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Five Ways to "Divorce-Proof" Your Marriage

A divorce lawyer shares five secrets to staying in love and out of his office.

I’m a divorce lawyer. Over the past two decades, I’ve helped facilitate the demise of over 1,000 marriages. From entirely banal divisions of property to knock-down-drag-out custody chaos, I’ve had a ringside seat to every possible variety of uncoupling there is. I’ve seen otherwise reasonable people spend tens of thousands of dollars arguing over who gets to keep a $50 toaster oven. I’ve listened to the tearful narratives of both those who were cheated on and those who’ve done the cheating. There is almost no story, no matter how sordid, that can surprise me.

Nobody ever plans to get divorced. In our increasingly curated society, it’s one of the most refreshingly honest things about what I do for a living. My clients can delete photos from their Instagram accounts or carefully select only the most flattering photographs from their supposedly romantic getaways during happier times, but in the end, they can’t pretend that when they got married they planned to get divorced. They may be ready and able to handle it when they get there, but they never set their heart’s GPS to that destination.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I don’t have any formal education in what makes a relationship thrive. In law school, nobody ever taught me what makes people feel happy and connected in their marriages. I’ve had plenty of occasions, however, to observe in great detail what constitutes the opposite of a happy marriage. I’ve learned what makes relationships irretrievably fall apart. I’ve seen, up close and personal, what makes people feel disconnected from each other and fall out of love. I recently wrote a book about it.

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Based on my firsthand observations, here are five ways to divorce-proof your marriage and maintain your connection to your spouse:

1. Be a cheerleader for your spouse.

In the challenges of our day-to-day lives as professionals, parents, and people, there’s no shortage of voices telling us what failures we are. In our increasingly advertising-soaked culture, we’re bombarded with messages designed to make us feel inadequate. Advertising is the opposite of therapy. It tells us, above all else, that we aren’t okay just the way we are. Whether it's selling pistachio nuts or sports cars, the message is always the same: Something is wrong or missing, and the solution to our shortcomings or failures is the product being sold.

In the face of this relentless onslaught, you are uniquely positioned to be a voice of support and encouragement for your spouse: a shelter in the storm of disparagement. If you want to keep your marriage healthy, don’t squander that power. Rather than joining the din of critics and pointing out to your spouse, his family, or anyone else within earshot the many ways your spouse isn’t meeting your needs, feed your spouse’s appreciation for your affections. Resist the temptation to compare your spouse to an imaginary ideal you’ve created in your head, or what romance films have told you a “perfect” spouse would look and act like. Your partner needs a cheerleader. We all do. If there’s nothing big to cheer for at the moment, cheer for the small things your spouse is doing well. When people have a taste of victory, they often crave more of it.

2. Realize that nobody can do everything.

We’ve created an insane notion, as a culture, that if your spouse isn’t meeting all your needs, in every aspect of life, all of the time, they’re failing at the job of being your spouse. Perhaps your spouse is a supportive listener, a good co-parent, and a good financial partner, but they aren’t the most exciting and satisfying lover you’ve ever had, or they don’t enjoy precisely the same vacation habits or food choices as you. Resist the temptation, encouraged by all sitcom marriages, to focus your energies and communications on the ways your spouse has “failed” you by not meeting 100 percent of your needs 100 percent of the time. Take a moment and prioritize the list of what’s a good match and what’s less-than-ideal. Not every virtue and vice in your relationship is equal. Don’t look at love as binary. Reject the idea that if a marriage isn’t perfect, it sucks. A spouse who meets many of your needs much of the time is a massive win.

3. Recognize that equity, not equality, is the goal of marriage.

You and your spouse are building a partnership together. No one in their right mind would suggest that the secret to a good partnership is that the two partners do precisely the same things and bring precisely the same skill set to the table. In fact, the most successful partnerships are quite the opposite: One partner is strong in areas where the other partner is weak, and vice versa. Total equality is not the goal.

It’s true, from a legal and intellectual standpoint, that you don’t owe your spouse a back rub, a blow job, or even a kind word of encouragement. Sure, you can take the position that if your wife’s ego is so fragile that she needs you to tell her that she’s beautiful, it’s something she should take up with her therapist — but why? How hard is it to be kind? How hard is it to be supportive and loving, even when it isn’t technically required?

Marriage gives you a myriad of opportunities, day after day, to show small affections and acts of kindness to another person. A person who is, at times, as weak, lonely, confused, and insecure as you. And not just any person — a person who, out of the 7.6 billion people on the planet, decided you were the one to hold hands and walk the path with.

If you’ve had a stressful day at work and your spouse tells you that she’s also had a stressful day at work, don’t try to “win” the stress competition for that day and point out how equally or much more stressful your day was. If your needs aren’t being met at any particular moment, it’s not going to improve the situation if your spouse’s needs aren’t met either. If one of you is feeling awful, taking steps to make sure the other is feeling equally awful isn’t going to help.

The marriages that end up in my office all, at some point, started keeping strict score. They started to fall into the trap of “Why should I let my spouse have a night out with friends when I haven’t had a night out with my friends in ages!” Great job. You’re equal now. Equally miserable.

Equality isn’t the goal. Equity or fairness is the goal. Pay it forward. Extend a kindness or a compliment. Let your own needs take a back seat from time to time, and give your spouse the kind of selfless support and encouragement you would extend to a close friend. Help your spouse find his or her happiness and center, and, ideally, they’ll help you find the same.

4. Have sex with your spouse.

I know. I know. Why should you have to have sex with your spouse? I mean, you’ve probably had sex with them a whole bunch of times, and in full candor, it may not be as exciting or interesting as it once was. Why should you be required to do something you aren’t as enthusiastic about as you were, say, at the start of your relationship? I get it.

We all want to be sexually attractive to our spouses. We want to know and hear from our spouse, if not in word, then in body language and general physical reaction, that we are still desirable and sexually exciting to them. From what I’ve seen in my office, there’s a massive and obvious connection between the loss of interest by a spouse and the appeal of having an affair. We don’t just want a spouse who is willing to have sex with us. We want a spouse who wants to have sex with us. The desire is as important, if not more important, than the sex itself.

Honestly discuss sex with your spouse, and share with him or her how your needs and desires may have changed as time passes. A spouse who can’t read your mind isn’t stupid or failing to pay attention. To put it plainly: Eat what the restaurant is serving these days — even if the menu has changed or grown less exciting. The alternative isn’t starvation. It’s dining elsewhere. And that leads right to my office.

5. Remember that you could get divorced.

People don’t like talking about divorce. Sure, they enjoy the occasional salacious story about a War of the Roses scenario, but overall, they don’t want to talk about what it would look like if their own marriage came to an end. Pretending that you’ll never get sick won’t keep you healthy. Refusing to think about funeral arrangements won’t make you immortal.

One of the best and fastest ways to ruin a marriage is to think that just because you’re not talking about divorce, you’re never going to end up in my office. A conversation about divorce is a conversation about the connections that would be severed if your marriage ended. You know what else that’s a conversation about? The connections you have with your spouse.

In the presence of death, we are, quite often, most aware of the gift of life. In the presence of illness, we are deeply connected to the value of our health. Your spouse’s love wasn’t permanently and irrevocably gifted to you when you walked down the aisle. It was loaned to you. Proceed accordingly. We tend to handle things more carefully when we remain conscious of the fact that they are fragile.

Don’t turn what was once an abundance of affection and optimism into a pile of misery if it can be avoided. I’ve seen thousands of people lose the plot of the story they set out to write together. You don’t have to add two more to that body count. You had what it took to fall in love; it’s entirely possible that you’ve got precisely what it takes to stay there.

About the Author
James J. Sexton Esq.

James J. Sexton is a divorce lawyer in New York City and the author of "If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late - A Divorce Lawyer's Guide To Staying Together"

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