After I graduated from law school, I thought I had all the answers. I was trained to be an adversarial thinker—I mean, just think of any legal case. So-and-So “versus” So-and-So. The “versus” says it all.
When you’re faced with marriage problems, the same kind of adversarial tone can easily set in. You can become opposing parties, each of you trying to convince the other that you’re right… or at least, that you’ve done nothing wrong… or if you have, you had a good reason for it. You had a good defense. There were mitigating factors.
If you’re dealing with a spouse who has hurt you through an affair or some other kind of serious wrong, this probably sounds quite familiar. And unfortunately, this kind of adversarial tone can get worse and worse, until you really do find yourself in court—divorce court.
For me, things changed after I realized I had no real desire to be a practicing lawyer, and so began to work in divorce mediation instead, adapting my legal training to that purpose. In that capacity, I saw how this adversarial tone had been cranked up so high that spouses couldn’t even hear each other anymore. And despite how many couples had reported going to couples counseling, things hadn’t changed. The tone hadn’t changed.
Even in the counselor’s office, some clients told me, it felt like a “versus” situation, one full of finger-pointing, accusations and excuses. When it came to marital issues surrounding affairs, there was even a sort of matrimonial perjury, where the unfaithful spouse continued to be dishonest about aspects of the affair, sometimes even lying about having ended it.
Seeing an opportunity to offer people an alternative, I moved away from divorce mediation and opened my Marriage SOS relationship mediation / coaching practice, further adapting my training in law and mediation into a skill set that could help couples keep their marriages together.
My practice was successful, but even so, I found it was a constant struggle to prevent my sessions with couples from descending into bitch sessions, with each of them trying to convince me, and each other, that they were right, or competing to complain. To lessen that, I began to incorporate shuttle mediation in my practice: this meant I spoke with spouses separately, letting them vent “just enough” and trying to get them on the same page in a low-conflict way, before seeing them together. That worked much better and clients liked that process.
However, I still ran into a common problem. I found that many spouses came in with very different levels of motivation and even different agendas. That was especially so when it came to infidelity: while the betrayed spouse was eager to work on the marriage, the unfaithful spouse was often not as ready, whether because they were continuing with the affair in some capacity or just not ready to do the hard work necessary to restore the partnership. Therefore, I eventually segued into a one-spouse approach almost entirely. I found it was more productive to work only with the motivated spouse—providing that was done in a way that was fair to both spouses—with the goal of creating a collaborative spirit in the marriage.
Eventually, demand for my approach grew enough that I developed my Marriage SOS™ Online Crash Courses, again primarily geared toward the spouse who was more motivated to save the marriage at that point.
Today, my practice focuses on helping individual spouses navigate their way through specific marriages crises, such as a partner’s affair, inappropriate friendship, midlife episode, challenging behavior, or apathy. For a spouse who is facing a marriage problem, it offers an alternative to couples counseling, or sometimes an adjunct to counseling or another form of personal support. But why do I offer, and why do so many people choose, this one-spouse approach? Well, as I’ve already touched on, it’s because that’s often the only option that’s open to them. If their partner is currently not motivated—they may still be involved with someone else, or just very self-involved—it may be better than doing nothing or just giving up.
Of course, the ideal situation is that an unfaithful, uncooperative or indifferent spouse becomes completely honest, cooperative, and eager to fix the marriage, and the couple moves ahead together. In that case, almost any form of marriage help can work! However, like most ideal situations in life, it doesn’t always happen that way. And that’s where my approach comes in.
Essentially, one of my goals is to provide the motivated spouse with the kinds of insights that can help them better understand, advocate for, and respect their partner’s needs, feelings, and perspectives, as well as their own. That isn’t always easy when someone has hurt or angered you, but it has to be done. It’s must-know information. It’s also the only “fair” way to go about resolving a situation that affects two people, even if it does not affect them equally or in the same way. Even a person who has suffered a larger wrong must be able to understand their role in conflict and the overall marital circumstances or condition. Ultimately, it’s about the partnership. It has to work for both people, or there’s no point going through all the trouble of trying to save it.
Yet because unfaithful or otherwise uncooperative partners can act in ways that seriously undermine the integrity of the marriage, and can dip into behavior that is self-focused and manipulative, it is also essential for a spouse to be “aware”—that is, able to recognize and manage that very behavior. Whether it’s a partner who doesn’t want to end an affair, or who is in the throes of a self-indulgent midlife episode, some partners will pull out all the stops to keep doing what they’re doing.
Such a partner might not be behaving in these ways to be cruel or deliberately manipulative—they may not even be fully aware of it—but they do it all the same. And unless their baffled and hurt spouse is able to recognize and manage their behavior in a purposeful way, the situation will continue to deteriorate.
And that, at its most basic, is the foundation of my “Fair, but Aware” approach, which is an essential part of my Marriage SOS™ method. I do my best to help spouses approach their marriage issues in a way that is reasonable and respectful to both partners, but I also help them identify and manage their partner’s problematic behavior, and possible manipulations, so they can break free of it and move forward toward a spirit of true commitment and collaboration in the marriage. That is the only way for spouses to be on equal footing in a marriage, for the balance of power to be shared equally and healthily, and for self-determination on the part of both spouses to be possible and respected. That’s an essential part of a romantic partnership that works for both people in it.
Of course, in practice, it isn’t quite this simple. My programs contain hours of uninterrupted audio content and supporting material, and one-on-one phone consults can be intense; however, they all put this “Fair, but Aware” approach to good use. For a spouse who is willing to take the time to work through the information provided, to thoughtfully choose what is relevant and helpful to them, and to give those insights and strategies a try, they can prove invaluable.
So if you’re struggling with a marriage problem and are in the position of having to take the initiative at this point to prompt a change, you may wish to explore your options on this site. And if you can’t find what suits you here, keep looking. You have options when it comes to receiving marriage help, and you must find the approach that’s right for you.
Browse Your Marriage SOS™ Options.
Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is an international marriage expert and the founder of Marriage SOS™. Her no-nonsense style, “Fair, but Aware” approach, and 20+ years of experience have made her a resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health.