Coffee With Sam: Abigail Hirsch On Marriage and Divorce

I recently had the opportunity to have a virtual cup of coffee and chat with Dr. Abigail Hirsch, marriage specialist, practicing clinician, co-author of The Power of Two, and blogger. Dr. Hirsch has some great advice on marriage: how to make it work, keep it happy, and keep your partner satisfied (in all senses of the word). As a doctor, mom of four, and happily married for many years, she seems to know what she’s talking about.

Samantha Feuss: Marriages are never easy. Do you think that people have unrealistic views of marriage, going in?
Dr. Abigail Hirsch: Those who long for an intimate connection with a partner but have never seen how this plays out, modeled by happily married couples, may think loving couples never argue or disagree. They have a “happier ever after” mentality that means marriage shouldn’t take daily effort, and it should be based on constant, loving feelings. They wonder, will I ever find the perfect mate who loves me constantly and unconditionally? They think their jobs and lives should also be perfect before the wedding day.
Others have extraordinarily low expectations of marriage, fed by personal experiences and messages from media and the greater culture that marriage is a sham and an impossible ideal. Few people are taught to have high standards and realistic expectations for marriage. Too many haven’t had a personal witness or experience with a long-lasting, supportive marriage that was positive enough to convince them of the value of the institution of marriage. They may come to believe that true love doesn’t exist, nor does loyalty.

SF: How do things change after having kids? And is there any way to prepare yourself? (Hahahaha….)
AH: Life is definitely both more complicated and, hopefully, also more wonderful after having kids. All of a sudden, instead of just having two lives to weave together, there are three lives (or more!). In addition, babies bring a whole new set of to-do’s for running your house.
The best way to be prepared is to be skilled marriage partners. The more you can learn the tools for skilled communicating, decision making, emotion regulation and supporting each other, the more prepared you will be for all the new parts of life that come with kids.

SF: It can be hard to “keep the spark alive”, especially after having children. Do you have any tips on bringing new life to your relationship as it changes?
AH: It’s really important to remember to keep a focus on the two of you, even with kids. All too often parents slip into putting the kids ahead of the couple. In the long run, that’s not helpful for you or your children. A good back of the envelope is to make sure you carve out about 10 hours of couple-only time every week. This can be something “romantic” like a date-night, or it’s just as good if it’s folding laundry together or washing dishes. What matters is that you have time with the two of you, in the same place, to just chat with each other.
A few more specific tips: 1) early bedtimes are better for kids and for parents 2) A quick walk around the block with baby in the stroller can be a wonderful solution to fussiness while also being nice for you two. 3) Savor a few minutes of cuddling in bed or a cup of coffee together in the morning before racing off to the day’s insanity.

SF: I really enjoyed walking with the baby in his stroller. I still like taking family walks after dinner. It’s not so quiet now, but…What are the biggest things couples fight about? (It’s not fair to say money, money, and money, LOL.)
AH: Interestingly, in my clinical practice I hear far more arguments about who does what and who helps out in what ways. Couples slip into bickering when she wants him to do the dishes her way or when he feels like he is asked to do too much at home while also working a 75 hour work week.

SF: I can see how that can be an issue. But at-home moms work, too. And more and more couples have both parents working, so I guess the dividing can really push people apart. It can be hard to stay calm and reasonable in the middle of a heated argument. What is your best tip to keep a tiff from turning into an all-out screaming match?
AH: There is one and only one solution that works to stay calm: take a break before it gets heated. The moment you or your spouse start to feel upset or irritated, separate to cool down. Get a drink of water or walk around the block. Then come back and discuss things calmly. For many couples, this will take multiple rounds of talk a bit, take a break, talk a bit, take a break. Again, the more skilled you get, the easier it will be to talk about hard topics without getting too hot!

SF: What about more serious issues, like substance abuse, or infidelity? Should the couple just throw in the towel, or are there ways to rekindle the romance?
AH: At Power of Two we talk about 3 A’s that certainly can be signs it’s time to consider leaving a marriage:affairs, addictions, and excessive anger. If a partner is committed to repeatedly doing any of these behaviors, it’s generally a bad sign for their ability to be a healthy, stable partner. At the same time, if it’s a one-time mistake and your spouse is committed to getting help and changing, you can try working through the issues together. Still, emotional or physical abuse is a definite “get out!” sign.

SF: Why do you think there is such a high divorce rate in this country?
AH: Marriage is a complicated endeavor. In a way, you’re running the small business together, and you’re also trying to keep a romance going. As a society we’ve let go of the his/hers roles from the 1950’s and are trying to navigate a new version of how to keep all the balls up in the air. So it’s no wonder that for many couples it becomes too complicated. There are no longer “rules” keeping marriages together, and at the same time many couples don’t have the more complex skills it takes to negotiate this uncharted territory. Here’s the good news: the skills it takes to build a wonderful and strong marriage, even in this new modern context, are 100% learnable at any stage. So that’s the bottom line on why I think there’s so much divorce. Not enough marriage education means many couples get in over their heads without having the right tools for the job.

SF: Is it true that once divorced, a person is more likely to experience other failed marriages? Why do you think that is?
AH: Well, it is certainly true that someone who has once divorced and who doesn’t learn new ways of doing things is very likely to slip into the same patterns. Add this to the stress of co-parenting and its little surprise that, statistically speaking, someone who has once divorced is more likely to have a repeat failed marriage. That said, folks who take divorce as a signal that it’s time to learn different ways of doing things are often the quickest learners of new marriage skills and the best at understanding why these skills are so critical to building a happy, healthy and lasting marriage.

SF: What do men typically need more of from their spouse. And on the other hand, what can he do to make his partner’s day a little brighter?
AH: At the risk of sounding stereotypical, one of the most regular complaints I hear in my office from men is that a marriage has become sexless. This isn’t good for either partner. Sex is an important part of what makes a marriage romantic and intimate. And, my favorite thing to remind guys (and gals to in fact) is to ask their spouse what would brighten their day instead of just guessing. Of course, then it’s also important to follow through!

SF: That is a lot to think about. (And act upon!) What do you think is the most important piece of a healthy marriage?
AH: Set the bar high for yourself and then raise it. Instead of being satisfied with an ok marriage, get out their and learn how to make your marriage one all the neighbors will be jealous of!

Abigail Hirsch, PhD is President of Power of Two, an innovative and interactive online relationship coaching and counseling Internet site, the co-author of the Power of Two Workbook, and a practicing clinician. She has an MA in Educational Psychology from the University of Colorado and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Massachusetts. Abigail and her husband live in Denver with their three boys and new baby.

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