By Wendy Jaffe, Esq.
While researching my book about divorce, I interviewed 100 of the top family law experts in the United States. At the end of many of my interviews, I would ask this question: “What advice would you give to someone before they got married, or to someone who is already married, to help them stay married?”
The lawyers I spoke to often had different points of view on the causes of divorce, but on this they were unanimous: learn to identify the symptoms of divorce and seek treatment immediately. Treatment may range from simply recognizing the problem and working with your spouse to change the behavior, to finding a therapist who helps solve (as opposed to merely discusses) marital problems. Remember early detection of symptoms is the key to making it to your golden anniversary just like early detection of disease is the key to making it to your golden years.
Here are some of their responses. I hope that you will read them often if you are married, read them before you remarry if you have been divorced, and, if you are considering marriage for the first time, take them to heart before you tie the knot.
Marriage is a very serious business. When you marry you enter into a very powerful legal contract. It is the biggest financial and personal transaction of your life. You need to look at the other person and realize that you are not going to change them. Ask yourself this: “Does this individual have the basic qualities that matter to me; characteristic traits that aren’t going to change over time? It is not all about the cake, the wedding planner, your gifts and your dress. It takes a lot of work to make it work.
Mabry De Buys, Seattle, WA
Pay attention to the family of origin. This is everyone’s role model of what a marriage looks like. And ask yourself if you will be able to trust this person with your medical care and money.
Steve Harhai, Denver, CO
Put the sexual attraction in its proper perspective. Don’t be wowed by the physical attraction. You need to stop and think what it is going to be like when you each have an extra 20 pounds around your waists. Don’t marry someone with the expectation that you will change the things that you don’t like. Look to see how your prospective spouse’s family expresses love.
Bill Hunnicut, Denver, CO
No one should get married under 30. When you are under 30 your expectations are immature concerning the real world. You haven’t lived long enough to know the flavor of the world.
Marna Tucker, Washington, D.C.
There is a whole lack of knowledge about what makes a healthy marriage. Spouses need to deal early on with money, sex, in-laws, deciding who is going to raise the kids, and who is going to work. Or, if both spouses are going to go to work, they need to decide how they are going to share the responsibilities of the house.
Elizabeth Lindsay, Atlanta, GA
Marriage brings a lot of satisfaction to a person, especially if they plan on having children. Wait several years before you get married and don’t marry young. Live together first to see if the day to day relationship works.
Maurice Kutner, Miami, FL
Marriage is hard work. The decision to marry should not be based on a single factor. People need to stop underestimating the importance of family relationships and religious differences.
Marshall Wolf, Cleveland, OH
Your spouse should be your best friend and you need to treat them like they are your best friend.
Herb Palkovitz, Cleveland, OH
Take your time to get to know the person before you marry. You need to ask yourself: “Is this the person you want to walk on the beach with when your hands are wrinkled and you walk slow.”
Steve Briggs, Newport Beach, CA
Never put being right ahead of the relationship. To do this, there are three phrases that you need to keep in mind and use frequently when you are communicating with your spouse: “You are right, good point, and that is interesting.”
Jackie Whisnant, Newport Beach, CA
For a successful marriage, a couple should have many common goals, interests, desires and objectives. The couple should experience a lot of different things together before they commit to marriage. They need to know and understand each other’s backgrounds because a person’s family and environment that they came out of can have a lot to do with their future relationships. People revert back to where they come from.
John Schilling, Newport Beach, CA
Get premarital counseling before the wedding. A good marriage counselor gets a couple to talk openly about their goals, and teaches them how to listen to the other person’s problems.
David Sandor, Irvine, CA
Couples need to sit down with each other, a counselor, or a religious advisor and outline their general thoughts and feelings about whether to have children and how they will be raised with the caveat that things and feelings could change.
They need to discuss seemingly simple things like are you going to be mad if I have one night a week with my girlfriends, or if I have a monthly hunting weekend with the guys. It sounds trivial, but these are the kind of things that really cause problems in marriage. If it is not acceptable that your fiancé is going to be with his buddies once a month, than you shouldn’t get married. People tend to go into a marriage thinking that they are going to change their spouse, but that isn’t going to happen.
Mary McCurley, Dallas, TX
There are three important rules to remember when selecting a mate: one, don’t be rushed; two, be sure that your politics, religion, sexual interest, and values are all compatible, and three, make sure that you are in romantic love-not sister/brother love. If you don’t have romantic love at the beginning you won’t have it at the end.
Eric Spevak, Haddonfield, NJ
If you are of different religions or ethnic backgrounds, you need to discuss how those differences will impact your relationship. Have a candid discussion on how you will raise your kids. When people come in for a prenuptial agreement, I tell the couple to take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and for each party to list their views on a variety of issues on either side of the line. Many people don’t end up getting married after engaging in this exercise because they recognize that they are not compatible.
Herbert Glieberman, Chicago, IL
People pull the trigger way too fast. It is important to get beyond the honeymoon period before you get engaged. Go on vacations together. Live together. Experience many ups and downs together. Make sure that you know the person well and that you consider the person your closest friend.
Scott Weston, Santa Monica, CA
Be open and honest. If you are unhappy, let your spouse know it. Remember that a good argument is better than no argument at all. If people were open and honest with their spouses, fifty percent of divorces could be avoided.
Bernard Rinella, Chicago, IL
Before the wedding, both the man and woman should be as introspective as possible and think about both their strong and weak points. Then they need to share all of those strengths and weaknesses with each other. Both parties need to honestly consider whether or not they can deal with the other’s weaknesses.
Stephen Arnold, Birmingham, AL
Give in early and often. If both parties keep giving in they will have a great relationship. Remember that if you leave this mate to find another mate, you still end up with another person who you will also have to compromise with.
Don Schiller, Chicago, IL
Before you marry, take a communication skills course of some sort like Pairs.
(Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills, www.pairs.com)
Lynn Gold-Bikin, Norristown, PA
Marriage is the most important decision that an individual will make in their life because it affects nearly every aspect of life. The decision to marry has to be made carefully and thoughtfully. One of the most important things to learn about the other is whether you share similar goals and values.
James Feldman, Chicago, IL
In the marriages that make it, people don’t say, “That isn’t what I bargained for when I got married.” When there is a change in the marriage, for example where the wife goes back to school, or the husband changes careers, the most important thing a spouse can do is be adaptable and support changes in the other spouse.
Patricia Ferrari, New York, NY
Before you get married find out if you feel the same way about children, money, and careers. Picking a good premarital class can be very helpful. And where one or both of the parties has significant assets, it is a good idea to get a prenuptial agreement because it eliminates the potential for arguments over those assets. There is no other enterprise involving money and property where you wouldn’t have a written document, and marriage should not be the exception to that rule.
Joanne Ross Wilder, Pittsburgh, PA
Wait until you are at least twenty-five years old before you marry. Under no circumstances should you get married any earlier. Take your marriage vows seriously. Grow together—up, down, or sideways; it doesn’t matter as long as you grow together.
Herndon Inge, Mobile, AL
Check out the other side before you get married, specifically whether or not your intended was abused as a child, or he or she has a parent who is or was an alcoholic. In those cases, no matter how wonderful your love is, your potential spouse is like a car that that will run out of gas at a certain point. No matter how much you like them, move on.
Wolfgang Anderson, Seattle, WA
Before you get married—when you are still in love and think it is going to last forever–develop a communication system. If you do, you will have a much better chance of making a marriage that lasts.
Janet George, Seattle, WA
After you get married, choose couple friends who share the same values as you do and who value marriage and family.
JoAnn Reynolds, Portland, OR
Have marital discussions in the “I” form instead of the “You” form. Conversations that begin with “you never” aren’t productive. Begin your sentences with “I feel.” Don’t speak about your spouse in “always” or “never” terms.
Helen Christian, Salt Lake City, UT
People court their mistress, but not their wife. Couples need to do the same thing for a husband or wife that they would do with a new girlfriend or boyfriend. To keep the marriage alive, people need to keep surprises in the relationship.
Lowell Sucherman, San Francisco, CA
Couples need to be close together on how money will be handled and how kids are going to be raised. Where couples have different views on those subjects, it will affect the equilibrium of the relationship.
Sheldon Mitchell, Phoenix, AZ
Marriage is a contractual relationship, and the contract is dynamic and virtually always implicit. By implicit I mean that it is very rare that the parties express to each other that this is what I expect of you and our relationship. Spouses understand implicitly what they each want out of their marriage. By dynamic, I mean that it is always changing. As the marriage matures, each partner’s values change and mature, and what they expect from the marriage changes. A divorce happens when there is a breach of this dynamic, implicit contract. To avoid divorce, each spouse needs to be sensitive to the changing dynamics and willing to adjust to those changes.
H. Joseph Gitlin, Woodstock, IL
The secret to a good marriage is to find your equal partner. Not someone who is going to dominate you or who you can dominate. The relationship has to be based on mutual respect, common purpose, and trust. When a couple has those things there ain’t nobody who is going to break that marriage up.
Allen Zerman, St. Louis, MO
The starting point is to really see the marital relationship as the single most important relationship that a person has. A good marriage has full disclosure. Both parties need to identify what they want out of life and then continue that dialogue throughout their marriage. It doesn’t take that much time, but it does take focus, and patience.
Ed Winer, Minneapolis, MN
Before you marry you need to have as much self awareness as possible. People who don’t know who they are can’t effectively share themselves with another person.
Elizabeth Scheffee, Portland, ME
No one is going to stay madly, passionately in love for 10, 20, or 30 years. Spouses need to have a sense of respect for each other and an appreciation for the things that they have accomplished together.
Martin Huddleston, Atlanta, GA
All of the people in your potential spouse’s life, their family, their friends, and their friends to come, affect a marriage. Before you get married, take a careful look at your potential spouse’s relationship with these other people.
Pamela Pierson, San Francisco, CA
After you are married, you need to continue to date your spouse.
Dennis Wasser, Los Angeles, CA
If you are married and having problems, go to the best marriage counselor that you can find. If you recognize a problem early on, you can generally fix it.
Sandra Morgan Little, Albuquerque, NM
If you follow these factors, your marriage has a good chance of working: commit to open communication, get pleasure out of making your spouse happy, subordinate your own needs to the other (this works both ways), and keep romance and spontaneity in your relationship.
Sanford Ain, Washington, D.C.
Patience, patience, patience and forgiveness. Forgiveness not in the sense of superiority or being godlike, but from recognition that none of us is perfect and I am not going to judge you.
If you are married I can guarantee that you are going to have a rough patch; and you need to be perseverant enough, patient enough, to get through it. If you go around clutching the resentment of the other’s past sins to your breast, you probably aren’t going to make it.
Tony Dick, Sacramento, CA
You need to continue to work to make your relationship good every day and never take your spouse or your relationship for granted. Find some rules for your relationship that keep it vital, alive, happy and desirous all the time. Do special things at random, like you would do if you were not married. You obviously love each other and have a strong commitment to each other – so long as you keep up with each other, honor and respect each other, always try to give more than you get, and listen to what the other is saying and never interrupt what the other is saying, responding in a non-hostile way, you should remain on the long road to happiness and a wonderful, lasting relationship.
Stephen Kolodny, Beverly Hills, CA
Good communication is the most important ingredient to all successful relationships, and poor communication is the most significant torpedo to a good relationship. Communication is a two-way interaction. It requires an interested, respectful listener, and a respectful, specific speaker. Important issues (children, finances, work/assignments/tasks/expectations) should be discussed thoroughly before marriage and a consensus reached as to how these issues will be handled. A pattern of willingness to compromise, and to defer when needed, needs to be established by both persons before marriage.
Sandra Morris, San Diego, CA
Find someone who you have things in common with like sports, music, shows, theater, etc. As life goes on you must be willing to grow with the other person as they must be willing to grow with you. You must like each other’s families as otherwise they can cause the most trauma in a marriage. Finally, I believe you must learn and enjoy living with each other before you have children. It’s better not to have children right away because you then bring a 3rd person into the marriage before you are secure in yourselves.
Jack Rounick, Norristown, PA
Love, as with life, changes over the years. Our interests, likes and dislikes, and concept of life and love at 20 are infinitely different than they are at 50. When you experience problems, consult with a marriage counselor, or some other mental health professional that can help you and your spouse address the issues and problems in your relationship with an eye towards correcting them, rather than running away from them. No one ever said that marriage was easy.
Marshall Waller, Woodland Hills, CA
Unhappiness in a marriage is most often the result of control by one individual over another causing loss of identity and self-respect. To those about to be married (or married), my advice is to encourage the separate interests of your spouse. Support and nurture your loved one’s individuality and creativity.
Joslin Davis, Winston-Salem, NC
Communication is the most essential factor to a strong relationship and it must begin before the wedding. For instance, the parties must discuss how they are going to handle their financial affairs even before the wedding invitations are sent. The lack of this understanding before the marriage leads to a certain level mistrust. Accusations that one party is hiding money from the other or that one party is spending more money than the other are generally the most commonplace.
Jon S. Summers, Los Angeles, CA
Aside from the obvious – making sure there is a good mutual respect in place – have a good pre-nuptial agreement. Many wars have been caused by miscalculation of entitlements and ambitions. A Pre-Nuptial Agreement prevents this.
Raoul Lionel Felder, New York, NY