Lessons for a Good Marriage, from the Divorced Who Finally Got It Right

Divorced couples who remarry successfully can teach all couples about building stronger relationships.

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With the divorce rate in the U.S. hitting 30% to 50%, it’s inevitable that in the course of dating, you’ll run into someone with an ex (or two). And somewhere into that first or second date, you’ve probably asked what went wrong. I know I have. And when my date begins his answer with the words my wife, I’m ready to duck out.

For these people, it’s always about what the other guy did, how awful the ex was. I’ve always been a believer in the credo that every relationship involves two people. And no matter how evil my ex turned out to be, I played a role. Got to have. So there’s bound to be something I need to do differently next time.

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Change thyself: that’s the lesson emerging from an ongoing National Institutes of Health–funded study of 373 married couples in one Midwest county that began in 1986. The study was launched by Terri Orbuch, author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. Orbuch, a therapist and professor of sociology at Oakland University, recently analyzed data on the 46% of her couples who eventually divorced and the 71% of those who have since remarried or formed long-term relationships. Her findings reveal which behaviors significantly predict finding a new relationship. And they also yield some lessons for making any relationship better.

Orbuch found her divorced people were significantly more likely to find a new love if they could let go of the past — and that included not blaming their ex-spouse for the divorce. If you blame your ex, Orbuch says, you’re less likely to become “emotionally neutral,” an emotional state she found was more strongly linked to finding new relationships.

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Letting go of the past is an important emotional step. But there are five specific behaviors Orbuch identified that made the divorced people in her sample twice as likely to succeed in finding a new relationship. People who made at least one of these changes were likelier to find a new love, and 90% of those who did so reported they were happy or somewhat happy.

1. Reach out to others to talk about your breakup and seek advice about how to cope and move on
Whether you talk to friends or clergy or read self-help books, the important thing is to gain insight and perspective and what Orbuch calls a “reality check.” This can also help you let go of the past.

2. Change some old habits
Those who cut their work hours drastically fared much better at finding love. Other behavior changes linked to success, though less common, included quitting smoking or riding a bike to work. “The very act of doing something out of your comfort zone is powerful and transformative,” Orbuch says. “It changes how you see yourself and increases your chances of meeting a new partner.” In an existing long-term relationship, she adds, “A novel activity can add excitement and passion.”

3. Find a new way to talk with your partner about money
Since money issues rank as the primary source of conflict in marriage, this one is critical. Most repartnered couples in the study (57%) did not merge their finances, and this was a predictor of happiness. Whether you throw your funds together totally, not at all or in ways between, Orbuch says what is really important is to examine your own attitudes and values about money and talk frankly and honestly with each other early on to figure out what spending and saving habits will work for you as a couple or family.

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4. Improve how you communicate with your partner
The new couples made efforts to share more of their own feelings, stresses and goals and to ask their partners to do the same. They also tried to pick more fruitful times to talk about stuff, to think before they spoke and to listen more attentively. Another important change they made was, in Orbuch’s words, “to lose the absolutes” as in “you’re always late” or “you never help.”

5. Learn to handle conflict better
The most successful of those who had stronger second relationships understood that conflict can happen in any relationship, and they worked at better ways to resolve disputes. Those in the study who could achieve this with their ex — over children or money, for example — were also much more likely to do so in a new relationship. They learned how to control their anger better, like taking a deep breath, for example, and not storming out of a room. They also tried not to dismiss the other person’s feelings or make personal attacks rather than focus on the issues.

If you’re in a good relationship, these may seem obvious, and you may already be doing many of them. But it’s worth assessing your own partnership to see if any of these areas need attention and addressing them before trouble erupts. And if you’ve suffered a breakup and hope to do better next time, it’s worth considering these tips. Sure, you can say you’ll pick a better partner, but the research shows that your best shot at happiness is to make yourself a better partner.

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