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5 Essential Marriage Lessons From a Divorce Lawyer Who’s Seen it All

To understand what makes marriages fail, it helps to hear it from someone who's dealt with a lot of them.

The majority of marriages that end in divorce aren’t bound by one single incident. Often, it’s the build up of many small, seemingly minor incidents over the years, bookended by a few major inciting issues, that ends a marriage. Death by a thousand cuts, versus one gaping wound. It’s important for married couples to learn from the mistakes of others, especially when failed marriages are concerned, but, what are the things that husbands and wives are (or aren’t) doing that commonly cause the wheels to loosen and eventually fly off? What can couples do to inoculate themselves? 

One line of attack: speak to those who regularly work with divorced couples, who, in their line of occupation, see similar marriage-ending issues crop up again and again. A divorce lawyer with two decades of experience with negotiating high-conflict divorces and the author of the relationship book If You’re In My Office It’s Already Too Late (recently re-released as How to Stay in Love: Practical Wisdom from an Unexpected Source), James Sexton has spent time with thousands of  couples who are ending their marriage. In short, he understands better than most what commonly causes a relationship’s demise.

“A lot of what I try to talk about is what can we do to stop the raindrops before they become the flood?” Sexton says. “What can we do before that? How do we keep people from losing the plot of the story that leads them to these big marriage killers that are really hard to come back from?”

To find out more, Fatherly asked Sexton for examples from several real-life divorces to explain what lead to the marriage’s end and how couples can avoid the same fate. 

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Don’t Sideline Small Issues 

The Couple: A married couple found that, after having their first child, the problems that were present in their marriage, such as arguing and the husband’s drinking, were only amplified. Rather than addressing the issues that were plaguing their marriage, they opted to have another child. One year after that child was born, the wife filed for divorce. 

Sexton’s Advice: As Sexton puts it, there is no one snowflake that causes the roof to cave in. It’s a slow and steady build up until one day, disaster strikes. Resentment only accumulates if people are unwilling to confront the issues at the outset. 

“The question you have to ask is, ‘What are the conditions in your marriage in terms of being able to talk honestly?’” Sexton says. “What’s your reaction when your spouse says to you, ‘Hey, we’re having money problems’? I think a marriage is a living organism, and we all have varying degrees of culpability in creating those conditions in the marriage.” 

Communicate Your Needs and Wants Out Loud

The Couple: One of Sexton’s clients was married to a lawyer who had a habit of visiting prostitutes and then writing long and detailed reviews about his visits on an escort rating message board. “By all accounts his wife was just totally shocked,” Sexton noted. “This was a person you never would have thought would have engaged in this kind of behavior.” 

Sexton’s Advice: While the online reviews took this case to a different level, the core issue here, he says, is one of infidelity, which Sexton says comes from one partner not being aware of the other’s needs“Pay attention to your needs, pay attention to your spouse’s needs,” Sexton says. “And then actively communicate about both. Communicate what you need and want and where your spouse is hitting the mark and not hitting the mark.” 

Remember Why You Got Married in the First Place

The Couple: Sexton has had numerous clients where the marriage began to erode because one partner was constantly offering suggestions on how the other person could improve, under the guise of “constructive criticism.” This amounts to one person telling the other something to the effect of “We’re in a rut and I want things to change.” However, all the other person tends to hear under those circumstances is, “I don’t like what you’re doing, and this is what I want you to do to change it.” The end is usually the same. 

Sexton’s Advice: Constant criticism, per Sexton, is never productive. “You didn’t marry someone because they were good at criticizing you,” he says, “You marry someone because they’re a cheerleader. They make you feel good. The world is antagonistic and chaotic and it’s really nice to have someone cheering for you.” Both partners need to recognize why they married the other and dole out criticism and cheerleading. It also comes down to talking about resentments before they fester. Everyone has bad habits, be it over-criticizing or doing whatever it is that causes the criticism. What matters is how partners handle both and that they remember why they married one another in the first place. 

Never Stop Paying Attention to the Little Things

The Issue: Sexton recalled one of his clients telling him that the moment she knew her marriage was over was when there was no granola in the kitchen. There was a certain type of granola that she enjoyed eating from Whole Foods, and her husband would always get it for her without asking. “She said, ‘I never said anything about it,’” says Sexton, “but it was one of those things that made me feel really loved and made me feel like he was paying attention.” One day, when the granola was out and had not been replenished, the woman knew that something was off in the marriage.

Sexton’s Advice: Little gestures can go a long way, Sexton notes. Or even acts of service that one does for the other that are completely selfless (such as, in the case of the granola woman, she would often give her husband oral sex early in the marriage), can build equity in a marriage. “These ways of expressing love and affection and attention to another person then slowly slip away because of the understandable things that happen in day-to-day life,” says Sexton. “The demands of work and children and stress and everything else. Those actions are the glue to a marriage. And when that slips, then the whole machine falls apart.”

Talk About Everything

The Issue: Sexton had a client he describes as a classic “man’s man” type who owned a tree removal business. However, he privately harbored an interest in wearing women’s underwear. He had a healthy sex life with his spouse, but was unwilling or unable to bring this up to her. He had considered mentioning it to her during sex and had even started composing an email outlining his desire, but had never sent it. Unable to satisfy this fetish with his wife, Sexton’s client began to seek it outside the marriage, leading to a messy divorce. 

Sexton’s Advice: While it was clearly wrong for this man to cheat on his wife, Sexton says where he really messed up was not telling her about his interests up front. If two people are willing to commit to being each other’s only sexual outlet for life, then all the cards have to be on the table and nothing can be too taboo. “I’m forced by virtue of my profession to spend time with the cheater on the cheated up and really hear both of their stories in great depth,” says Sexton. “And when you spend time with someone who’s cheated and talk to them long enough, you start to say, ‘okay, I get it.’ You know, you were lonely, you were isolated, you weren’t getting your needs met. Maybe that’s your own fault because you didn’t express your needs and so your spouse couldn’t even hope to meet them.”