Divorce is never easy, but it’s one of those life events that deserves a serious postmortem examination to figure out what really happened. I went through a divorce last year, and I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to make a relationship work from that failure.
We tend to learn best from failure. When a marriage fails, you’re certainly primed for a lot of learning and self-reflection. On the surface, my marriage had all the makings of something that should work: no infidelity, no abuse, and we seemingly got along great. But, if I’m perfectly honest, we sucked at actually dealing with issues. Looking back on the whole experience, I’ve walked away a slightly smarter man. Here are a few pieces of advice I wish I’d heard — or least followed — before it all went to hell.
Find the Right Ways to Communicate
It’s no secret that communication is the key to the success of any relationship. In fact, it’s some of the most common advice you hear. The problem is it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. People communicate in different ways. In the case of my ex-wife and I, we communicated in what felt like entirely different languages. I was the more standoffish one who tended to communicate subtly, whereas she was more straightforward.
These two forms of communication don’t seem to work together, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a middle ground. The first step is realising that you’re having trouble speaking on the same wavelength. Then, it’s time figure out how to talk to one another. In our case, we simply weren’t revealing that much about ourselves. We avoided hot topics and instead talked blandly about work, friends or whatever boring gossip was happening in the world. We knew we needed to communicate, but we never figured out how to do it. One solution I came across far too late popped up in the Wall Street Journal:
Spouses need to speak in a calm and caring voice. They should learn to argue in a way that produces a solution, not just more anger. They have to practice “active listening,” where they try to hear what the other person is saying, repeating back what they just heard and asking if they understood correctly…
Dr. Orbuch suggests a 10-minute rule: Every day, for 10 minutes, the couple should talk alone about something other than work, the family and children, the household, the relationship. No problems. No scheduling. No logistics.
Dr Orbuch’s point is pretty simple: talk about nothing, talk about philosophy, talk about dreams — whatever, just talk for 10 minutes a day. That said, our own Walter Glenn adds his own rules for effective communication and arguments:
Giving your partner the chance to vent frustration (and feel safe doing it) is part of your job as a spouse, whether that frustration is directed at you or about something else. Fights are absolutely fine. But it’s important to set up a few ground rules about fighting. Here are a couple of rules my wife and I always follow:
- No name calling or personal insults. She might call my idea idiotic, but that’s very different to calling me an idiot. So, word choice is important.
- Either one of us can walk away from a fight if we need some time to cool off, but nobody just storms off. We always say some variation of “I need to cool down for a few minutes. Let’s continue later.”
- This one is mostly if you have kids (and may be more parenting advice), but I feel like if you start a fight in front of your kids, you owe it to them to let them see how the fight gets resolved. Sending them away and then having them see later on that the fight is over doesn’t alleviate fear or teach them anything.
Glenn’s point is that what happens after the fight is what’s important, and fights aren’t a bad thing. My ex-wife and I were both the non-fighting type, and I’ll certainly second the notion that being non-confrontational all the time isn’t worth it.
You’ll find thousands of articles out there dedicated to finding the right communication style (here are just a few I found helpful), but it boils down to a few simple rules: shut up and just listen when you need to (and understand when your partner doesn’t want you to solve a problem), respect each other, and dedicate time to actually talk about things that matter (and things that don’t). It sounds simple, but it’s hard for some of us to do — and if you keep repeating those rules over and over in your head, you’ll come a lot closer.
Learn (and Address) Different Attachment Styles
It might not seem that obvious at a glance, but what psychologists call attachment styles is an important thing to think about when a relationship starts to get a little rocky. Attachment styles are essentially how we handle emotional attachment — whether you’re an emotionally giving person who shows affection outwardly or you’re more reserved — and when two people with opposite styles pair up as we did, a lot of confusion can happen.
To put it simply: I was far more reserved than my ex-wife. The more attention she wanted, the more I’d shirk away. I am, put bluntly, incredibly reserved when it comes to affection. If it was feasible for me to live in a bubble when I go out I probably would. This seemed like a road block that we couldn’t cross but eventually I realised that this behaviour wasn’t nearly as set in stone as I’d thought. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal points out, it’s not that difficult to address:
The good news, Dr. Levine says, is that attachment style can change. Experts say couples need to tell each other what they need and be specific. For example, they can say, “I know it’s difficult for you to be affectionate in front of my friends, but at home I really need a hug every day.”
Displays of love don’t have to be 50-50, as long as both people show something. “Each partner will need to make some slight movements in the opposite direction from which they are comfortable,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage and family therapist. She says she is more emotionally reserved than her husband, and he asked her to give him a kiss when he comes home.
Acknowledging this, I’ve become less of a bubble boy over time, and while I’ll never be as emotionally forward as some people, I’m certainly less standoffish than I was. Again, this boils down to good communication, but it’s also about acknowledging that changes can happen, and finding the ways each person communicates. A lot of the time we assume we can’t change our behaviours — that small changes don’t make a difference — but when it comes to relationships they really can.
Priority Changes Matter More Than You Might Think
You’ll inevitably hit a point where your priorities change in a relationship. In our case, this came about as both of us finished school and starting moving into our respective careers. For the longest time, our goals were short-sighted: finish school, find work. As those things changed, we never took the time to sit down and address it.
For a lot of people, this often manifests in money conversations (we’ve got you covered there if you need it), but it was more about goals in general in our case. Money was never an issue of contention between us, but conflicting ideas about the future were.
When you suddenly find yourself in an entirely different circumstance, dealing with those changes takes foresight and communication. Without those two things, the distance between you only grows to the point of no return. We both went from having 14-hour days filled with work and school to suddenly having free time we weren’t used to, but we didn’t alter our behaviour accordingly. Psych Central has a few ways to deal with these changes:
[Dr. Terry] Orbuch encourages couples to “discuss how much this difference or big change impacts each of you separately and impacts your relationship.” This helps to figure out if you’re OK with the change and how you’re going to deal with it.
Reaching a compromise is one way. “Compromise can mean different things to different people.” It might mean going with your partner’s desires this time, your desires or meeting in the middle, she said…
Another way to deal with a big change is to “work on accepting the difference” and “not taking it personally.” For instance, your spouse leaning toward liberal views isn’t an affront to your more conservative philosophies. And it’s fine for some topics to be taboo for a couple. It’s something you don’t talk about so much because you know it brings conflict.
When we were caught up in the heat of changes, neither of us took the time to initiate a conversation about how important these changes were. Our priorities had shifted, but neither of us decided to talk about it. The best thing we could have done would have been to sit down and outline a five-year plan to see where we stood on issues. Without doing that, we simply didn’t know what we wanted from the relationship, the present or the future. The only real way past this is to talk about changes early before they happen. Go through it all: how they change your priorities, and how it’s going to affect your relationship moving forward.
Ruts Don’t Go Away on Their Own
All relationships have their ups and downs, but when those downs stick around for a couple of months they become ruts. Even a rut is common enough. When you spend a lot of time with someone, it’s inevitable you’ll get a little bored of the routine if it never changes. With us, we got stuck in one of those ruts, but instead of really trying to break out of it, we just waited for it to pass. Clearly, that was a horrible choice.
In our case, the rut basically translated to boredom. Ruts aren’t always bad — they’re dependable and not always boring — but it’s hard to turn around when they get too stale. The whole relationship just became rote and mundane. It seems like a common enough problem, as I’ve heard it from plenty of friends as well. The obvious solution, as Psychology Today points out, is to mix things up and engage in novel activities:
Engaging in these activities with your partner involves cooperation and provides a shared experience that can bring you closer together. It also helps you extend the pleasure you get out of the activity to your relationship…you don’t have to set up an obstacle course at home (though that might be a fun Friday night activity!), take skydiving lessons, or go bungee jumping in Zimbabwe. Instead, take a break from the same ol’, same ol’ and try out a new hobby together (glass blowing, anyone?), bike or hike through an unexplored area near where you live, play tourist in your city, or take a weekend trip to a nearby town.
It’s stupidly simple advice, but it’s still solid. You don’t have to do anything extravagant. Grab a crazy group deal and do something new, watch a terrible-looking movie, or wander around a new park every once in a while. When things get boring, the best thing you can do is change them. You’re not going to get out of a rut unless you’re willing to climb out of it.
Relationship Counsellors Can Usually Only Help When Problems Start
It’s a pretty natural tendency to hit up a therapist or counselor when things fall apart. The problem, at least in our case, was that we didn’t even think to bother with a counsellor until it was way too late.
After our first (and only) meeting with the counsellor, it became pretty clear that we’d waited way too long. After my soon-to-be-ex-wife had left, I stuck around and talked with the counsellor more to try to figure out exactly where everything went wrong. The counsellor was pretty blunt and said that we’d essentially let fixable problems get to the point where they weren’t reversible.
We’d let things go on too long, hadn’t addressed issues in years, and essentially let the marriage ungracefully fizzle out instead of dealing with the problems head on. I’m typically not one for therapy or counselling, but if we’d tackled this early we would have at least walked away with a better understanding of what was wrong. A couples counsellor or therapist can’t fix problems, they’re only going to walk you through the process of fixing them yourself. They’re worthwhile at pretty much any stage in the relationship if you’re in need of a little guidance. If it’s past the time where you’re both willing to do that, a counsellor isn’t much help.
Of course, relationship “advice” is by no means universal, but we can all take something away from our failures. It took over a year for me to really look at those failures with a critical eye, but I’m glad I did.