(The following is an excerpt from chapter 2, pages 11-15 of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life)
You hear a lot about the reasons marriages end. Usually, fingers point to affairs or money. But marriages don’t end because of events. In twenty years of practice, we have found that divorce occurs when two people, for whatever reason, have turned from one another and looked for satisfaction outside of the marriage. We call this turning.
Marriages fall apart through erosion. The breakdown starts slowly and proceeds with one tiny misstep after another, until the sum of these become so large that the relationship collapses.
This chapter will help you identify the series of imperceptibly small turns that led to one or both of you ultimately being so dissatisfied that the decision was made to end the marriage. Looking back at the deterioration of your marriage takes courage. But understanding what happens to typical couples, and what happened to you, can help you to move on. If you initiated the divorce, you’ll have a more clear understanding of why. And if you didn’t, the process will help you appreciate that this isn’t a sudden, single event that could have been prevented.
There is a predictable sequence of events that occurs as a marriage breaks down. While you’re in it, it’s difficult or even impossible to see. When spouses turn outside the marriage for satisfaction, it’s not always to drugs and sex. Often it’s something innocuous or even something positive, like working hard or focusing on the kids. But it’s turning all the same.
The first stage of the breakdown occurs when one or both spouses realize that they are not getting a need met by the marriage. The nature of the need isn’t as important as the fact that it’s not getting met. And this is how the erosion of a marriage starts.
When you got married, your relationship probably met the needs that were important to you. But as time went on, you let things slip. Let’s face it, that’s the way most relationships work. Then you reached a tipping point but probably didn’t realize it. And if your spouse initiated the divorce, you really didn’t realize it. Or if you did suspect, maybe it was too hard to face.
Turning is insidious and incremental, like erosion. If you’d seen it coming, either of you might have been able to stop it. Turning happens, and it’s nobody’s fault.
If spouses aren’t getting their needs met within the marriage, sometimes complaining and conflict begin in an effort to get what they want from their partner: “Why do you go golfing every Sunday morning with your friends when I have asked you for weeks to play tennis with me and you say you are too tired?”
Plenty of couples fight from time to time.
Fighting is very unlikely to be the real issue. Couples get into trouble because they can’t resolve how to help each other get their needs met. At this point, the fights may involve a lot of blaming and shaming. “You always go to bed two hours before I do so we aren’t having sex during the week anymore,” she says. “Yeah, well, if you worked, I wouldn’t have to put in all this overtime and be so exhausted,” he counters. The fight is a red herring, but it does give valuable clues to what’s really going on, even if it’s not the issue that is stated.
Think of the argument above. She’s complaining that he goes to bed too early, but what she’s really saying is “You aren’t paying any attention to me anymore.” His response blames her for not working, but what he’s really saying is “I feel so much pressure to earn money that I don’t have any energy left over for anything else. Help me!” But because of the blame, shame, and guilt overtones, this couple doesn’t hear each other’s real concerns, and as a result, they each fail to communicate what the other really needs to hear. If her statement had been “I am so lonely. I love you so much and I miss you because you work all the time,” and if his statement had been, “I miss you, too, but I feel like our budget is out of control. I feel so much pressure to earn money. I hate this as much as you do, maybe more. What can we do?”Who on earth would not respond to this kind of communication?
While you may have missed the opportunities in your marriage to establish real communication, there is value in understanding where those little missteps occurred that ultimately pushed you over the cliff.
Couples who can’t resolve their fights may think they have conflicting values. One wants more financial security, but the other wants to buy expensive electronics while they can still afford it, before they have children. They may have the same values, family first and financial security, but they have a different way of thinking about how to go about it. But because they never scratch the surface of the conflict, they don’t even realize they’re actually on the same page.
She is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001) and writes for the Huffington Post, as well as her own blog, Making Divorce Work.