Some new research substantiated a fact noticed by many marriage professionals: The more relationships you have in your history, the harder it is to stay married.
The researchers speculated that people naturally make comparisons between their marriage and past relationships when things get difficult, and the more memories there are for comparison, the more appealing the idea of moving on becomes.
We know that the odds of divorce increase for every succeeding marriage after the first divorce, and this latest research merely confirms that troubling trend.
Our understanding of the neuroscience of memory has also grown in the last few years. We know now that our memory is NOT like a static and unchanging digital recording, a perfect record of the past, but rather a dynamic process that is continually being updated and remodeled at the cellular/neuronal level.
For most of us, with the exception of some iconic traumatic experiences, we "scrub" the bad parts of our memories and keep the good parts. So that makes the whole comparison of the present relationship's challenges with past relationships extremely flawed, to say the least.
The past is almost always going to SEEM better—but that wonderful looking "memory" is, in fact, a lie.
Given the many costs—both financial and especially personal—that accompany divorce, staying married is a better alternative for nearly everyone. Other long-term research on married couples has found that most marital unhappiness is temporary, and that most people (80% actually) who described themselves as "very unhappy" in the marriage at one point described themselves as "very happy" just two years later. Marital unhappiness is mostly temporary.
From my personal experience, the biggest challenge during those times of dissatisfaction is to take responsibility for one's own happiness and avoid the toxic patterns and consequences that come with a focus on the "flaws" in your spouse.
When things are not going well, it's much easier to blame your spouse than to look inward, recognize your own challenges, and make changes yourself that could improve your relationship.
Dr. John Gottman's research examining the interaction patterns that predict divorce highlight the most toxic ones: demonstrated contempt for your partner; denial of any personal responsibility; blame and accusation; defensiveness; and stonewalling (refusing to discuss a disagreement). The antidote to each of these toxic behaviors is obvious but difficult: choose love and acceptance over contempt; choose personal responsibility; choose self-control over blame and accusation; admit mistakes and apologize; and always be willing to talk, especially when it's difficult.
Gottman did find that sometimes it's best to take a "time out" to cool off, rather than continuing a discussion which is spiraling downward. Especially for men, the adrenaline rush that comes from difficult emotional disagreements can make clear thinking, and therefore, rational conversation, nearly impossible until the "rush" tapers off (about 1-2 hours for most men).
Women seem to bounce back more quickly (physiologically, but not emotionally) from these confrontations and want to re-connect as soon as possible, so they have to be patient while their men "wind down." Men have to be willing to reengage when they are calmed down and talk about their feelings in order to reach a resolution.
Ironically, most divorces (about 80%) occur in low conflict marriages. When asked, these couples say that, over time, they "just drifted apart." This de-vitalizing process is slow, subtle, and frequently unrecognized until the partners barely like each other, but go through the motions of daily life with little true connection to each other.
For these disconnected couples, the challenge is to choose to take the time out from the routine to reinvest in their marriage, and to rediscover the things that brought them together in the first place. For men, this is usually going to mean doing activities that they like with their wives (men develop and maintain relationships through shared activities). For women, this will mean more time alone to talk and reconnect (not about family problems or issues, but just about relationships, including the marriage).
If you're considering divorce, my personal and professional advice to you is this:
- Work on being a better person and a better partner—more patient, more loving, more in control and less easily irritated, more positive and supportive of your partner; and, if you're the one raising your voice, get some professional help in identifying the root cause of that anger and bitterness.
- Think through all the consequences of divorce as you remind yourself that those "comparisons" (remember, your memories have been "scrubbed") which make a new relationship seem like a positive improvement are mostly lies.
- Get the facts about what divorce and its aftermath are really like. It's not pretty, for you or your kids.