Relationship Advice: How to Save Your Marriage While You’re Still in it

Advice from lawyer who's ushered more than 1,000 couples through divorce.

best ways to protect your marriage from divorce

Statistically speaking, your marriage is in trouble. The numbers aren’t on your side, with 53 percent of marriages ending in divorce. Add another ten percent to that to account for the marriages that have failed but the couples remain together for the kids or for religious reasons, and you’re inching close to a stat that says that three-quarters of marriages don’t work.

“Marriage is like the lottery,” says James Sexton, “you’re probably not going to win, but if you win, what you win is so good that it’s worth buying a ticket.”

Sexton is a New York-area divorce lawyer and the author of the book If You’re In My Office, Its Already Too Late. In his two decades on the job, Sexton’s led more than 1,000 couples through divorce. His bluntness stems from his keen understanding that wedded-bliss can easily go bust.

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So, if you’ve bought or considering buying the ticket Sexton speaks of, what can you do to buck the odds? He says that you have to keep an eye on the little things. The tiny slips and mishaps that, while innocuous, can add up to disaster over time.

“Marriages tend to fall apart in two ways: very slowly and then all at once,” he says. “Just like how people go bankrupt. There’s no single raindrop that’s responsible for the flood, but the flood comes.” Sexton says a lot of people finally step foot into his office because of a big thing such as affairs, impropriety, or financial infidelity. “But those big developments are usually a function of slippage that’s happened over a period of time.”

And while he says you might not actually be act like Dr. Strange and view every possible outcome of your marriage and find the best plan, Sexton does have a variety of suggestions that will lessen the likelihood of stepping into a divorce lawyer’s office. “It’s just like, there’s no way to illness-proof your body,” he says. “But you’d never say, ‘Because I can’t prevent all illness, I might as well smoke cigarettes.’”

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As such, Sexton laid out some trouble spots that can lead all couples to divorce, and how to course correct as quickly as possible.

Avoid Communication Breakdowns

It’s shocking, Sexton says, how often communication is the first thing to go in marriage. Between the stresses of day-to-day life, dealing with work issues, shuttling kids from one practice to the next, in-law visits, and holidays, couples often push addressing issues aside. Eventually, Sexton says, those issues will catch up to you.

“You’re not being candid and blunt with each other about what’s going on in your head and in your heart,” he says. “I think the solution is active communication. Really blunt, candid communication. Because eventually, the truth of your marriage and the truth of how it’s working and not working comes out. I’d rather it come out in a conversation between two people before they’re too far gone than have it come out in a courtroom.”

Don’t Keeping Feelings Bottled Up

One of the many stale platitudes a married man hears on or around his wedding, and continues to hear throughout their marriage, is, “Happy wife, happy life.” That one is often followed by, “There are two words you’ve got to learn, ‘Yes dear!’” While Sexton recognizes that part of those adages speak to the idea of picking your battles, he also says that they can sow seeds of trouble in a marriage.

“They’re a great recipe for people building resentment between each other,” he says. “Because really what they’re saying is, ‘Swallow your feelings, even if you’re unhappy with something or even if something doesn’t sit right with you, just agree with your wife.’”

To avoid that pitfall, he says, there has to be give and take where each person feels like his or her voice is being heard. “It’s like Chris Rock said in his Netflix special, sometimes you’ve got to play the tambourine,” he says. “You don’t always have to be the lead singer in the marriage. Sometimes you’ve just got to be the one playing the tambourine.”

Don’t Let Sex Issues Linger

“I wrote an article recently that basically said that with great intentions, people ruin their sex lives and marriages,” offers Sexton. The way it breaks down is, in a monogamous marriage, both partners know what the other person enjoys sexually and, over the years, build up a sort of “greatest hits” package that they run through during a sexual encounter. As the routines of married life begin to settle and the window of time becomes more and more narrow, these “greatest hits” encounters get squeezed into the schedule whenever space opens up.

“Now think about what you’ve just done,” Sexton says. “With good intentions, you now have a situation where, on roughly the same days or nights, you and your spouse do roughly the same things to each other.” As a result, sex becomes routine, predictable and, if the patterns don’t change over time, possibly nonexistent. The key is noticing this and trying to make a change through, you guessed it, better communication.

Stop Trying to Keep Up With the Insta-Joneses

Social media offers a suite of issues, but what Sexton says is the most pervasive is the untruthful portrayal of life and parenthood it constantly shows you. There was a time when people’s marital role models were their parents and their grandparents, or maybe a happy couple down the street. Now, many people are forming their ideas and opinions based on what they see on Facebook and other social channels.

“What is Facebook?” Sexton asks. “It’s an advertisement for yourself. It’s a curated version of your life. So everyone’s posting the best pictures of the best moment of their marriage. So how would you not look at that and say, “Oh my marriage sucks compared to that’?” It’s important, Sexton says, to remember that what you’re looking at represents people letting you see only the moments and images from their lives and marriages that they want you to see.

Don’t Be An Idiot on Social Media

The other troubling aspect of social media is that it gives you a window through which you can reach out to old girlfriends or boyfriends. There’s a chapter in Sexton’s book called, ‘If You Wanted to Invent an Infidelity-Generating Machine It Would be Called Facebook.’ He’s not wrong.

“Because I have so many clients that I represent whose affairs started on Facebook. In my opinion, Facebook is the most toxic website for relationships that’s out there.”

Sexton says that the problem with social media as it relates to opening the door to inappropriate relationships is that, not only do most platforms encourage you to connect with people, but also that connecting with them over social media gives you plausible deniability. “If you just went up to one of your neighbor’s wives and started talking to her, people would look at you like, ‘Hey, why are you talking to that woman?’” he said. “But, if on Facebook you went, ‘Oh wow, I saw that you guys went to Aruba. Where did you stay? We’re planning a trip there. Now you have plausible deniability as to why you spoke to this person.”

Don’t Ever Forget Why You Got Married

As crazy as it sounds, there are people out there who simply got married because they thought it was what they were supposed to do and only now, years into it, are realizing that they didn’t think things through.

“People very often don’t answer the question, ‘Why am I getting married? What is the problem to which marriage is a solution for me?’,” says Sexton. “People don’t think about that. Its sort of just assumed you’ll get married. Why? ‘Well, because we’ve been together for a while.’ And I think there’s something to be said for thinking about why someone’s getting married.” Sometimes staying married can be as simple as remembering why you said ‘I do’ in the first place.