THE BLOG
07/10/2011 01:42 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2011

How to Train Your Marriage (Dragon)

I watched "How to Train your Dragon" on Netflix this weekend. It's a DreamWorks animated film about an adolescent boy who chose to communicate with a dangerous dragon, rather than slay it. Like most modern animations, it has deep meaning. In the case of "How to Train Your Dragon," it gives young males the option to express strength through gentleness and understanding rather than physical power and brute force. Since I'm a marriage specialist (as a divorce attorney and marital mediator), I also drew some lessons about marriage from the film.

In many ways, marriage is a dragon. It is fearsome and dangerous. Contending with it can be a struggle. Although the struggle usually does not cause death, marital struggles can be very painful. And half of the marriages lead to divorce, which, in a sense, is the death of a marriage. So one could view (as I did) "How to Train Your Dragon" as a parable of marriage improvement. Yes, find out what the interests of the dragon (spouse) are. Address the interests. Find out what the dragon's concerns and fears are. Be aware of the dragon's special skills and attributes. Then all the data will be there for you and your spouse to communicate and solve the conflict in your marriage, and not to fight unto its death.

What helps marriages

In my practice, I sometimes see clients (without their spouses) who are having marital difficulties. Usually these sessions are only one hour long, and I generally see the person only one time. I sometimes get a call afterwards saying how much our little conversation helped, and that the marriage is ongoing and improved. It may be the book I usually give the person: "The Relationship Handbook" by George Pransky. Sometimes it's something I said, such as, "You are not alone. Everyone goes through the exact same problem in marriage".

Sometimes the results of research help struggling clients. In 2002, a group of researchers from the University of Chicago analyzed data from the University of Wisconsin's National Survey of Family and Households. What they found was that almost 80 percent of those who had reported they were unhappily married and had stayed in their marriages, five years later reported that they were happy in their marriages.

This is powerful research. It indicates that if you stick with marriage, you can figure out "how to train that dragon." The follow up research found that the couples outlasted their problem, or actively worked to solve them and improve communication. Some used outside help, and some focused on personal fulfillment, accepting the limitations of their marriage.

There are many people out there working with couples to help them overcome the problems in their marriages. Here's an introduction to three of them: Laurie Puhn, Mark Goulston and Max Rivers.

Laurie Puhn -- How to Fight Less
Laurie Puhn, a self-confessed Harvard-trained divorce lawyer and mediator, has been working with married couples in Manhattan and the New York metropolitan area. She has written a book on how to change your marital relationship, entitled "Fight Less, Love More". In talking about the various "dumb" arguments couples have, she breaks them down. There is the "dumb premature argument". That's when you fight about something that hasn't occurred yet.

Then there is the "dumb director argument". Don't tell your wife what to do -- instead, make a statement about the situation.

So, if your wife just hung the pictures on the walls, but they're misaligned, don't say "You hung the picture too low. You need to fix it." Instead, you say, "I think the pictures aren't quite lining up. What do you think?" It invites the other spouse to have a conversation with you about the problem. Often, your spouse will agree they're misaligned, and change them without having to have a dumb, nasty argument.

It's these little (unnecessary) fights that eat away at marriage. Puhn's book is full of helpful strategies to eliminate them and address conflicts constructively. You can also read articles by Laurie Puhn here in The Huffington Post.

Mark Goulston and CBCT
Mark Goulston is a M.D. psychiatrist who offers an approach to marriage healing that he calls "Clarity-Based Couples Therapy" (CBCT). See Mark's article on CBCT on The Huffington Post.

Goulston also sees marriage as fraught with conflict. CBCT is based on teaching couples the skills they need in confronting and resolving conflicts as they arise. As part of his CBCT toolbox, Goulson uses conflict resolution techniques, tools derived from Buddhist mindfulness principles and using the awareness that comes from positive psychology in marital interactions.

Goulston says a marriage need not be defined and limited by a person's genes and upbringing. People can change these factors by wanting to have a shared future and being committed to working on it.
You can read Goulston's articles on The Huffington Post.

Max Rivers and Nonviolent Communication
I first found out about Max Rivers when he (very cogently) commented on my article on marital mediation on The Huffington Post.
Max Rivers is neither an attorney nor a therapist or marital counselor by training. However, in the past 10 years, he has focused his practice on helping married couples improve their marriages through marital mediation, with great success.

Aside from teaching mediation techniques to clients, another very important influence on his work is Marshall Rosenberg's method of resolving conflict, called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). To begin using NVC in your marriage (and other important relationships), get a copy of Marshal Rosenberg's "Nonviolent Communication -- A Language of Life." It's non-technical, simple and can transform your relationship.

What Rivers says is that the problem with marital therapy is that you're focusing on individual issues and problems in the marriage. As he says, "It's like going down a rabbit hole", and it turns out generally to be non-productive.

Rivers believes that you did marry the right person, when you stood up in front of all those people and declared your vows on your wedding day. It's just that once you're married, all the differences begin to surface. Married couples just don't have the skills to deal with these differences. Conflict is badly handled differences. Rivers maintains that differences are really good -- a couple has the benefit of more skills and views to access as they move along in life.

"What's important to realize", Rivers says, "is that most negative marital interchanges are about judgments. As soon as you judge your partner, their ears fall off."

Instead of judging (and being judged), Rivers says that the key is for people to identify their needs. Then their concerns don't come out as a judgment, and the other person can respond to the need without feeling attacked.

If you try this at home, you'll be surprised how often the "judging voice" is in your mind when viewing your spouse's behavior. You will begin to be aware of mutual verbal "attacks" in marriage. Once you identify the judging voice and the attacks, you can proceed to eliminate them and have a better marriage. You start to observe without judging. Then you start listening to what your partner really is saying, and grasp their feelings and needs. Mutual empathy and compassion develops; the marriage gets better.

Rivers reminded me of the Seinfeld episode in which Seinfeld thought he had finally met the perfect woman he would marry. How did he know? Because they both liked to eat cold cereal in the morning. Seinfeld said, "I finally found someone to love -- and she's just like me". They broke up within a week.

It turns out that people pick out mates who are different than them. This causes problems after the initial infatuation wears off. But it's actually better. Love and attraction were about the differences in the beginning, and can be about the differences in a mature marriage.

For more on Max Rivers and his work, visit his blog "Tired of Having the Same Old Argument." Rivers is located in Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Any couple wanting help with a difficult or troubled marriage in the greater Philadelphia area may wish to check him out. Rivers has developed a six-week program that he uses with couples and reports a very positive success rate.

Sounds like you and your marriage? It's time for you to do something about it. And that step is probably not towards divorce.

© Laurie Israel 2011.