner to seek help. “By that time”, Sherman said, “the woman has already tried to talk to her husband about the problems in the relationship and she has been reading self-help books to try to make the repairs herself. Generally, the woman has a better pulse on the relationship than the man,” Sherman said.But, as Rogers said, at that point, it might be too late. Sherman also said that the man typically does not take action to try to heal the relationship until the woman has already given up. “Very often, the guys don’t get it until she is out the door,” she said.
When couples are ready to seek outside help together to mend the relationship, Sherman said, she recommends that they find someone who will teach them the skills to maintain a strong relationship, rather than someone who will simply listen to their complaints about each other.
She said it is more effective for couples to find help that incorporates a skills model, and educates the couple on how to function, and what to expect, in a healthy relationship. A skills model would show a couple how to manage conflict and express their needs, she said. “It is really in a framework of you need to have a roadmap to proceed with your relationship,” Sherman said. “It is teaching the couple the realities of a relationship so to speak.”
She said she typically finds herself acting as a translator between the couple. She said she helps each side hear correctly what the other is trying to say. “As an outsider to the process, I have a better ability to hear what each person is intending to say,” Sherman said.
Eventually, the partners learn to communicate effectively on their own. Sherman said that is the key, learning the right way to conduct oneself in a relationship. “If one relationship is failing, and no one seeks help to understand why, Sherman said, “the next relationship is destined to end in the same way.”
“If you have not learned the skills, it is not going to be better with the other person. You are better off learning the skills with the person you already have the investment with, especially if you have children,” Sherman said.
SAVING A MARRIAGE
“Developing positive relationship skills is one of the most effective ways to save a marriage”, said Michele Weiner-Davis, the director of the Divorce Busting Center and a marital therapist. She is the author of several books, two of which are “Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again,” and “The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple’s Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido.”
She, too, said that she often sees couples who have tried to talk things out they have tried to focus on what the problems are in the relationship, then attempt to find a solution to them. “That doesn’t usually work, she said.
“That’s pretty fruitless because both people have different perspectives about how it happened,” Weiner-Davis said. “It goes round and round.”
“When couples find themselves having the same arguments and discussions over and over, they should look outside the relationship for guidance”, Weiner-Davis said. “They should find someone who will give them the tools to resolve their differences”, she said. “We aren’t born knowing how to be good partners in relationships,” Weiner-Davis said. “The way we learn about that is watching our parents, and they might not be good role models.”
She said that in the past 10 to 15 years, there have been great strides in how to encourage healthy marriages. “Sometimes, it might be as easy as one partner changing his or her ways because it will be a catalyst for the other partner”, Weiner-Davis said. “They find new ways to handle the situation,” Weiner-Davis said. “And when one person changes, sometimes they get better responses from their partners.”
REDISCOVERING YOUR SPOUSE
Other ways to improve a marriage is to try to reconnect through communication, laughter, and sex, said Karen Gail Lewis, Ph.D., who has been a marriage and family therapist for 37 years. She is the author of “The Secret to a Solid Marriage and Stories for Your Marriage: How to Deal with the Tough Times.” She said she often discusses with her clients opportunities for rediscovering their feelings for one another.
“Couples should spend more time together”, Lewis said. “Find an activity they can do together, and get involved”, she said. “One couple she knows recently started square-dancing. One couple meets for lunch during a weekday. Another couple sets aside one night a week just for them, they feed the kids separately, then have dinner together alone.”
She tells her clients that when they are alone together on their dates, they should have a taboo list of discussion topics. “They can’t speak about anything that will trigger an argument”, she said. “For example, they can’t complain about their kids, money, or troubles at work. Almost invariably, they say,’What can we talk about?We’ll sit there in silence.'” Lewis said. “So she tells them: Sit there in silence until you come up with something. When they were dating, they came up with things.”
“The priority is to find a way to laugh together, and to find the fun in the relationship”, she said. For some couples, that translates to refreshing their sex lives. She said one couple with whom she works sneaks off to a K-Mart parking lot to make out in their car.(The couple met at K-Mart 20 years ago, and they go to the same store’s parking lot to rekindle the passion they felt for each other in their younger days.)
Lewis recommends couples become more adventurous in their sex lives by having sex in different locations in their homes, watching sexy movies, trying new sexual position or buying sex toys. “She also has clients who find motels for sexual rendezvous. Another couple sneaks off and has illicit sex in a cheap motel,” Lewis said. “Something about the illicitness and the cheapness works for them.”
“Regardless of all of the other possibilities, the most important ingredient to the health of the relationship”, Lewis said, “is to communicate regularly”. She gives the following recommendation to her clients: “A four-letter word that ends in K, but starts with a T, not an F. Talk,” Lewis said. “It is the most important thing.”
About the author: Michele Bush Kimball has a Ph.D. in mass communication with a specialization in media law. She has spent almost 15 years in the field of journalism, and she has taught at American University in Washington, D.C. She recently won a national research award for her work.