Many spouses ignore the alarms of discontent that their partner has been ringing for years. To them, none of the complaints sounded like they might end up leading to divorce. When their spouse “suddenly” announces that he or she is moving out, wants to end the marriage, or has even already filed for divorce, the ground below shakes like an earthquake. Is there any way, at that last-ditch point, to stop a divorce?
Ted announced on Friday to his wife Maria (names have been changed for confidentiality) that he wanted a divorce. Maria was shocked. She had no idea that her husband had been so unhappy. Yes, he had complained about this and that—but don’t all husbands complain?
By Monday morning, however, Maria had made a decision. She would do all she could to stop the divorce. If you, like Maria, believe that you and your spouse can make it work, here are the 7 strong steps that she and I (the therapist she went to for help) mapped out together for her.
1. Prepare for action.
If you are serious about wanting to stop a divorce, you should—as soon as possible—soothe the panic, skip the moping, and make an action plan.
2. Smother the urge to play victim.
“How could you do this to me?” may express how you feel, but it’s likely to be a loser strategy for regaining your spouse’s affection. Guilting your partner into returning will just win back—if it wins anything—a depressed, “I hate being here again” spouse. That's not a good alternative, nor a good strategy to stop a divorce in the long term.
To skip the “poor me” phase, flip to “proud me.” Remind yourself of the positive qualities you can bring to a marriage, and figure out how to show them in their full colors. Pretty soon, you’ll start believing in yourself more.
Notice that I said “show,” not “show and tell.” Let your actions speak louder than your words. Save your words for appreciation of or open conversations with your spouse, not for comments about yourself. Flattery will get you everywhere; self-praise can be a turn-off.
Speaking of appreciation, strong people give out lots of positivity. Smile at your almost-ex. Laugh at theirs jokes. Express affection. Share your gratitude for good things your spouse has done.
3. Clarify what you need to change.
Make a list of all the grievances or comments that your spouse has made to you that now, with hindsight, you can see were attempts to head off a divorce. List all the complaints, criticisms, and disagreements you can recall.
Check out the list with your almost-ex. Be sure you left nothing out—and at the same time, keep your tone neutral, as if you are just checking the list you're bringing to the grocery store. “No big deal; I’m just making sure my list is complete.” Don't play the victim—and no groveling, either.
Once you have your list, think back to your family of origin and determine if any of the behaviors originated from observing the behavior of someone else you grew up with. Was the behavior something you witnessed in your mom, your dad, or perhaps an older sibling?
The behaviors won't always have an easily identifiable source. But the more effectively you can identify where or why you might have learned certain negative behaviors, the more effectively you will be able to let go of them and replace each habit with a far better one.
Then, map a plan of action for fixing every item on your list.
4. Feel and look your best.
Appearance—both the effort you put into how you look and how you feel about how you look—can be a huge factor in rekindling romantic feelings and, ultimately, stopping a divorce.
Get a new haircut that you love. Pay attention to the clothes you’ve been wearing; throw out those baggy sweatpants and uncomfortable shoes. Picture how you would look if you were to look your very best. If the image isn’t clear, pay attention to people you find attractive at the grocery store or to well-dressed folks you see on TV. Then, use that information to figure out how to update and energize your own personal style.
5. Clean up all the old hurts.
Find out what resentments and hurt feelings your spouse carries that may have been factors that led to their filing for a divorce. Write out a list of all the moments that your ex recalls with anger or bitterness. Create your own list as well.
Then, go through each item on the list together, one by one, to “find the mis.” That means each of you needs to look for your own part in the misunderstanding, misperceptions, or mistakes. No one gets to comment on what the other did that was problematic. Just aim to understand what you did that inadvertently contributed to the problem. Apologize for it. Then, figure out what you can do differently in the future to prevent any repeats.
Mistakes are for learning. If your marriage is rocky now, you (and your spouse) probably haven't been doing enough learning from your own mistakes.
6. Believe in yourself.
To keep up your morale as you plow ahead, think about the proverbial "little engine that could," whose mantra became, “I think I can, I think I can.” Treasure this mantra, and say it to yourself multiple times a day.
If, deep down, you believe that you don’t deserve to be loved, you need to change that. Use “temporal tapping,” a technique for changing self-defeating beliefs. With the three longest fingers of your right hand, tap in a circle around your right ear. Tap from front to back, down and around, completing a circle, for as many as 10 circles. As you tap, say aloud, “I deserve to be loved. I am lovable. I deserve to be loved. I am lovable.” Temporal tapping reprograms your brain, replacing negative beliefs about yourself with positive ones.
Recite your mantra and do your tapping multiple times each day, as often as possible, until your determination and self-confidence feel strong enough for you to rely on them.
7. Learn the skills that everyone needs if they want to be good at being in a partnership.
You wouldn’t expect to walk into a courtroom to conduct a trial without first learning the skills of a lawyer. Yet how much training did you get for the job of spouse? Probably very little, even though the skills you need to succeed at the job take most people significant training to do successfully.
Learn the four skill sets essential for sustaining a loving relationship:
- Talking together cooperatively
- Making win-win decisions together
- Preventing anger from spoiling your relationship
- Pumping up the positivity you emanate to each other
Self-help articles, books, or an online course can help you learn all these skills; sometimes, a couples counselor can also be a reliable mentor. But pick carefully to be sure the one you choose can teach you the skills you need.
What Happened to Ted and Maria?
Maria decided that she would fight with all her energy to win back Ted's heart, repair their marriage, and give both of them (as well as their children) the strong family that they all, at heart, longed for. She launched immediately into this seven-step plan.
The strategy worked, though there's still more healing to go. Within days of Maria launching her campaign, Ted called his lawyer to tell him to withdraw, at least temporarily, the divorce papers he had filed.
To his credit, Ted realized that a divorce would not heal his years of built-up resentments nearly as effectively as working together with a wife who now was giving her all, with him, to building the marriage of his and her dreams.
Eventually, despite having been unwilling in the past to go to marriage counseling, Ted began joining Maria at her therapy sessions. To his surprise, Ted found the help of a therapist more useful than he'd expected, especially for guiding them both toward healing from the many major hurts they had suffered over their years together.
A newly loving spouse, an intact marriage for their children, and keeping all the financial assets they both had worked for years to build brought Ted and Maria a joyful outcome. The turnaround took months of focused attention on making changes, fueled by ongoing determination from Maria and, from Ted, the willingness to give it one more try.
There will be further upsets for sure for this couple. In this instance, though, they were able to turn their catastrophe into a blessing. The earthquake is over. Both Ted and Maria, for the first time in many years, are standing arm in arm on solid ground—and their therapist is beaming.