The twelfth annual Smart Marriages Conference was held in San Francisco two weeks ago (July 2-5). The conference, which featured workshops, lectures, presentations and seminars on marriage and relationships brought together nearly 2000 people, most of them educators and therapists from a wide range of backgrounds and orientations from throughout the country who all share one common commitment: to address the question of how to reduce the percentage of failed marriages (currently about 50% of first marriages end in divorce as do 60% of second ones) and enhance the quality of relationships of those couples that do remain together. Linda and I were honored to be among the featured presenters.
As most of us are all too aware, simply staying together isn’t necessarily a measure of success in a marriage. A disturbingly high percentage of those couples who do manage to avoid divorce court live lives of “quiet desperation” characterized by a lack of fulfillment and intimacy on the parts of one or both partners. Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that so many men and women these days are choosing to delay marriage or avoid it altogether. And these numbers aren’t limited to the US. Most industrialized nations share a similar pattern and many are currently experiencing a low or even negative growth rate in their population as increasing numbers of couples are choosing to have smaller families or even to forgo children altogether. Clearly something is wrong with this picture.
Linda and I wore the hats of both speakers and participants at the conference and we came home at the end of the week concerned by much of what we heard and simultaneously inspired and enlightened by the work being done by so many dedicated people: therapists, marriage counselors, educators, clergymen, and researchers, all of whom share a common commitment to bring about a more loving and peaceful world through the development of life-enhancing relationships. In a world in which the bottom line and finances often seem to trump matters of the heart, this can be a challenging task. Although it would be impossible to share in this brief space the many insights that we experienced throughout the course of the conference, we’d like to share a small sample of what we found valuable in the hopes that you will too.
Even the most broken-down relationships can be resuscitated. While many individuals and couples choose to end their marriages out of the belief that their situation has become irreparable, their motivation often tends to be driven by a desire to free themselves from overwhelming emotional pain, rather than a genuine conviction that repair is not a real possibility. Learning how to manage the feelings of disappointment, frustration, and pain that inevitably occur in marriage, can help couples to navigate their way through these treacherous waters without making the choice to bail out prematurely. The good news is that there ARE teachable and workable means of managing emotional distress that all couples can learn.
It’s not an absence of love that drives people to divorce. Ninety percent of divorced couples state that they still love each other. Love or a lack of love in most cases is not the problem. What most couples need is a higher level of relational skills such as conflict management, dealing with differences, committed listening, non- judging presence, responsible self-care, discernment, mutual acknowledgment and affirmation, emotional honesty, and personal responsibility, to name a few. While most of us would agree that these skills are beneficial to any relationship, knowing about them and embodying them in one’s daily life are two very different things. With practice and support, these skills can be cultivated and strengthened.
Not all marriages can or should be saved. A deal-breaker is a condition that is absolutely unacceptable to one or both partners and in those instances where there is no possibility of breaking an impasse over a critical issue in a relationship, it’s probably time to end it. Deal-breakers have to do with decisions or behaviors that people choose that are unacceptable to one’s partner, in which there is no intention to change, such as physical or sexual abuse, addictive behavior, a persistent refusal to engage or communicate with one’s partner, an inability to create an agreement regarding monogamy (one way or the other), or a continual unwillingness to be honest or respect personal boundaries. It’s often the case, however, even in circumstances in which there is no obvious solution that there is more possibility for reconciliation than is recognized by either partner. Sometimes situations that seem impossible are entrenched from a lack of motivation or effort rather than being a result of a truly unworkable context. Again, going the extra distance to make your very best effort can sometimes create unexpected results.
All marriages (even the great ones) have irreconcilable differences. While some differences are deal-breakers, many are natural and even necessary in order for relationships to thrive. An unfortunately all-too-popular myth held by many people is that all irreconcilable differences are an indicator that the marriage is doomed. The courts even see it as legitimate grounds for divorce. Ironically, it’s the ways in which we are different that generates the chemistry that makes us attractive to each other. The idea is not to eliminate differences by trying to change each other or ourselves, but rather to learn how to appreciate them, grow from them, and integrate them into our relationship. Learning how to view differences as the compost that fertilizes our relationship rather than seeing them as problems to be eliminated or avoided can transform conflict into connection and suffering into gratitude.
Most couples wait too long to get help. A recent survey found that on average, couples with persistent marital difficulties made their first outreach to a counselor six years after the initial onset of the problem. Wishful thinking or the hopes that things will just “spontaneously improve” is rarely sufficient to implement necessary corrections to a troubled relationship. Things don’t generally stay the same when they are unattended. Relationships are either growing or dying. There’s no neutral ground, and continued breakdown diminishes the chances of full repair. Generally, the longer couples wait to get the help that they need, the longer it takes to heal the relationship. Of course couples should by all means make their best efforts to use the skills they have to do their relationship work on their own as a first resort. However, when your best efforts fail to bring about the desired outcome, it’s better to get help sooner rather than later.
“Eighty percent of divorces are completely avoidable.” – Dennis Stoica, President of the California Healthy Marriages Coalition. Stoica claims that “If people are able to access resources, they can restore their marriages.” It’s an unfortunate truth that many people go into marriage with the expectation that eventual divorce is a likelihood for most couples. Others on the other hand, enter marriage with another equally illusory belief that “love is enough” to get you through the rough times. As most of us know, love goes through many seasons and there can be some harsh winters. Some of the factors that can determine whether or not a couple makes it have to do with identifying and challenging beliefs and expectations that can set us up for disastrous self-fulfilling prophecies. Contrary to common opinion, there is no shortage of good resources to keep marriages healthy and to heal them when they’re not, but there has to be a willingness to recognize when help is needed as well as an intention to engage in the repair process in an open and responsible way. When these conditions are met, in most cases, the prognosis is good.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle article about the conference featured several tips to promote a healthy marriage, including: Spending time with each other Learning to negotiate conflict Creating a spiritual connection Practicing forgiveness with each other Improving communication skills and Showing respect for each other at all times
To this list we would add: Focusing on what you can do to improve things when difficulties arise, rather than on what your partner may have done wrong. Taking responsibility for your own happiness rather than expecting your partner to make you happy. Learning to listen without blame, judgment or defensiveness Finding out which ways of loving most gratify your partner rather than simply giving them what would make you happy. Turning demands into requests. Acknowledging what you appreciate about your partner more often. Preventing resentments and disappointments from accumulating and dealing with them when they occur. Not forgetting to play, laugh, have fun, and enjoy the time that you spend together. And one more thing: Don’t take your partner for granted. Ever.