This is a guest post written by Toni Nieuwhof. Toni and Carey Nieuwhof met in law school and have been married for three decades. Toni is the author of Before You Split: Find What You Really Want For The Future Of Your Marriage (available for pre-order).
You can download her free Better Conflict Cheat Sheet here.
You probably have at least one marriage around you that’s imploding.
In my divorce law practice, I remember meeting with clients who would tell me things like, “Her best friend calls her a warrior. It’s all there on her Facebook feed. All her friends, saying “you go, girl!” and “my divorce was the best decision I ever made”.” Or, “his family never liked me. They’re brainwashing him to leave me and find someone else.”
The people whose marriages you’re trying to help are being swayed by close others around them who see divorce as a better way.
If you’re a leader, I’d encourage you to take stock of your influence on the marriages around you. You might be positioned to be the one influence resisting that gravitational pull. How are you exerting that influence?
Maybe that question could fuel your next conversation with a colleague or ministry partner.
One thing before we go further: this article is intended to speak into unhappy, not harmful marriages. For my article dealing with that distinction, click here.
To move the conversation along, here are my thoughts on 5 ways to steer couples away from divorce:
1. “BEWARE THE CHEERLEADERS”:
As I mentioned, what others are whispering in the ears of your people matters. Don’t allow divorce advice that may not actually be in the best interests of this couple to linger in the dark. If you have access, talk to them frankly about what they’re hearing from the voices close to them.
Is there a friend or family member pulling for divorce? If so, is there anyone else in their life who they’re turning to for advice, who wants their marriage to win? There’s divorce research to show that a person is more likely to decide to divorce if they have friends who are divorced.
Open the eyes of the couples you’re working with, whose marriages are struggling, to the reality of this influence. You want them to know so they can be more intentional about who they lean into for relationship support during their rough season.
2. KEEP ADULT ISSUES WITH ADULTS AND LET KIDS BE KIDS:
If the couple you’re helping has kids, there is no better time than now to figure out how to prevent their struggles from leaking out into their kids’ lives. Especially if they’ve been fighting, the time for peace is now!
Here’s some coaching to share with parents:
- Your kids hear and know more than you give them credit for. Chances are, they hear you arguing when you think they’re sleeping;
- When you’re ready to kick your spouse out the door, your kids may get the message that you don’t approve of their affection for their other parent. But your child needs both of you, and they need you to show them you understand that. Your body language, your venting and facial expressions of frustration with your partner may be communicating more than you think to your child. If you don’t make it safe for them to openly love your spouse, what’s the impact? For your child, it means more anxiety, insecurity and energy spent walking on eggshells.
- If you’re experiencing intense tension in your marriage, you may be leaning on your children emotionally. Maybe you’re confiding in them about how the other parent is making your life harder. Maybe you’re looking to be consoled by someone. Without intending to, you turn to your kids for comfort. The two of you may be vying for their approval.
- You may not realize that in the process of doing these things, you’re burdening them with your adult marriage issues and may be undermining their bond with either parent. The solution? You both need other adults to turn to for emotional support while you’re struggling with your marriage. Set clear boundaries at home to avoid burdening your kids with your marriage woes. In other words, turn to adults for your adult issues, and let your kids be kids.
- There are very practical, teachable steps you can take to make your arguments healthier. To be clear – you should have conflict. Ideally, you’ll learn to model functional ways of dealing with conflict between you for your kids. I’ve developed the Better Conflict Cheat Sheet for people to print out and keep on hand, to help with those heated moments: (click here).
3. MEDIATE APOLOGIES:
If they’re willing to go there, guide people into conversations they’ve resisted but truly need. These are the messy ones, confessing their shortcomings and offering forgiveness to each other. Help them hear what the other is saying, so that the facts and the resulting feelings from both their perspectives are brought out. Create a safe space for each of them to own at least one of the ways they’ve hurt the other, and to apologize.
It may help them to hear from you about the basic ingredients of true forgiveness: justice (the facts and feelings), mercy and humility. Maybe the couple you’re working with needs a guide who will lead them build a solid practice of confessing their shortcomings and forgiving each other. For more on this, see Chapter 8 in my book, Before You Split.
4. COMMUNICATION IS ESSENTIAL TO A TEAM APPROACH TO DECISIONS:
Is the couple you’re working with listening to each other – really? If not, you could offer them this listening technique: The person who’s speaking must hold an object such as a pen, which passes to the other person for their turn to speak only after they’ve repeated the gist of what they just heard. If they can’t – no one gets mad or leaves in a huff. The speaker simply repeats what they said until their partner gets it. Then the pen passes. And so on.
Is one party dominating the conversation? Does one tend to be less communicative? Are they reaching a level of exchange that is sufficiently meaningful? Suggest that they pre-plan meetings over important decisions. Explore corrective techniques, such as writing out thoughts in a letter or pro/con lists or researching unanswered questions in advance of a meeting over a decision.
In short, the couple in your office may need your help to communicate better with each other, so they can make decisions they can both live with. If one spouse refuses to listen to or be influenced by their spouse, there’s an 81% chance the marriage won’t survive. Encourage a team approach to decision making.
5. SET SOME NORMS:
When couples lose their closeness and feelings of intimacy, they tend to panic. They think things like, How can I endure a lifetime of this? Is this really as good as it gets? Or, I just can’t do this anymore! But, with your support, they may resist that urge to bolt out the door. You can clarify some norms, such as these:
- Almost every long-term married couple goes through one or more phases of marriage where they question their decision to stay married. They feel disappointed and disillusioned. Ann and Dave Wilson describe one of the four predictable seasons of marriage, using this acronym: “REDO” 1. Romance; 2. Excitement 3. Disappointment/ Disillusionment 4. Overcome or Over. The bottom line? The struggling couple in front of you isn’t exceptional; they’re normal.
- There’s research showing that if you want to be happily married in 5 years, you might as well stay married. That’s what researcher Linda Waite found in her study of 645 unhappily married people. She surveyed them at the start (while reporting marital unhappiness) and then again after five years. She compared two groups: spouses who stayed together and spouses who divorced.
- After the five-year period, 66 percent of the spouses who initially gave the lowest rating on the happiness scale (1 or 2 out of 7) and who decided to stay together reported becoming happy again in their marriages. Compare this with the group who initially gave the same low ratings but who divorced: only 19 percent of the divorce group reported being happy at the five-year mark. If you want to be happy in your marriage, but currently you aren’t, Waite’s study supports staying together. Your odds of being happily married in five years are better if you do.
- Other than in extreme cases, what your kids really want is for you to stay together.
To reverse this gravitational pull toward divorce, we all need to lean in and have meaningful conversations about what we can do together to help couples resist the gravitational pull toward divorce and grow toward the joy and freedom of a unified marriage.