Tis the season for surprises – but hopefully the good kind, not anything along the lines of the seemingly surprise divorce announced by Dexter actors Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter. After nearly two years of an apparently healthy marriage – at least from the outside looking in – the couple announced recently they would be splitting up, although they'll remain working together and the decision seems mutual and amicable. Of course there's no way to know what was truly going on behind the scenes and there could've been many more problems than it seemed. But if you're like me, this type of news isn't unheard of on a non-celebrity level as well. I've known and counseled countless people who were blindsided by their partner's request for a split or divorce.
How can you be sure this won't happen? The obvious answer is communication, but I believe it goes deeper than that. In my research and experience I've seen that we need to be intentional about how we communicate. I discuss specific ways to do this in my books, Make Up Don't Break Up and Adultery, the Forgivable Sin. Here are a few ideas:
Discuss big things early on. Money, for instance, can be a taboo topic but we need to get away from the fear of having substantial conversations. Not only can communicating about serious things early in the relationship help ensure both people are on the same track – and make a separation that much easier if they're not – but it lays a ground work where both people are comfortable bringing up complex topics. Then, once you begin opening up these topics for discussion, continue to do so. I often suggest scheduling some time like this into your “relationship routine” - say during a weekly date night or at a time when both people are focused and engaged with eachother. Which brings me to my next point.
Create a safe space for communication. If you've laid the ground work mentioned above, this is the next logical step. Continue to address the “tough” topics as your relationship progresses. You might need to discuss things like kids, holiday plans, finances, or specific relationship struggles. But once you've created an environment where you're no stranger to bringing up some of these complex issues, it won't be as tempting to sweep things under the rug only to erupt later.
Learn to fight fair. Studies have shown that the healthiest of relationships aren't ones where couples never fight, but rather ones where people DO feel comfortable expressing heated emotion – but know what to do with it. I encourage having a weekly ten minute heart-to-heart with a figurative emotional "bullet proof vest" to protect from hurt, anger and defensiveness, as you listen and echo back what you heard. In this scenario, each partner agrees to be sensitive but frank and to not take things personally. But the bottom line is, don't push things under the rug and believe the lie that people in good marriages don't fight. It's HOW you fight that's important.