What’s Your Marriage Story?
Have you seen the film ‘Marriage Story’? It follows the relationship breakdown and divorce of a New York-based couple. The film begins with monologues of what the couple love about each other. Fast forward to the end of the marriage, however, and we see a very different story. While the details are different, this trajectory from love to loathing is true of many divorcing couples. So, what’s your marriage story?
The ‘in love’ experience
Relationship experts and research papers often talk about what makes a successful marriage. It isn’t the stuff of old Disney fairytales, with all their starry-eyed princesses. Successful marriages aren’t built on being in love. Research shows that the ‘in love’ experience – that heady mix of excitement, lust, rose-tinted glasses and the idea that your partner is ‘perfect’ – lasts between 12-18 months.
When you think back to the start of your relationship can you pinpoint when your ‘in love’ experience began to fade? That fading isn’t bad. It’s a necessary part of the love experience. And love is what lasts. Remember how difficult it was to concentrate, to think about anything else and not to spend all weekend in bed?! There wasn’t much time for anything else! When the ‘in love’ experience fades, true love can begin. This is the love that accepts your partner for who they really are – the one who squeezes the toothpaste in the middle, leaves the loo seat up and wet towels on the floor.
Research shows that successful marriages are built on effective communication. Effective communication is a two-way process. It’s about how you express your thoughts and feelings and how you receive them from others. For effective communication, both you and your spouse need to be able to express your needs clearly and kindly and listen openly.
Does it mean those in happy marriages don’t have conflict? No! There is conflict in all relationships. Relationships are made up of two individuals with sometimes competing needs and ideas – you won’t agree all the time. It’s how you deal with conflict that matters.
Effective communication means you can disagree without escalating. Couples who know how to ‘fight’ well keep the ‘fight’ focused on the real issue. They don’t bring in other grievances (“and you forgot to put the bins out last week”, generalise (“you always forget everything” or make it bigger than it is (“you clearly don’t care about this marriage”). These couples don’t make it personal. They don’t dramatise or catastrophise. If discussion and negotiation doesn’t resolve the issue, they agree to disagree and move on. But, they hold on to their views and respect the views of their spouse.
Resentment and anger
Resentment and anger build when communication is ineffective. Frustration about not being heard or respected builds. Resentment and anger can toxify a relationship without you even realising. You get used to hiding feelings that aren’t acknowledged by your spouse. It can get so bad that you numb out and stop acknowledging your feelings to yourself. You stop trying to communicate because all the evidence you’ve had shows there’s no point.
In Marriage Story, we learn that Nicole has wanted to move back to LA from New York for years. Her husband Charlie promised but never delivered. He wasn’t listening. Resentment and anger grew, unbeknownst to Charlie who was blindsided by Nicole’s desire to divorce, and even more confused when Nicole refused to go to mediation and hired an expensive lawyer.
When you stop listening
We all have busy lives. It’s easy to stop listening. You may be thinking about how your ex stopped listening to you. When was it? What did you feel? When did you give up trying to be heard?
Or was it you that stopped listening first? Perhaps neither of you really ever listened. When you marry only based on the ‘in love’ experience, there is much work to be done to make the marriage last long term. When the ‘in love’ experience fades it’s not as easy to trade your relationship in for a new one as it was in your carefree teens, looking for the next ‘in love’ hit.
Importantly, when you stop listening it’s hard to accept the other person for who they really are. You’re not present to them, you’re distracted by other things. They matter less than they did before. The other person feels lonely and abandoned even though they may be sharing your bed every night.
Perhaps you can relate? Sadness and grief take over until anger and resentment galvanise you into action.
Not every marriage lasts
Even when there is effective communication in a marriage, it doesn’t mean it will last. We all change and develop in our lives, and many couples naturally grow apart. What worked when you were in your early twenties just might not work for the person you’ve evolved into as a forty-something.
Couples who maintain effective communication are able to sit with one another, acknowledge the relationship is over and work at separating their lives in a healthy way so that damage is limited. Family relationships are maintained, children are supported financially, and are emotionally secure in the knowledge that their parents love them. A famous version of this is the ‘conscious uncoupling’ undertaken by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Whilst I recommend caution with the conscious uncoupling approach, amicable divorces are absolutely possible.
But when you stop listening and anger and resentment take its place, amicable divorce is a pipe dream.
When lawyers take over
In Marriage Story, Charlie believes that he and Nicole will have an amicable divorce. He believes this because he’s totally missed her anger and resentment. When she moves to LA (just as she wanted to do with Charlie) and hires an expensive lawyer, Charlie is confused. But Charlie is still not listening and in denial. He thinks that Nicole can be reasoned with. That she’ll see sense and go back to New York with their son. He hires a cheap lawyer naively believing that all will be well.
When you’re fuelled by anger and resentment, it’s easy to let the lawyers take over. It’s easy to let them make bold statements that you can hide behind. When you’re angry and you feel unheard, it can feel great for a while. Until your divorce escalates out of control. Until your retainer is gone and you need to put more money on account. You realise that you’re not in control anymore and the grievances you felt have somehow magnified and now there’s no way back. You’ve lost sight of what the real issues were in the first place.
Learn to let go
Learning to let go of resentment and anger is an important step in the divorce process. Good lawyers will tell you this. Good lawyers will encourage you to seek support if you are struggling on your own. You may be lucky enough to have a lawyer who naturally supports you during the course of your communications, but remember, using your lawyer as your therapist is expensive!
Find a way through
Finding a way through so that your marriage story has an ending you can feel peaceful about is important. Anger, resentment and sadness can sap your energy and joy for years. If you’re in a high conflict situation you may not ever get this luxury, but that’s even more reason to get support for your emotional wellbeing. In Marriage Story, Nicole and Charlie did find a way through. It took time. It took a meltdown, it took space. In the wise words of Charlie’s lawyer Bert, played by the fabulous Alan Alda,
“Whether you win or lose the two of you will have to figure this out together”.
Your lawyers cannot do this for you – ever.
Support that can help you
Divorce coaching is becoming more popular here in the UK but it’s still quite a new concept. I still get comments such as “Divorce coach? What’s that?”
A divorce coach like me can help you find your way through whether or not you have a lawyer for your legal representation (ideally you will have, but not every situation is ideal). Using a good divorce coach will save you a fortune on your lawyer’s ‘billable hours’ that Bert talks to Charlie about.
Your lawyer may or may not recommend that you use a divorce coach. Many lawyers still don’t know how a divorce coach can help their clients move from a state of ‘stuckness’ to being a proactive participant in the divorce process. But there’s little that frustrates a divorce lawyer more than clients who ‘go to ground’ because it’s all too overwhelming. Progress halts – they are left with files open that are not generating income, they can’t take on new clients, and you are faced with bills for being chased for your inaction.
In the BBC One drama ‘The Split’ Ruth Defoe lectures a group of trainee lawyers that “we [lawyers] are therapist, counsel and, most important, possibly the only running mate they have in their very darkest hour”.
Ruth has clearly never heard of a divorce coach! But now you have. And we can make both your’s and your divorce lawyer’s lives easier.
Using a divorce coach
A divorce coach can help you make sense of your marriage story and help you write the best ending you can for you and your children. If you have not been listened to in your marriage, it’s time to be listened to now. Then you can begin to ditch the anger and resentment, and replace it with confidence, trust and clarity.
A divorce coach will listen, and they will communicate with you with respect and kindness. They will help you step back from the overwhelm, so rather than go to ground or get caught up in an escalating drama you can coolly make the decisions that are right for you.
You can find out more about how I can save you time, money and your sanity by booking a call with me here.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com