Monday, March 23, 2015

Eight Ideas for Protecting Your Marriage from Divorce

I recently gave advice to singles and dating couples about how to lower their future odds of marital breakdown. Now, I’m focusing on those already married. In that prior piece, I listed some risk factors for divorce, so if you want a recap on those, see that post first.

What can couples do to avoid divorce? Hundreds of books, articles, workshops, and lectures have tackled that question. If there were a surefire way to “divorce-proof” a marriage, we would have found it by now. It doesn't exist. But there are some things married couples can do to minimize their risk of divorce.

Before I get to advice, I want to make three points clear. First, if your relationship is dangerous, focus on safety. My advice below is not designed for violent or abusive relationships. If you are in a dangerous relationship, get help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233, and in most areas there are also local groups you can contact.

Second, don’t confuse having risk factors for divorce, like the ones I documented in my last post, with being certain to divorce. I will tell you a well-kept secret. Experts aren’t good at predicting the likelihood that a specific couple will divorce. Researchers are good at finding variables that are associated with risk in samples of people, but we are not good at predicting the future of a given couple. Higher risk is higher risk but it’s not destiny. Nor is lower risk.

Third, people who are truly at very low risk for divorce shouldn't worry about it. If you and your spouse get along well, manage issues with respect, feel connected, and you are confident of a mutually high level of dedication, relax. Your risk is probably very low. Sure, things can go wrong and strain your relationship in ways no one foresees in the present. But if you seem to have a great marriage, you probably do. Just protect it and live your life.

What You Can Do to Avoid Divorce

There are two categories of advice below: To individuals and to couples. Spouses often have different opinions of the strengths and happiness of their marriages. Even if you have concerns, your partner may not. Further, you might realize that your partner is not interested in even talking about it. Hence, you might need to focus on what you can do and not what the two of you can do—at least for now. That leads me to a word of caution: Unless you have serious concerns, don’t make your efforts to strengthen your marriage something that undermines it. If your mate is not interested in doing something different right now, don’t blow that up into a big deal unless there really is a big problem.

As you will note, I have more advice below for couples than to individuals. The reason is that I think it’s harder to navigate what you may try, together, than what you can do on your own.  

               Just To You

1. Do your part. There is a lot an individual can do to strengthen a marriage. As my colleagues and I say in all our resources, “Do your part.” I won’t list a bunch of ideas here because there’s not really enough space and that’s what good books and resources are for. But if you are concerned about your marriage, the sooner you start to turn things around within yourself, the better. There are plenty of ideas one person can pursue as an individual to keep a marriage on track. If you want to read about one of my favorite strategies for one person to act on, check this out.

               To Both of You

If you are both willing to make changes, these ideas are for you.

2. Talk. Sit down and talk together about strengthening your marriage. Rather than trying to dig into deeper issues or past hurts, I’d focus on positive steps you could take as a couple to stay on the best path. I am certainly not against deeper talks about issues and history, but the better strategy for most couples is to focus on what you want to try, now, together, to boost and protect your marriage. If talking about how to nudge your relationship forward works well for the two of you, you could sit down and talk once a month about how to stay on course. If you have difficulty with conflict or there are deeper struggles where you do need to take things deeper, see some of the upcoming ideas.

3. Read a good book (on marriage). Read a book or two on marriage and try out some ideas. Don’t try to do a lot of things. Just find an idea or two that you both like and pursue those. Do something; don’t try to do everything.

4. Boost fun and friendship. People get busy, life gets strained, and spouses get distant. My colleague Howard Markman has always emphasized how important it is to keep fun and friendship alive in a relationship. You can make that happen by following this simple advice that is in all of our books (e.g., here and here): 1) Make time for doing enjoyable things together. 2) Protect those times from conflict. For example, suppose you have carved out some time for going out on a date or taking a walk together. Have an understanding between you that issues and problems are off-limits during those times. Deal with issues in some other time and place and don’t let hassles intrude on your opportunity to relax and be together.

5. Consider a relationship education workshop. Such workshops are widely available in some parts of the country. Some may be offered by religious organizations and others may be offered by community groups (who might have government funding to provide such services for free). Also, some relationship experts regularly do workshops for couples, for a fee. Search the web and ask around to see if anything is available in your area.

6. If conflict runs high… Learn to get it under control. If you need to, get help in how to manage issues more constructively. If you have children, this advice goes double. Children are negatively affected by exposure to conflict between their parents.[i] Don’t fool yourself by saying you are “keeping it real” in front of the kids. Bunk. Sure, if you handle issues extremely well as a couple (e.g., with great listening, respect, and resolution), that may be good for children to see. But, in general, conflict between parents—especially with escalation and invalidation—is bad for children to be around. And it’s not great for you, either.

One strategy to keep a lid on things is to learn to take time-outs as a couple. We talk about how in our books, but here’s the skinny. Agree on a signal that you will both honor when things are getting heated. I mean a word or a sign that means to both of you, “let’s cool it, now.” Agree that when either of you signal for a time-out, you’ll both do your best to honor it. Taking a time-out doesn't mean avoiding dealing with something important. It just means deciding not to slide (further) into nastiness in the moment. Some couples find it useful to agree on a typical amount of time to cool it before talking again about whatever lit things up. This type of time-out is not like what you use with a young child. Neither of you are putting the other in the corner. This type of time-out is like a sports team that’s losing control of the game and needs to take a break and get its act together.

7. Don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. I’m not talking about flicks and popcorn. Rather, don’t threaten divorce in the heat of frustrating arguments. I think a lot of couples say things that should not be said because they are in the heat of battle: “Why did we ever marry?” “Should we just split up?” “Why don’t you just move out if you feel that way?” Sensitive questions to bring you closer together, right? If you do that and you want your marriage to work, stop it. You cannot nurture the desire to invest in your future if you keep reminding each other that there might not be one. Don’t talk about divorce unless you really mean to talk about divorce. Again, learn to take a time-out.

8. Get professional help. Obviously, some people become deeply unhappy in their marriages. Yet one report I was involved with presented findings showing that many people who report being unhappy at one point but remain married rebound to a much better place within a few years.[ii] In another study I helped author, 34 percent of married respondents reported that, at some point in the past, they thought their marriage was in serious trouble and considered divorce. Of these folks, 92 percent reported that they were glad they were still together.[iii] On the other hand, some experts argue (from data) that those who become deeply maritally distressed are unlikely to get better on their own.[iv] If you have sunk into chronic unhappiness in your marriage, think about getting help.

Most couples in serious trouble wait far too long to get professional help. If both of you know something is seriously amiss, seek help now. When both partners are motivated, a lot of good things can result from seeing a skilled counselor. If you want to pursue this, ask friends, clergy, or your doctor for recommendations. And if you do see someone, plan to talk together (just the two of you) after a couple of sessions about whether you think the person you are seeing can help the two of you. If not, try someone else. Not all counselors are right for all couples.


A few married couples almost never have any downs—only ups. But most couples with very good marriages have ups and downs. That’s normal. One of the most important things you can do to avoid divorce is to hold reasonable expectations. You didn't marry someone who is perfect (only your mate did—smile). Expect joy and strains, maddening moments and laughter. Expect a real life.

Disclosure: I am co-author of two books I referenced here, and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked in the resource list noted above. Since helping people improve their odds in marriage is my area of specialty, it seemed unwise to avoid recommending anything that my colleagues (such as Howard Markman) and I are associated with.

[i] Cummings, E. M., and Davies, P. (1994). Children and marital conflict. New York: Guilford.; Grych, J., & Fincham, F. (1990). Marital conflict and children's adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267-290.
[ii] Waite, L. J., Browning, D., Doherty, W. J., Gallagher, M., Lou, Y., and Stanley, S. M. (2002).  Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a study of unhappy marriages.  New York: Institute for American Values.
[iii] Johnson, C. A., Stanley, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Amato, P. A., Nock, S. L., Markman, H. J., and Dion, M. R.  (2002).  Marriage in Oklahoma:  2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS).  Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
[iv] Beach, S. R. H., and Fincham, F. D. (2003).  Spontaneousremission of marital discord:  A simmering debate with profound implications for Family Psychology. The Family Psychologist, 19, 11-13.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Doing That Thing You Do (Redux)

Here’s a very simple idea for strengthening your relationship. It comes from many things I have written over the years about healthy sacrifices in relationships and marriage.

I think we all know of little things we could do that are good for our relationships that we are not likely to do on any given day. My emphasis on “little things” is very important. On most days, there are too many obstacles in the way of doing big things. Of course, big things are great to do from time to time, but big sacrifices require big opportunities that are rare. Small sacrifices do not require big opportunities. They are thoroughly and routinely doable.

If you want to apply this idea to your own relationship this week, here’s a little exercise for you. Take a few minutes of quiet time and think about some of the things you have done in the past for your partner that fit these characteristics.

1.  It is something under your control.

2.  It is something small that you can decide to do just about any day or week you want.

3.  It is something that you know is good for your relationship and that your partner tends to like.

4.  It is something you are NOT all that likely to do today or this week, even though you very well could.

Go ahead and write a few ideas down.

Challenge time. Commit to yourself to do one or two of the things you wrote down in the coming week.  Not 10. One or two. Develop some way to remind yourself and get after it.  Don’t tell your partner what you are doing, just do it. Your partner may or may not notice everything but he or she will probably notice some of these things. But that's not the point, really. The point is doing a few small things that are good for your relationship. Your relationship will be stronger for it.

If that works for you, try this idea out for a number of weeks (there’s not really any great reason to stop).

It’s point number 4 that really puts this idea into the realm of small but meaningful sacrifice. That’s because you are recognizing in yourself that you are not likely to do this very simple thing that you know your partner appreciates. You have to decide to go out of your way, a tiny bit, to follow through.

It’s not the thought that counts. Ideas that are never put into action may be thoughtful but they are not effective. Your mission is to do something.


(Redux—Edited from version first posted on 4-27-2009. We now include this idea in many of our books and relationship education materials because we believe it's simple and effective.)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

You Can Lower Your Risk of Divorce: Advice to Singles

I discussed in a recent blog post, couples marrying today still face a substantial lifetime risk of divorce. Even if the risk drops to around 40 percent, that’s a lot of divorce. However, you are not a statistic, and you can do things that impact your likelihood of lasting love in marriage. In this piece, I focus on those who are not yet married but who want to be in the future. In a future piece, I’ll focus on those already married who are concerned about their risk for divorce.
I will first share some factors associated with higher risk for divorce and then describe specific strategies for lowering that risk in your life.

Who Is at Greater Risk for Divorcing?

               In that recent post on understanding the divorce rate, I reviewed some of the complexities in understanding the average divorce risk. No matter which estimate one uses, the fact is that there is a substantial risk for divorce in marriage. While there are academic arguments about how great the average risk is, there is a lot less argument among scholars about the relative risks. Some people face a higher risk of divorce, and others a very low risk. What follows is not an exhaustive list but it will hit the highlights.  

Individual Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:
  •  Marrying at a young age (e.g., marrying younger than 22)[i]
  • Having less education (versus having a college degree)[ii]
  •  Having parents who divorced or who never married[iii]
  • Having a personality that is more reactive to stress and emotion[iv]
  • Having a prior marriage that ended[v]
  • Prior to marrying, having sex with or cohabiting with someone other than your mate[vi]
  • Having a very low income or being in poverty[vii]
  • Having lower commitment to your mate and to a future together[viii]
Couple Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:

  • Having a child together before marrying[ix]
  •  Living together before either being  married or at least engaged[x]
  • Poorer communication and conflict management[xi]
  • Being different in religion or race[xii]
While some people truly face a higher risk of divorce than others, many people who have a very low risk nevertheless worry about divorce happening to them. Some people avoid marriage because of their fear of divorce, but avoiding marriage won’t really reduce one’s chances of experiencing heartache and family instability. To really avoid the possibility of such pain, one would need to avoid love, sex, and children altogether. For some, avoiding marriage may actually increase their likelihood of experiencing the very thing they fear—heartache and break-up—because marriage can be a potent force for clarifying and reinforcing commitment between two people.
It’s useful to think about the above list of risk factors in terms of which are dynamic, meaning potentially changeable, and which are static, meaning not changeable.[xiii]  We think this is so important, we've talked about this near the start of almost all our books (those co-authored by me, Howard Markman, and our colleagues). The reason is, no one can go back and change the history of their parents’ marriage. Nor, when you are already married, can you go back and change the history of things like if you cohabited prior to engagement or had a child before marriage. But even with static risk factors, there is good news. Those seemingly unchangeable risk factors are believed to have their impact on your present life through other dimensions that are dynamic. For example, although having parents who divorced seems to weaken adults’ views of commitment in marriage,[xiv]  you can control your own beliefs about marriage and your own level of commitment to your partner.
Advice for Those Not Yet Married

               If you have not yet married or even chosen a partner, you have, by far, the most power to affect your eventual likelihood of divorce. Those who are already married can only change how they think and act in their existing marriage. Singles who have not yet chosen a partner have a lot more that is still on the table for change. In other words, your stage of life shapes what is dynamic and static in terms of factors associated with your risk for divorce. The earlier you are in the process of finding a mate, the more your choices going forward can affect your future. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you proceed.
1.  Take it slow. Get to know a person very well before deciding to marry. We all know people who fell in love at first sight and married within months, and who have done well over many years in marriage. But there are many other couples who married fast and blew apart. By taking more time, you can see how a potential partner treats others, responds to stress, and handles disagreements with you on things that matter. Also, if your relationship is moving toward marriage, take some time to clarify expectations about marriage, family, and life. If you are not sure what to talk through, my colleagues and I have chapters on expectations in most of our books, including a detailed list of topics to talk through (e.g., here and here).

2. Pay attention to major red flags. If you see evidence of controlling or abusive behavior, or serious substance use problems, don’t move blindly ahead hoping things will work out. Love does not conquer all. If you have trusted friends or family, listen to them about concerns they see in the person you are dating. Don’t marry a makeover project—or, at the least, don’t do so until there is great evidence of real, lasting change when there are concerns. And don’t move in together to test such a relationship. That’s the worst reason you can have to move in together.[xv]

3. Look for someone who shares your beliefs and values. What are your central values in life? Are they shared? Avoid situations where you might fall for someone prior to determining these things. Once you sense some chemistry, it’s hard to hold onto what had been non-negotiable for what you wanted in a mate. This is where people can use online dating sites effectively: You can be clear about the big things you are looking for in life before you meet someone and it gets all complicated with chemistry. Chemistry is great. You want to have that. But chemistry is best developed in a sequence, not as a blinding, binding glue in a relationship you’d otherwise never have chosen.

4. Look for mutual dedication. There should be sustained evidence that you and a prospective mate are equally devoted to the relationship; for example, that you are both willing to make sacrifices for each other. If you consistently think you are more dedicated to the relationship than your partner, consider moving on. That’s a bad sign for future marital quality. It’s fine to be looking for love, but it’s smarter to be looking for sacrifice. See here for a specific example.

5. Don’t let constraints for staying together increase before you establish mutual commitment to be together. Many people slide into situations that make it harder to end a relationship before they have made a clear decision about what is best. My colleague Galena Rhoades and I believe that this is what many people do not see about the risk of living together prior to marriage (or at least before engagement). For too many couples, living together makes it harder to break up before it’s clear that they really have a future together. Here’s a four minute video describing this problem.

6. Do premarital training: This is an area of expertise with a very long history of work by me and my colleague Howard Markman. While marital experts debate everything, there is solid evidence that completing premarital training (education, counseling, whatever it’s called) together can improve your odds in marriage.[xvi] Although this does not guarantee marital bliss, there is much more potential upside than downside. The one downside I sometimes think about is actually an upside: you could learn something concerning about your partner or relationship that you didn't fully appreciate before--something that could lead you to get more help or go slower. Because of this, I recommend that you seek premarital training as far before a wedding date as possible.  Why? Because the further in advance you complete it, the more you have a chance to find out something that could lead you to change your mind about marrying each other. I know I just lost a few of you. But consider carefully why you just checked out. Instead of doing something like living together, which has virtually no evidence of making marriages more likely to succeed, do something that can inform your decision without simultaneously making it harder to break up.

If you are likely to marry in a religious setting, contact that group and see if they provide premarital training. If not, check around to see if another group provides this service in a way that fits for the both of you. If you cannot find that, try a relationship education workshop if they exist in your community. Or, as another option, ask around about a local marital therapist who is skilled in helping couples prepare for marriage. If you don’t have any local options, there are online resources for assessing relationships before marriage (e.g., here) or for strengthening relationships (e.g., here, and here).

7. Be realistic about potential mates. There are things I like about the concept of a soul-mate. For some people, that means someone to share life with; someone at a deep level of connection and perhaps of shared beliefs who can be a fellow traveler in life. I have no problem with that. For others, however, the concept is dangerous: what they really mean by “soul-mate” is a perfect lover who is ideal for them. Here’s the risk in that: You may well marry someone you believe is your soul-mate, in this extreme view of perfect love.  But someday, you will realize that this person is not perfect. You will get hurt. You will be misunderstood or maybe even challenged about some of your imperfections.
               Some very sound marriages fail because one or both partners expected a level of acceptance, passion, or perfection that is just not possible or is exceedingly rare. That’s a real shame. What makes a great marriage is not two perfect people aligning their lives, but two imperfect people transformed by a life of commitment and love. Look for someone who can commit and grow and sacrifice, and be that person to your eventual mate.

But I Am at High Risk!

Perhaps you realize that you bring a high risk for divorce to a marriage. Some people get dealt a worse hand in life, and you may have been dealt a tough one. Further, individuals with a greater risk for divorce are more likely to marry other individuals with greater risk for divorce. What can you do? Consider the hand you were dealt and play that hand as well as you can. Even just committing to my first suggestion above, to go slower, could make a huge difference in your life and odds of divorcing. Marriage involves a choice to risk loving another for life, but that is different from gambling with your love life. Just make sure you are deciding rather than sliding your way into your future.

Disclosure: I am co-author of two books I referenced here, and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as an online resource. Since helping people improve their odds in marriage is my area of specialty, it seemed unwise to avoid recommending anything that my colleagues (such as Howard Markman) and I are associated with.  

[i] Glenn, N.D., Uecker, J.E., & Love, R.W.B. Jr. (2010). Later first marriage and marital success. Social Science Research, 39, 787-800.; Teachman, J. D. (2002). Stability across cohorts in divorce risk factors. Demography, 39, 331–351.
[ii] Raley, R. K., & Bumpass, L. (2003).  The topography of the divorce plateau: Levels and trends in union stability in the United States after 1980.  Demographic Research, 8, 245-260.; Wilcox, W. B., & Marquardt, E. (2011).  The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America.  Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project. [See the box labeled: Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower than You Think]
[iii] Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666.
[iv] Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27 - 40.
[v] Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666. ; Whitton, S. W., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2013).  Attitudes toward divorce, commitment, and divorce proneness in first marriages and remarriages.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 276-287.
[vi] Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.
[vii] Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
[viii] Impett, E. A., Beals, K. P., & Peplau, L. A. (2001). Testing the investment model of relationship commitment and stability in a longitudinal study of married couples. Current Psychology, 20(4), 312-326.
[ix] Tach, L., & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2009). How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality? Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(2), 298-317.
[x] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.
[xi] Gottman, J. (1994).  What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital process and marital outcomes. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.; Clements, M. L., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Before they said "I do": Discriminating among marital outcomes over 13 years based on premarital data. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 613-626.
[xii] Heaton, T. B.  (2002). Factors contributing to increasing marital stability in the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 23, 392-409.   
[xiii] Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50(3), 272-280. ; Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[xiv] Amato, P. R. & DeBoer, D. (2001). The transmission of divorce across generations:
Relationship skills or commitment to marriage? Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038-1051.; see also Whitton, S. W., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 789-793.
[xv] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples' reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 - 258.
[xvi] Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J.  (2003).  Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research.  Family Relations, 52, 105-118. ;  Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 117-126.