5 Divorce-Prevention Lessons I've Learned As A Couples Therapist

The reasons for divorce are as varied as the couples, but almost all of them can be prevented with a few preventative tasks.

tips to repair marriage problems to cultivate connection Duane Viljoen, Kieferpix | Canva

At the end stage of a relationship, couples have reasons, excuses, and misunderstandings so diverse, it would be easy for the outside world to believe marriage is a crap shoot.

One person says, "It’s not you, it's me," or "We grew apart," or "I love you, but I am not in love with you," while the other has accusations and explanations or recriminations and indifference. One is caught unaware, and the other is packed and through the door.


One divorce story rarely matches the other and rarely resembles the truth, if there were one objective truth.

For the purposes of this article, I would like to go past the cliches and into what couples don't know or won’t acknowledge, based on my experience as a couples therapist.

These truths are the preamble to separation, the attitudes and mindset, actions, and inactions that unravel what might have been a sacred bond. I hope we can see ourselves as the change agent in the divorce story, and that decision can set us free to have lasting relationships, if not in this relationship, then the next.


RELATED: This Quote Changed My Entire Perspective About How To Prevent Divorce

Five lessons I've learned as a therapist that can help prevent your divorce

1. Don't get complacent

No one expects separation or divorce, but the USA has an approximately 45% divorce rate, so there is a discrepancy between your expectations and reality. Forty-five of every one hundred of us, through ignorance or neglect, will exit a relationship, and the statistics say that second and third marriages are even more likely to fail. (I quote the US divorce rate, but divorce is an international event, and the USA places sixth in divorce rates).

We are so sure our relationship is break-up proof we spend thousands of dollars on bridal parties, the hall, the food, the flowers, and the dress. Not to mention the honeymoon and the house.


With such an investment at stake, you would expect that at the first sign of relationship strain, we would reach for the local therapist directory or at least consult a relationship article online. Not so.

Couples are slow to accept their relationship problems and prefer denial and distraction, so issues remain unsolved, and vital steps of seeking help and taking action are neglected. Don’t ignore the nudge that something is wrong. Ask questions and take your relationship up a notch and into the therapist's office, where you can identify mistakes and make the necessary tweaks to save future heartache.

I don’t want to scare you with reality, but being proactive is necessary for sleep-well-at-night relationship security.

We aren't complacent about our children’s growth and development or a career we have climbed to, so why expect relationship health without relationship effort? To help you shift your mindset about its value, try thinking of your relationship as your firstborn who requires time and gentle care and ultimately grows to be secure. This means you prioritize and respond to early signs of distress, answer questions promptly, and plan to bond and grow together, confident of the dividend of happily ever after.


2. Actively build better conversations 

Whether money, parenting, housework, or in-laws, every couple's problem is rooted in communication breakdown, but how many couples take a course in Couple Communication, review it together, stay up nights to know the material, and even practice their skills in free moments? As you would for exams or a promotion contingent on earning a certificate, learning the nuts and bolts of respectful, warm, and productive conversations ensures that your love life is on track.

Many couples neglect to learn the basics and discover the value of better conversations too late.

Better conversations are those that don’t force your mate’s agreement, compliance, and cooperation or prove you are smart(er) and can make superior relationship decisions. Think of the following suggestions as puzzle pieces in a picture of relaxed conversations, life problems solved, the confidence you can be open with your significant other (S/O), and the connection that follows.

RELATED: 3 Levels Of Communication You Must Achieve For Marital Bliss


How to have better conversations:

Listen thoughtfully

If you know someone who listens, asks questions relevant to your ideas, and thanks you for sharing your knowledge, you walk away feeling valued and attractive so that’s the person to imitate.

When you listen mindfully, your spouse also feels the tug to their heartstrings. Hence, if you have neglected this puzzle piece, it is time to un-learn the bad habit that Stephen Covey describes in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Gentle start-up to your conversation


The second puzzle piece is in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Here, John Gottman observes couples in disagreement and says the first three minutes of a conversation predict its outcome and the likelihood of a relationship ending in divorce. The primary example he gives is contempt. Contempt is disguised as concern or humor and said in soft or loud tones accompanied by confusing body language or phrased as a sarcastic question. Saying, "So you are now the parenting expert?" is a non-starter, while saying, "I would like to be an equal partner in parenting our daughter," opens the door to a successful conversation.

Be respectful

The “I” statement in the example above is the third puzzle piece that sidesteps a harsh accusation and communicates respect. It shows esteem, tells your partner you are engaged, and the relationship works.

Let go of the desire to be always right


The one sure death of a couple's communication is long-term defensiveness. It is impossible to address an issue or raise a point with someone who has an excuse, explanation, and defense for everything. You or your partner might be the right one. But, when you let go of that, you can see another perspective, explore another solution, and give each other a chance to be heard.

My concern with defensiveness is that it silences any other point of view, and the one on the receiving end stops trying to speak.

3. Avoid needless conflict & bickering

Your heart and soul can’t survive in a relationship where you feel undermined and disrespected. John Gottman describes negativity as the following four actions: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. He says these are in a sequence that leads to apocalyptic failure. If you do any of these, press pause, evaluate and recalibrate. Those who take this step change the tone of their relationship with the following tools.

The stress of conflict is significant and hurts your health. With so much at stake, it is no wonder the body and mind agree to exit relationships with negativity. Protect your relationship by practicing mutual encouragement, expressing fondness and admiration, solving problems quickly, and asking for help promptly.


Agree to strike through criticism and ask for behavior change, delete all forms of contempt with expressions of appreciation, deal with defensiveness by taming the ego that demands justification, and solve withdrawal and stonewalling promptly. None of this is easy or quick, so be patient and tip the scales of Gottman 5:1. For every negative interaction, a stable and happy relationship has five (or more) positive interactions.

4. Notice when you feel alone in your marriage, and cultivate connection — together

In the early days, you hang on to their every word, remember each tic and cute way of being mad or glad, so imagine the shock of a relationship when your loving attention shifts. You have been told the honeymoon ends, and you must resist the demise of the quality attention that sparked your relationship. Your partner is not prepared for the disappointment of losing you.


Some distractions may be understandable as your attention migrates to kid issues, climbing the career ladder, worrying about sick and aging parents, or any of the myriad crises of 21st-century living. You can share these legitimate concerns with your partner.

Other distractions include the loss of us in the relationship by being overly involved with me. In a society that glorifies individualism and independence, researchers now describe modern Western culture as narcissistic, which includes a sense of entitlement and superiority that overshadows the needs of others.

It is easy to defend self-love, self-care, and self-gratification. Yet, you won’t be happy by focussing on your needs only. You might discover you don't need each other. Your partner wants you to soothe, warm, and care, so resist the cultural bent and cultivate interdependence.

Love blooms with connection, and your lover needs your attention. John Gottman, quoted repeatedly in this article, says that on any evening, a partner makes as many as 100 bids for the others' time and attention. I can think of casual statements, "The drive home was awful," "John bought a new boat," and even a direct question, "How was your day?" that has been neglected at my kitchen table. These comments and questions are your partner's unconscious desire for a connection, so smile, mirror, ask questions,


You might not answer beyond a grunt or be neutral or non-committal. However, what your partner is looking for is someone who is engaged with their life and interests.

5. When you stop feeling love, make a decision to create "fertile ground" for more love to grow

This story might be the most heartbreaking. In all but the most contentious cases, unloving is disguised or suppressed, or replaced by indifference. Like every other, divorce story #5 began long before you knew it was happening.

If marriage is pictured as seasons, you will endure the loss of summer sunshine, the mellow change of fall, and the bitterness of winter. It will take continued commitment to nurture new life and return to spring. Attention to the following will assure a lifetime of love.

Love flourishes when harsh conflict and disagreement are held in check while acceptance and cheerleading are abundant. Keeping that in the background, stay close friends and lovers by sharing your life, being open and authentic, and trusting and touching often.


RELATED: The Slow-But-Steady Way Couples Go From 'Madly In Love' To 'I'm Not In Love Anymore'

How to nurture love by creating fertile ground in your relationship:

Share your good news and seek comfort with each other

If we are not careful, we can maintain old habits of turning to others for comfort while sharing our challenges and looking for advice. If your partner is not your number one in good times and bad, they will not feel significant to you or them.


Spend time together. Remove distractions that separate you

One person heading east and the other going west is a common occurrence that limits your available time together. Resist the temptation to divide and conquer and share your tasks and activities so you can share your life.

Be your genuine self

There is a risk to the relationship if you expect your partner to have your values, think how you do, or become a version of you. So you measure their worth not as an individual but by how much they contribute to you and are like you. Resist and go beyond tolerating your partners' differences and see them as unique and positive.

Protect and rebuild trust if needed. Root out resentment


Resentment is the feeling you have been treated poorly and robs you of the joy and closeness you once had. Pay attention! We all have unrealistic wants and needs for a partner, and our disappointment can mutate into resentment.

Besides overt betrayal and dishonesty, trust is lost in real and imagined infractions, so challenge your mistrust and speak up quickly to protect your relationship.

Hug, hold, and laugh often

A loving relationship includes touch and laughter. So, reach out often and allow your relationship to heal in the most natural setting possible.

Since 2020, fewer people divorced or married. Many people seem to have become jaded by the heartache of their parents and experienced some painful events themselves. I believe the lessons divorce stories teach can help you avoid these pitfalls and craft a joyous life. An 80-year Harvard study agrees and reinforces the power of relationships as a positive influence on your health and well-being.


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Reta Faye Walker is a therapist who specializes in healing relationships. She offers one-on-one sessions, couples retreats, and courses to help couples get back on track.