As usual, the couple sitting in my office hated each other. They were obnoxious, rude and at times downright obscene. They were getting a divorce.
One year earlier, the husband came home from work early and went online. The web was open. His wife's Facebook page was visible. He saw it. A note to his wife opened from yesterday that read, "Can you get away tomorrow? I need to see you." Her response: "Yes! But I'll only have a couple hours, so how about 1pm at your place?"
It was 4pm. His wife wasn't home. Minutes later she arrived for what would go down in history as their final battle royale.
This couple came to me for divorce mediation. They chose not to hire a lawyer because it would be too expensive. But the mediation route, although economical, was tough because their anger and vengeance was intense. He blamed cheating for the failure of their marriage. She said she cheated because she felt as though they "weren't in a real marriage anymore."
I've heard that same comment from my clients, in different versions through the years. One blames cheating for the divorce, while the other blames the cheating on the marriage. This type of thinking often sparks the kind of hatred that outlasts the divorce decree and bleeds into endless conflicts over co-parenting, especially during the holidays.
While I'd sit with these couples in my office, always aware that they came to me to break their marriage vows, I would try to leave as much of their relationship intact as possible. To do that, I'd go back in time and surgically attempt to find and piece together what was lost and why this once loving couple had morphed into unremorseful enemies. If they could understand what happened, they could begin to heal the hatred and move forward.
Certain comments about their past would clue me in to the secret problem: "We were living like roommates. We weren't having sex. We barely communicated and if we did it turned into a war of words. He doesn't appreciate me. She always criticizes me." What I've observed is that most of these people display strong signs of feeling neglected before they cheat. They think, "I'm not in a real marriage anymore so the rules of marriage don't apply to me." And that's how an otherwise moral person gives himself, or herself, permission to cheat.
How does love die? Years before, most of these couples suffered from a rampant cultural problem - relationship rudeness. As human beings it's in our nature to take things for granted so that what we come to expect, we come to neglect. We assume that because we said "I do," our spouse knows that we love him or her, so why do we have to go out of our way to say things that are kind or appreciative? I would hear things from clients like, "Why should I thank him for loading and emptying the dishwasher? He ate on those dishes too." "Why should I thank her for helping our son with his math homework? I expect her to do that." "Why should I thank him for going to the supermarket? He bought whole milk when I wanted skim milk." That's when I have to ask, have you ever heard of partial credit?
The worst was when clients would say, "I shouldn't have to praise my mate when he does something nice for someone else." Wrong again. In a committed relationship it's your job to be your mate's head cheerleader with comments like, "That was so kind of you to spend time with Jon yesterday when he needed your advice. Jon is lucky to have you as his friend." Those are compassionate words that warm the heart and soul. Many couples I work with neglect their role as their mate's cheerleader thereby leaving a job opening for someone else.
Consider this: Most relationship problems couples face are not people problems, they are communication problems. We can all expect to face obstacles and challenges in life such as a new baby, a family illness or a job loss. But the distinction between whether our relationships crumble under new pressure or survive comes down to the words we choose on a daily basis to connect or disconnect with our partners.
In mediation sessions, when I work with divorcing couples, I make them aware of their own poor communication habits and how they contributed to their relationship downfall. I want them to learn new skills to improve their odds for having a better relationship in the future. In my new book "Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In" I share the tips and strategies I teach couples to ignite and keep understanding, appreciation and respect alive in a relationship. My view - if we can change our thinking and our words today, we won't need to change our partner tomorrow.
Laurie Puhn is a Harvard-educated lawyer, couples mediator, speaker and author of the new book, "Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In." Her interactive website with free tips and articles is www.fightlesslovemore.com
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