By Marisol Barrios, MSPA
When I got divorced I reflected on what went wrong, what was right, how I could have improved the relationship, and what I would do differently if I was in another one. Reading books and talking to my therapist taught me a few things about marriage and what I should have done to keep it on the right track in a healthy way. I have summed up what I have learned from this failure in the hopes that my current relationship will reap the fruit of my labor.
Be committed to the relationship
Although my ex and I went to therapy for an extended period of time on several occasions, I never was truly committed to the relationship. What do I mean? In the back of my mind, I would hear my mother’s voice telling me to “always be prepared to divorce. You are a professional now and you can leave at any time. You don’t have to put up with anything.”
Rachel Howard, a licensed psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, says for a mother, who perhaps was not happy in her marriage especially “if she was dependent on someone for basic living expenses, that would be the best advice from her life experience she could offer her daughter.”
Now I realize she transferred her experience of marriage and a hidden desire to escape to her daughters. Her voice was my reason to not fully be committed to any relationship, to not change my last name, and to have a backup plan should “things” not work out. I chose to listen to my mother, to see the experiences of couples around me, and to be externally influenced.
“When someone mentions the D word or has it in their thoughts, it changes the perception of marriage and weakens it,” says Tora Massey, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who has counseled many couples in her private practice in Whittier, CA.
Being fully committed to the relationship and making the decision to be in it, loving unconditionally, is a challenging one, yet one that we must work on daily. In today’s relationship, I recognize the strengths and weaknesses we each have. With each partner’s gifts, the flaws demand more attention on days that trigger our feelings from past experiences. Recognizing that we all have negative deficits, we have a choice to make: to support each other through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, embracing our strengths and weaknesses to become resilient together.
Tora says, “Being fully committed to whomever you’re married means you don’t have one foot out that door.” She cautions couples that anything can come through it– temptation, bitterness, anger, blame–and infiltrate your marriage.
What helps my partner and I stay connected is the commitment we have for each other, for our families, for God—for love. Now I seek for the truth within, with God’s help and guided by grace.
Have common values and interests
When I interviewed a couple about their philanthropic giving, conversation began with how they met. The wife was 50 years old when she enrolled in a matchmaker workshop. I was stunned! I guess it’s not any different than eHarmony or Match.com nowadays. She told me one of the first things the matchmaker told her students was to write a list of what they wanted in a partner.
Well, what do you think I did? I came home and wrote a list of values and interests that I wanted my partner to have: faith, intellectual stimulation, enjoyment in hiking and camping, a fondness for wine, a willingness to dance, to name a few.
Shared values and interests are so important, says Rachel. “You have to be friends or you will drift apart.” In so many ways this is true: the couple that plays together, stays together.
I have found enjoyment with my partner by taking long morning hikes, riding bikes around town, going wine tasting and grape stomping, as well as sitting around the dining table enjoying a homemade meal and talking.
Tora also knows about divorce and not just because she has counseled many stepfamilies. As a therapist who is also divorced, there is so much more wisdom she has about marriage now. “I’ve learned so much through [the divorce] process,” Tora adds. “If I knew back then what I know now, would I want to go back? Absolutely not,” Tora answers. “My life now is so much better. My husband and I now are more compatible. I love my life.”
Resolve conflict efficiently
Communication is a key skill we can all agree is critical in marriage. Exercising attentive listening to understand and be empathetic rather than just responding to defend a position or action will go a long way. I’ve learned these tools and can even apply them in any relationship, personal or professional. Recently, I have learned that we must also have the ability to resolve conflicts. According to Tora, the lack of this skill is the biggest predictor of divorce. Communication is not just for getting along or listening, she explains. “When there is conflict, can a couple communicate and resolve it?”
If a couple has the ability to work through their problems, they reduce the chances of being part of the 40 percent who end up in divorce yearly in America.
Rachel agrees. “If you don’t have the ability to air and resolve grievances, you are really in trouble.” So often, Rachel says, they swallow their feelings and don’t say anything and then suddenly there’s an explosion. What’s the takeaway? Create a space to resolve the problems in a safe manner.
“Be efficient, not dramatic. Fight fair and stick to the issue that’s in front of you,” says Rachel. “See your partner’s goodness. This person has a positive motivation.” We must tell ourselves this person loves me and I can come to that person safely with my feelings. I understand that person does not want to hurt me.
Forgive to repair
Having a commitment to listening, taking in the feedback and feelings, and repairing what is the underlying concern will help nurture a healthy relationship, suggests Rachel. Taking these actions, one grievance at a time, will get your relationship further along on the right track. By doing this, we are creating a viewpoint of understanding, compassion, empathy, and sympathy. It creates the space to forgive our partners and repair the hurt.
To forgive means to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake. The act of forgiveness is a change in feelings and attitude toward an offense taken by someone who has hurt you. So how can we look at forgiveness?
Each partner in the relationship is a caretaker of the family and a nurturer to the children and each other. When a partner offends us, we can try to understand what happened by asking why and what was their intention or motivation. We express empathy and sympathy for their experience. Our partner has a need and we’re filling it by being sensitive to his or her feelings and validating and acknowledging them. Looking at the situation or the offense from a perspective of what they are going through or struggling with at that moment can help in understanding what happened so we can forgive them and repair the hurt feelings.
Show and express gratitude
I’ve learned to be grateful for the small things in a relationship: the opening of doors, the kiss upon coming home from work, a tender smile while watching television, a flower picked from a garden. Showing appreciation and expressing gratitude by always believing the best about your partner extends your healthy relationship. In marriage we sometimes fail to appreciate the person we’re with, taking for granted their goodness and generosity.
Using phrases like, “I appreciate you” and “I love you,” Rachel says, makes people feel welcomed and most of us didn’t get that growing up. Valuing the other person and treating them like a treasure connects couples to what it was that brought them together to begin with.
Both Rachel and Tora suggest creating a greeting ritual. Find your partner when you come home from work, give them a kiss, and greet them.
We are always evolving and changing. A relationship goes through the same journey; it evolves and changes over time. As we grow older we change because we’re wiser. Our perspective changes—it’s a natural part of a journey. And sometimes we get to a point in our marriage where we want things to be the way they were doing the honeymoon stage.
“I often hear people say ‘We just want to go back to how it was at the beginning.’ You can’t, can you?” says Tora. “Now we have additional years, children, mortgages, and stressors. It’s just not the same as before. Our expectations at 24 years old are outdated. They are not reasonable anymore. Our expectations need to change.”
When you get into a relationship it’s like getting a degree, says Tora. An educational journey is exciting. At first you get a general education, earning an associate’s degree in two years, which is like getting to know a person through all seasons. Then, you move on to your bachelor’s degree, focusing on the details. Thereafter, you pursue a master’s and a doctorate degree, a process that takes years.
You never stop learning and a relationship is the same. Even after my divorce, I learned so much about my marriage. You must stay interested in one another, exploring and learning about each other and from each other. And when times get torrential, choosing to stay committed to the relationship and following a few of these must-have ingredients will help weather the storm.
Mother of two sons, Marisol Barrios, a communications strategist, grace changer, and content creator, is still on a journey of self-discovery and learns many life lessons, primarily how wine and cupcakes can soothe her soul during challenging times.