Actually, I lied. This is not a “how-to.”
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This is a “how-not-to.”
How not to make the mistakes that destroy relationships, marriages, and happiness. I’m the guy who loves looking at academic research, but I also feel we gain a lot from non-academic experts. I’ve talked to FBI hostage negotiators about lowering your cable bill, Navy SEALs on how to be more resilient, and bomb disposal experts on how to stay calm under pressure.
So what can a top divorce attorney tell you about how to make sure you never, ever have to step foot in his office? A lot, actually.
James Sexton has handled more than 1000 divorces. He doesn’t claim to know what makes a relationship work… but he sure knows what doesn’t.
I’ve had a ringside seat to countless ruined or doomed-from-the-start relationships. After two decades of performing this profoundly intimate service for so many ex-spouses-to-be, as well as for people in myriad other relationship permutations (e.g., living together; having a child in common), the sheer bulk of these observations has turned into wisdom of sorts.
His book is “If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late.” Given that divorce is one of the few things that can put a permanent dent in your happiness levels, we should let James play Virgil to our Dante and tour us through this netherworld so we never have to take up residence there.
Learning lessons from the successful is great, but sometimes we get more from looking at those who didn’t fare as well — so we can avoid their mistakes.
Time for the not-so-happy to show us how to be happier. Let’s get to it…
Define “A Good Marriage”
Go ahead – I dare you. No vague platitudes, either.
<sound of crickets>
It’s not easy, is it? Honestly, it’s not even a fair question because every person’s definition would be different. In fact, your own definition would almost certainly change at different points in your life: before kids, after kids, during retirement, etc.
But we rarely answer this question. And rarer still is getting clear on the answer with your spouse. Does tying your happiness to the achievement of an undefined goal seem like a very good strategy to you?
If you’ve thought long and hard about what marriage means, congratulations: You’re different from many of my clients… What roles, specifically, will you play in this person’s life, and they in yours? What do you get in exchange for doing this? What’s the job description of marriage?
This is a big problem. James says marriages fail for only two reasons.
I have learned, over and over, that marriages and other committed relationships fail for two fundamental reasons. 1) You don’t know what you want. 2) You can’t express what you want. End of story.
So what’s your definition of a happy marriage? What responsibilities does that entail? What are you entitled to and what are you not? And is your spouse on the same page?
Truth is, people do answer these questions eventually…
But, unfortunately, it’s often once they’re already sitting in James’ office.
It’s strange to me—sad, actually—that the first time people ask themselves these questions is, quite often, in my office, when they’re in the process of crumpling up the future that wasn’t. Isn’t this inquiry something that married people should be doing on a regular basis? Individually, and especially together? In simply talking things out with me—often brutally, but clearly and in detail—my clients gain a real sense of how they define generic, vague terms such as “success,” “happiness,” and “security,” often for the first time in their adult life. When is the last time you and your spouse discussed what it specifically means to be “happy” and how you each define that term?
Have this conversation with yourself. And have it with your spouse. That way you don’t have to have it with James.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, we’ve covered the big picture. So what else is vital when it comes to communicating with your spouse?
Be Hyper-Honest With Your Partner
Yeah, I know: sounds cliche. “Be honest with your partner.” But we’re going way past polite honesty here. We’re going to Stage-4-Cringe-Level-Honesty.
The kind where you start to grimace in pain at just the idea of saying that thing out loud.
We assume far too many things are obvious. And it’s often very self-serving. It prevents us from having uncomfortable conversations or having to ask for things that are scary. But we still want to be able to call our partner out if they don’t do-the-thing-we-never-actually-mentioned. I’m not a lawyer but last time I checked, contracts that only one person has signed aren’t enforceable.
Of course, James hears people complain about their spouses a lot. But when he asks, “Did you tell them that?” the most common response is, “Well, they should have known.”
People can’t hear what you don’t say.
No one—not even individuals in really happy couples, or with exceptional hearing—can hear what the other person isn’t saying. It’s easy to look at couples on the verge of a breakup and nod about their lack of communication: “Well, of course they broke up—they long ago stopped communicating frequently and effectively.” But that could also be Monday-morning-quarterbacking. Flip the sentiment and it makes just as much sense: “They don’t communicate frequently and effectively, so of course they’re bound to break up.”
If you don’t tell them, they can’t address it. So you stay irritated. And resentment festers. And that leads to arguments that reach call-911-levels because the argument isn’t about what the argument is about.
So communicate early and often. Say that thing, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Especially if it makes you uncomfortable. Because grievances that go unspoken accumulate compound interest at a faster rate than your 401K.
You wouldn’t ignore your bank balance for a month. Don’t ignore the state of your relationship for that long either. Fix the small cavity so it’s not a root canal later.
Everything comes out eventually—everything… One reason to get it all out is to make things unpleasant sooner rather than later, because the later unpleasant is way more unpleasant…The other reason is so that the real problem can be discovered before it gets buried. We try so hard not to chip the glass that we shatter it. We try so hard not to cause our spouse mild irritation with a difficult conversation that we inadvertently create a major issue in our relationship that never gets fixed and that leads to much larger problems.
Have your spouse read this post. And then when something comes up, you can say, “Can we have a hyper-honesty moment?” Timing is important. Yes, sooner beats later but you don’t want to have serious relationship discussions when someone is late for work or operating a bandsaw.
Focus on talking about your feelings. Avoid blame and accusations.
…share how you’re feeling without attempting to explain it. You feel how you feel. And those feelings have repercussions both short- and long-term. They inform how we relate to our spouse or partner on a day-to-day basis. They create habits that build intimacy or distance. We owe it to ourselves and our partners to share the building blocks of our inner lives before those little blocks create a wall that separates us from them.
(To learn the four most common relationship problems and how to fix them, click here.)
Okay, we’ve gotten past the honesty issue…
Oops, sorry. No, we haven’t. Because we’ve neglected the person you’re often the least honest with…
Be Hyper-Honest With Yourself
People lie to James constantly. And there’s no reason to. He’s legally bound by confidentiality. And he’s seen it all — so he’s not judging. And, most importantly, he needs to know the facts to help his client get the best resolution. But they lie anyway. Why?
Because they’re not really lying to him. They’ve been lying to themselves for so long they don’t even know it’s not the truth.
The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it appears to be incredibly popular, at least from where I’m sitting.
Everybody has a pretty good idea of what they want from their spouse. But the question that’s rarely asked is what you’re really capable of. How much are you truly willing to give and do on a daily basis without being nagged to death or having a gun to your head?
Why wait until you’re getting divorced (or heading in that direction) to be honest with yourself about what you’re capable of in your relationship with your spouse and/or your children? …be honest with yourself, right now, about how far you really think you would be willing to go for your partner.
At what point does your response to marital adversity go from “We’ll find a way, dear” to “Whoa, I didn’t sign on for this crap”?
Know your weaknesses. You can’t address them if you don’t admit them to yourself.
Be honest with yourself, deeply and painfully honest. Admit to yourself what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Admit to yourself how much time you have to devote to the goals you’re trying to achieve as a parent or partner, and what you’re doing with that time. Be honest about the aspects of partnership and/or parenting that you enjoy and the ones that you loathe (or maybe could take or leave).
And on a semi-regular basis, give yourself an honest progress report. Are you doing your part? Are you putting as much effort into the marriage as you did planning the wedding?
Realistic, achievable goals in terms of improving your marriage come from brutal honesty with yourself and clear, actionable steps you can take.
Why not look closely at certain key areas in your marriage and give yourself an unflinchingly honest progress report as to what you’re actually doing? While you’re at it, maybe you can compare that totally candid report against an equally honest, tangible set of goals that aren’t made up of conclusory statements lacking in measurable meaning. “I want to be more present in my marriage.” What the hell does that mean? It’s a conclusion. It’s a destination, not a path to get there. How about something more tangible, like “I want to stop playing with my phone when my spouse is talking to me” or “I want to do more activities on the weekends with my spouse.”
It’s very easy to express commitment to a principle. It’s much harder to consistently take actions that demonstrate that commitment.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, lots of honesty flying around. And in the long term, that’s great. In the short term, uh, it might lead to a little bit of conflict…
A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide To Arguing
James argues for a living. (He tells his kids he won’t argue with them for free because it wouldn’t be fair to his paying clients.) Luckily, this means he has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in dispute resolution — especially in the marriage sphere.
Here are a few of his key principles gleaned from all too many conversations with people who were ending their unions:
1) Don’t be obsessed with being right or winning
If you try to win every single point your reward will be a bonus round where you try to win as much as you can in the divorce proceedings.
Shoot for resolution rather than full satisfaction… When it comes to the person you love, you can concede once in a while. Which is more important: having your perspective on an issue validated and the ego gratification of being right, or the feeling of connection that comes with being both understood and understanding? Which is more important: the feeling that you won the argument or the feeling that you’re winning at the larger game of love and companionship?
2) Keep the discussion focused on the topic at hand
This prevents “you left the lights on” from spiraling into “why you are a subhuman troll not worthy of my love.”
Keep disputes focused; don’t take current behavior and start extrapolating larger trends in the relationship because, in the moment, it might seem like a good idea to “get them out in the open” and “hash them out.” Such leaps are dangerous, and they’re dirty pool…
3) For the love of god, don’t start arguments over things that cannot be changed
Do you have a time machine? I doubt your spouse has a time machine. So don’t get into arguments over things that can only be resolved with a time machine.
Sure, there are times when your spouse did or said something stupid and they’re likely to do it or say it again if the behavior is left unchecked. In those circumstances, it might be worth having the argument… If you’re just holding a grudge and upset with your spouse about something unrelated and it’s impossible to change or undo, tread lightly.
So what should you do during a marital spat?
Before you open your mouth, think about the part of them that you fell in love with. And then imagine that the next thing they’re going to do is pay a visit to James.
Imagine you’re going to lose your spouse later today—that they’re going to leave you today because of something you’ve done to them. How would you treat them then? Exactly as you think they would want to be treated, right? By the time I see couples, they’ve reached the point where it’s almost impossible for them to remember that the person they’re about to divorce was once the person they loved more than anyone in the world, the person whose happiness they would do anything to bring about. Solid couples who have hit a rough patch sometimes suffer a similar amnesia. If you conjure an image of your partner’s best self and address that person, you can often defuse a fight or break an impasse.
We remember the cruel remarks better than the compliments, so be careful when emotions flare.
(To learn the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)
So what will improve your marriage that has nothing to do with your marriage?
Get A Life (Outside Of Your Partner)
Make time for you. Yourself. As an individual. Yeah, you’ve heard it before, I know. But I’m here to confirm that neglecting this really does lead to bad things. James sees it all the time.
Don’t lose your identity in your marriage or in becoming a parent. I’m not here to regurgitate the obvious. But I would like to point out just how often this issue, in one form or another, is at the root of so many divorces… The marriage vows ask us to forsake all others. They do not demand that we forsake all the other good things we can be.
Don’t become boring. Not that anyone wants to be boring, but it happens. A lot. And it’s a sad irony that a 110% focus on your marriage can make you boring which can then end your marriage. (I don’t make the rules, okay? I’m here to help. Seriously.)
The Facebook-fueled competition to have the perfect life combined with helicopter parenting can leave you a hollowed out shell that is no longer human. You can become little more than a life support system for a family unit.
This won’t make you happy and it won’t make your spouse happy either.
You stay interesting to your partner by staying interested in things outside your life together. You stay interesting to yourself—therefore better equipped to stay interesting to your partner—by stepping outside the marriage, from time to time, to find satisfaction. Your spouse can be a lot of things for you without being everything. Why the hell did we start trying to have one person be everything? Who thought that was a good idea?
I know, you’re busy with the kids. Here’s where James has some very unconventional advice:
Pretend you’re divorced.
No, don’t download Tinder and buy a Porsche. Engage in informal “custodial rotation.” Have days where “your spouse gets the kids” and where “you get the kids.” To allow each of you to have time to recharge and be an individual.
Kids can harm a marriage. (Yeah, I said it.) Kids can turn your passionate lover into a neutered business partner in a new venture called “Kids, Inc.” But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Rotate custody.” Stay an individual. Stay interesting to yourself and your partner.
Added bonus: an occasional day away will make you appreciate your family all the more.
(To learn the science behind a *good* marriage, click here.)
We’ve covered a lot of big picture stuff. What about the day-to-day?
Remember: “Love” Is A Verb
The child’s game is called “show and tell.” In that game, showing is easy and telling is the hard part. With marriage it’s the reverse. Saying you love someone is easy. Putting in the effort every day to make them feel loved can be hard.
What does James say is the biggest threat to any long-term relationship? Slippage. We get lazy. We take things for granted. We take our partner for granted.
Marriages end gradually. And then suddenly.
The biggest danger in a long-term relationship: slippage. Because—again—no one raindrop causes the flood… It’s trite to say, but nothing that you don’t focus on—your abs, your stamp collection—will magically thrive. It will stagnate, then wither. Eventually. Why should your marriage be different? So many of my clients misspent their emotional resources on things around the marriage, until they became so depleted, there was nothing left for the marriage. They had stopped paying attention.
How do we resist this? You need to zap yourself with the gratitude defibrillator every now and then.
We can take our partner for granted and get resentful. It’s all too easy to weave a victim narrative where you do everything and they do nothing. And then we feel entitled and do less and then they do less and it’s a sprint to absolute zero and the heat death of the relationship.
So sit down and make a list of the good things your spouse does for you. (We all seem to be pretty good at remembering what we do for them, oddly.)
For partners who’ve been together a while, how do you guard against slipping into the entitlement mindset? Sit down and write a list of all the things your spouse does for you. Is it hard to do? Did you ever stop and think about it? You can go big or small. You can start with the big ones, such as companionship, conversation, sex, or you can get more logistical—“picks up the kids,” “takes out the trash.” Hopefully, the list isn’t limited to “takes out the trash.” I bet you’ll be surprised at how much your spouse does. What would you miss if they were suddenly gone from your life or from the home you share together?
Zap yourself with the gratitude defibrillator. It can restart your heart.
(To learn how to deal with passive aggressive people, click here.)
We’ve completed our tour of Hades. Please unbuckle your seat belt and exit through the gift shop.
Time to round up the takeaways and learn the real reason why most people end up divorced — so that you won’t…
Here’s how to stay out of James’ office:
- Define “good marriage”: If you don’t know what your goal is, how can you achieve it?
- Be hyper-honest with your spouse: Say it in a conversation or a deposition. Your choice.
- Be hyper-honest with yourself: Know your weaknesses and you can prevent them. If you don’t, bad “luck” will follow you forever.
- Argue well: As James likes to say, “Make the holes you dig shallow because the deep ones are hard to climb out of.”
- Get a life: Rotate custody so you never really have to rotate custody.
- “Love” is a verb: Gratitude defibrillator — STAT!
Why do marriages end? Because they lost the thing that is most important. The core of marriage:
Ask most people to name the two top reasons for divorce, and they’ll almost always guess correctly: cheating and ruinous money issues. But those are never the reasons for divorce—rather, they’re the symptoms of a bad marriage. Lack of meaningful connection and proper attention and enduring affection led to those lapses,
Enough scary divorce talk. Start with the last tip: “Love” is a verb.
Think of something kind your spouse does for you. Text them right now and let them know how much you appreciate it.
Yes, you may sound a little crazy. That’s okay — being romantic is, by definition, a little crazy.
The best kind of crazy there is.
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