Ending a marriage is a monumental decision. Take it from two divorce lawyers: The choice comes after lengthy consideration, and not without consequences. But if a couple is on the edge, meeting with an attorney may be the reality check your relationship needs. "Often, they just need to get the information they need to make certain decisions about their future," says Laura Wasser of Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles, who has represented high-profile clients like Ryan Reynolds, Christina Aguilera and Angelina Jolie. "Sometimes when their eyes are wide open, they opt to go back and figure out whether and how they can make it work."
"This can bring his or her voice and thoughts into the room in a way that may not have been clear during marriage," adds Jacqueline Newman, managing partner at Berkman Bottger Newsman & Rodd, an NYC-based firm. These two experts in law are taking their experience form these consultations and breaking them down to share what you can do to save your union from dissolving. Not surprisingly, it all revolves around communication.
Avoid mixed signals
While extramarital affairs are dubbed as one of the biggest reasons couples split, Wasser believes this is more of a symptom than the root cause of marital woes. "The failure of marriage often has to do with a failure to properly communicate," she says. "When resentment builds up and couples are not communicating, things can often go to a negative place." Newman adds that this breakdown communication can happen over time, leading to emotions such as "anger, distance, then indifference. And then they end up at my office door," she says.
Ask yourselves questions
Both Wasser and Newman ask each couple they see several preliminary questions before taking a potential divorce process any further, like, Are you sure you want to get divorced? "If they hesitate even slightly, I suggest that they go and try marriage counseling," Newman says. "You want to be 100 percent sure that this is the move you want to make before taking those next steps." Wasser asks questions like Have you been to counseling/therapy before? Do you have minor children? How long have you been married? "I like to get a sense of how serious they are before splitting up," she says.
Consider a prenup
Believe it or not, signing that prenup could help keep your marriage strong. "Prenuptial agreements are actually structured to prevent divorce," Wasser says. "There is case law in California which says that if any provision in a prenuptial agreement of divorce, that provision or the entire agreement may be unenforceable." It may not be the most romantic thing you'll do together before you tie the knot, it could be the most important. "I have seen more than a few couples whose relationships have become healthier and stronger as a result of the communications they have had throughout the process," she adds. "When both people have an understanding of the laws in their state regarding marriage (separate versus jointly owned property, child and spousal support, gifts, inheritance, etc.) and are able to, with the help of advocates, discuss and agree upon what each of their expectations are, things really do go much smoother once the marriage is underway."
Fix what's broken
A loss of trust is one thing couples must address if they seek to improve their communication. "For example, if there is infidelity, then the spouse who was cheated on is less likely to believe anything that comes out of their spouse's mouth, whether it be about the finances or the children or whether they remembered to turn the coffee machine off," Newman says. "If there is no underlying belief that basic statements are accurate, then there can be no effective communication."
Another big issue that should be confronted is criticism, especially if one spouse has been criticized a great deal over the course of a marriage. "That history shows itself in divorce negotiations," Newman adds. And, in this case, it's important to keep in mind that, "It is all about the messenger to determine how the message is received."
Master healthy disagreements
"The key to 'divorce-proofing' your marriage is to learn early the skill of knowing how to fight well," Newman says. "Everyone knows how to get along when things are good. The real trick is learning how to respect each other when things are not going so great." She adds that active listening and knowing yourselves well enough to figure out what's best for you both in a moment of conflict (say, walking away for a short period to calm down or having a glass of wine at your favorite restaurant to talk things through), will help avoid below-the-belt comments and instead lead to constructive conversation.