It might seem counterintuitive for a divorce attorney to want to give advice on how to stay married. After all, as family law attorneys, most of our business comes from people who are ending their marriages. When a divorce is necessary, we get a certain sense of satisfaction from helping people end their marriage as peacefully as possible. But few things are sadder than helping someone divorce who wanted nothing more than to stay married.
Sometimes divorce is unavoidable. But sometimes spouses fall into patterns that don’t work for either of them. They would like to get back to the way they related earlier in their marriage, but don’t know how. The only way they can see to break the pattern is to end the marriage. In some marriages, divorce is the best choice. But in many marriages, it’s not inevitable.
The suggestions in this blog post aren’t magic. They won’t automatically press a “reset” button for your marriage. But we hope they can give you a new perspective, and a way to shift your own behavior in a way that just might alter the trajectory of your marriage.
There’s no secret to how to have a successful marriage—literally: no secret. Keeping secrets from your spouse is a major indicator that things are on the wrong track. Keeping secrets means one or both of two things: you are doing something you know you shouldn’t, and/or you have difficulty with the clear, honest communication that is essential to a good marriage.
Affairs can end marriages, but the infidelity often isn’t the source of the trouble; it’s the symptom. Most people don’t have affairs because they meet someone outside the marriage and feel a sudden, irresistible passion. They have affairs because they want something out of the marriage that they feel they are not getting: respect, attention, physical affection, or something else. Instead of communicating about the problem with their spouse, they turn to someone outside the marriage to meet that need. Not only is that a betrayal of marriage vows, it does nothing to solve the uncommunicated problem between the spouses (except perhaps make it worse).
Of course, affairs aren’t the only secrets spouses keep from each other. Secret spending, sometimes called “financial infidelity,” is another source of stress on a marriage, and there are many more. The bottom line is, if you are keeping a secret from your spouse, you need to recognize that that, itself, is a problem. Ask yourself what the secret behavior is giving you. Ask yourself why you can’t discuss the behavior—and the need—with your spouse. If you need help sorting these issues out, a few sessions with a therapist can be helpful.
Yes, “teamwork makes the dream work” is a cheesy saying. That doesn’t make it any less true. The more you and your spouse see yourselves as being on the same team, the stronger your marriage will be.
What does it mean to be on the same team? It means that you prioritize your relationship with each other over all others. Your relationship with your spouse needs to be more important than your relationship with your friends, with your family of origin, and even with your kids (don’t worry; your kids will only benefit from a strong parental team). When someone criticizes your spouse, have your spouse’s back. If you happen to agree with the criticism, see above: communicate the issue to your spouse, not an outside party.
(While it is important to be on your spouse’s side, that doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility to cover for them if they are abusing you. If you are in an abusive relationship, and a friend or family member expresses concern about things they have noticed, you are not failing your spouse by confirming that you need help. Doing what you must in order to escape abuse does not mean you are to blame for the end of a marriage. Your spouse has already betrayed your team by harming you.)
Being on the same team also means not taking the other person for granted. Don’t assume it is your spouse’s job to make the money/keep the house/manage the finances/take care of the kids. It all comes back to communication. Don’t just fall into roles; talk about them and choose them. Failure to talk about your needs, or to listen for your spouse’s needs, is a breeding ground for resentment and disengagement. Disengagement destroys your team.
When you are part of a team, you can trust that your teammate has your best interests at heart, and they can do the same. You don’t have to be vigilant, watching to see if they do the “right thing,” and keeping score of their misdeeds if they don’t. Trusting your spouse to care for you means you can both relax more, and if there is a problem, you can tell each other right away, rather than letting it fester. When you believe your partner has your back, you interpret each other’s actions more charitably, meaning neither of you has to get defensive.
Even in the best marriages, spouses make mistakes. Be humble enough to admit yours, and have a sense of humor about your spouse’s mistakes. That’s easier to do when you assume good intentions on their part. Hopefully, those occasional goofs will be something you look back on together with laughter after many years of a successful marriage.
One final word. You two don’t have to go it alone in resurrecting your marriage. There are programs out there known as Discernment Counseling that can assist you and your spouse identify the issues in your marriage and assist you in exploring other options than divorce. Call us at Mundahl Law if you want information on these programs.