How to 'Divorce-Proof' Your Marriage - Part II

Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

Congratulations!  The big day has come and gone and you've returned from your honeymoon.  This is when the real marriage begins, with all the challenges and gratifications of everyday life.  Even if a couple has lived together before the wedding, taking vows before family and friends is a turning point in a relationship.  So, going forward, what will maximize your chances for a vibrant and successful marriage?  Here are a few tips.

(1)  Think “we/ours”, not “I/mine”.  OK, when it comes to finances, there may be compelling reasons to maintain some separate financial accounts, especially if this is a second marriage.  This decision is complicated and should definitely be tailored to your own circumstances as a couple.  For example, if there's child support being paid from an ex-spouse, if one of you has inherited assets from a family member prior to your marriage, if one of you is going to take on certain household expenses and your spouse is going to handle others—these are all good reasons to talk with your spouse about the arrangement in question and reach a decision that's acceptable to you both.

That said, income permitting, it's advisable that both spouses have some amount of discretionary income.  Whether this is spent on lunch out during the week, shopping, expenses related to a recreational activity (e.g., tennis, running shoes), or simply opening an individual savings account for future expenses or to add to retirement funds, it enables both spouses to feel that they have some financial “breathing room”.  And while having to account for every penny spent in the discretionary fund defeats the purpose, both spouses need to be comfortable divulging how they spend their “walking around” money.

The point is that you want a high level of transparency in your life together, and this includes what money comes in and how the money goes out.  Each couple's circumstances are different and tend to become more complicated as children become part of the family and assets are accumulated.  Anyone who has been through a divorce has experienced first-hand how vexing the task of agreeing on division of assets—not to mention custody and visitation issues—can be.

(2) The same principle applies to the time a couple has and how it's allocated.  If you think back to high school or college math, you may remember something called a “Venn diagram”.  The simplest of these shows two overlapping circles, with the area of overlap varying in size.  We can apply this type of thinking to how a couple spends time.  So, for instance, if both members of the couple are working, the time and activities done for work are in the non-overlapping parts of the circles.  If both participate in household chores, those activities are represented in the overlapping area.

As you can imagine, what goes into the overlapping area (the couple) and what lies in the individual (non-overlapping) areas can become a matter for dispute and disagreement.  Most mental health professionals would probably agree that it's important for a couple to have some shared interests, whether they be recreational (hiking, camping, working out, watching movies, etc.), social (playing trivia with others, entertaining, hosting an occasional “movie night” at their home, etc.), or spiritual (attending church, Bible study or prayer group, community volunteer work, etc.).  Research has shown that couples who have some interests in common fare better than those who don't, even something as simple as enjoying TV time together.

On the other hand, it's important to find a balance between shared activities and individual interests.  If a couple enjoys playing golf together on the weekend—and child care and household responsibilities have been addressed—then a major component of the “shared activity” area of the diagram is in place.  If, on the other hand, one spouse wants to play golf every Saturday and participate in tournaments on a regular basis, but the other spouse has no interest in that activity or is actively excluded, the potential for problems in the marriage is increased.

Here's another example that I see frequently with couples.  Let's take the example of a couple that has started a family and they agree that they want an at-home parent with the children.  Perhaps the wife takes a break from her career, or she arranges to work from home part-time.  And while they both are committed to being good parents, the stress of dealing with three children under the age of five, for example, can feel overwhelming at times.  Continuing with this example, there are days when, by the time dad gets home from work, mom has had it with feeding, entertaining, wrangling three young active children.  When he walks in the door, she's dressed in her workout clothes, tells him “They're yours; I've had them all day” and heads out for yoga, or a spin class and workout at the gym.

Both these scenarios—the “golf widow” or the full-time mom escaping to the gym at night—point to a lack of balance in the couple's life.  What might some other scenarios be that would support the relationship rather than drive a wedge into it?  Perhaps “golf dad” decides that he can be satisfied with playing nine holes instead of eighteen, or playing every other Saturday.  The time that's freed up can then be spent with doing something with his spouse or family.  Perhaps “gym mom” decides it's better for all if she gets out of the house and goes in to her office a couple of days a week, and the children either have an in-home babysitter or go to daycare on those two days.  In both cases, the couple can feel more supported by each other, but without having to totally forego a valued activity.

(3)  Cultivating a “partnership” mindset.  Over time, it's easy for couples to become more combative and competitive with each other.  Instead of viewing a spouse as a “teammate”, a husband or wife may begin to feel that his or her job is more demanding and difficult than the spouse's, for example; that he bears a disproportionate burden of the housework or cooking;  that she would prefer to spend time with her friends than her husband; that he isn't interested in hearing about his wife's day and just wants to spend the entire evening in front of the TV.

You get the picture.  The list of examples is endless, but they all point to a potential problem in the marriage.  That is, when one or both spouses feel they're trying to outdo each other, or that they're asked to bear a heavier burden in the relationship, or that they have to compete for a spouse's attention in the marriage, the likelihood of resentments developing and festering increases.  When a couple is able to maintain a partnership mindset, they'll be better equipped to face the difficult times and the challenges that all marriages sooner or later encounter. 

(4) Ongoing communication.  One of the most frequent complaints I hear when a couple is beginning therapy is that they “just don't know how to communicate.”  In this situation, the first task is to help them specify exactly what they mean by that.  For instance, do they just not talk with each other?  Does one talk, but the other not respond?  Are they not able to collaborate on problem-solving, negotiation, compromise, evaluation of solutions they've implemented to problems in the marriage?  All of these fall under the umbrella term of “communication skills” and need to be part of a couple's relationship repertoire.

While we certainly learn styles of communication in our family of origin—e.g., volatile exchanges or simply refusing to talk about problems—these styles aren't written in stone.  With the help of a competent professional, they can be identified and modified.  Yes, it takes some practice.  We're talking about learning and substituting new habits for old ones.  It takes time and effort to develop new “scripts” for addressing issues and problems effectively with a loved one, but it certainly can be done.

(5)  Keeping it “fresh.”  One of the greatest challenges in a marriage is maintaining some level of novelty.  After all, when you're in a brand new relationship, much of the exhilaration and excitement comes from the ongoing discovery of new things about the other person.  In marriage, after a while, it's common to assume we know almost everything about our spouse—or at least everything that really matters.

Granted, one of the positive things about a long-term committed relationship is the feeling of comfort and predictability that we develop.  There is a sense of safety and security that is engendered when we spend day after day with someone, learn their habits and ways of doing things, and begin to rely on them being available to us as an emotional support.

But that very sense of predictability and reliability can also lead to a feeling of stagnation, even boredom.  And this is a point at which a couple is at higher risk for an affair, for example.  So, rather than adding excitement to your life by adding an outside person, one can look for ways to make himself or herself more enticing to a partner.  There is a wide variety of ways one can approach this.  For example, you might decide to take a course at a local college or university.  Perhaps you wanted to learn Italian or Russian when you were in college years ago, but never followed through.  Your spouse may be very surprised and curious about this interest.  Perhaps you decide to do volunteer work at an animal shelter, or to work with military veterans, or to help out with a ministry at your church.

Clearly, the list of possibilities is endless.  The point is that the more you can evolve and grow as an individual, the greater the interest your spouse is likely to have in you.  It's a reminder that he or she still has many things to learn about you as a person, that novelty in the relationship is very much a possibility.  And that's exciting to a spouse—it reminds him or her that there are still things to learn about you--and it fuels both interest and desire.

(6) Relationship repair.  In spite of our best efforts in a marriage, even the most committed and self-aware couples will experience what I call “relationship rupture” from time to time.  These are tears or breaks in the fabric of the relationship.  Some may be relatively minor, e.g., forgetting to take a spouse's car in for inspection when you've committed to do that, being late for a dinner date with friends.  Others may be much more damaging to a relationship.  An obvious example is inappropriate behavior with a third party, or even an affair.

Every couple needs to have a repertoire of ways in which they can repair these ruptures.   The goal is to try to avoid them in the first place.  If you tend to forget certain commitments you made to your spouse (for example, the car inspection scenario), do what it takes to jog your memory.  This might involve a calendar posted in a central place, notes on your cell phone, or a post-it note on the bathroom mirror.  What matters is that it works for you.

If you find that you tend to change plans you've made with your spouse in favor of another opportunity that arises, you need to honor your initial commitment.  For example, if you've invited your wife to dinner Friday evening, but Friday morning one of the guys in the office says a group is going out for drinks after work, you need to honor your initial commitment.  If your husband has asked you to ride around in the golf cart with him on Saturday, just for fun and some time together, but your girlfriends decide they want to go to the outlet mall that day, you need to honor the prior commitment to your husband.

If, sadly, we're talking about a major betrayal of your spouse—such as an affair—this is a much more complicated, longer-term relational repair issue than any of the examples above.  Your best course of action, if you truly want to rebuild your marriage, is to seek expert professional help and to understand that restoring trust is a long-term undertaking that requires patience and a willingness to be as transparent in your behavior as possible.  There is no substitute for the time that it takes to rebuild a relationship after it's been severely damaged by secrecy and betrayal—but, with commitment, work, and time, it can be done.

***Dr. Liz Currin is the author of “The Essential Guide to Surviving Infidelity:  The Support You Need to Rebuild Trust and Reclaim Your Relationship“ (Alpha, a division of Penguin Books, New York, New York, 2012).  While this book is geared toward helping couples recover from the trauma of infidelity, it also addresses how to cultivate healthy behaviors within your marriage.