My parents divorced when I was 19 years old, in 1989. My brother was away at camp and my sisters had already flown the coop. I was home for the summer—the only kid there the day they split up.
I’d gone out with friends earlier in the night but when I arrived home, I found my mother in tears. She was relieved because she had kicked my father out, but also quite angry and upset. Ending a marriage is hard, even when it’s been bad for years.
I spent that night, and well into the morning, comforting and consoling my mother. I had no idea then that I would eventually go on to make a living doing something similar—I have been a marriage therapist for more than 20 years.
As a teenager, I assumed that my friends’ parents all had good relationships, and that my parents were the only ones struggling to get along. But, after working with dozens of couples over the past two decades, I can see now that there are common problems that arise in all marriages. My parents’ relationship actually followed a path of missteps that I commonly see in couples on the brink of divorce.
1. They work against each other, not with each other.
I believe my parents didn’t like each other for the last years of their marriage. When a partner demonizes the other and holds resentments against the other for years, it creates a very unstable marriage.
When I hear people say things like, “he always…” or “she never…” I can tell that demonizing is happening—each person sees their partner as the opposition.
There is also an unconscious polarization that happens when each spouse thinks the other needs to change to be more like them. Classic examples are the spender and the saver or the emotional and the intellectual.
There are couples, like my parents, that can never find a comfortable middle ground. Most couples have one or two such issues. Those who end up divorcing, however, usually have too many differences that simply can’t be bridged.
2. They don’t communicate with each other about their needs and feelings.
My mother spoke to her friends and my siblings and me about her marriage woes, but never directly to my father; the one who held the keys to changes she desired. My father didn’t talk to anyone about his troubles.
If speaking to your spouse—the person with whom you have a problem—isn’t a tool in your toolbox, it needs to be. I’ve yet to meet a spouse who can read minds, but I’ve met many people who expect their partner to just know what they need. It may sound cliché, but it’s true: couples need to communicate about what they like and don’t like as well as how they feel about things. Partners also need to ask a lot more questions of their mate and not assume they know more than they do. Making assumptions is where I see so many good people get into trouble.