As a family law attorney, I work with many couples who have made the hard decision to divorce. After working with couples from all different backgrounds and age groups, it takes a lot to surprise me anymore, and I've seen just about every reason why people decide to separate.
While there's nothing funny about divorce, my friends jokingly say that I'm qualified to be a relationship expert with all the clients I've helped go through the process. It's true; when you've worked with as many couples as I have, listening to the stories of why their marriages fell apart really opens your eyes to what makes a strong and thriving relationship and what doesn't.
Here are 12 relationship tips I've learned from my time in family law:
1. Understand that marriage is hard work.
Start your marriage with the idea that you'll both work together on "being married" every day. Being married isn't a state of being; it's a work in progress. And it is work. So, don't ignore problems when you first notice them; work on them before they blow up and explode. Treat your spouse like a date every day. Notice the little things that attracted you to begin with and enjoy them; don't take them for granted. Don't allow familiarity to breed contempt.
2. Understand that your spouse-to-be will not change.
When my divorcing clients share why they're getting divorced, they often admit that they knew about their spouse's behavior "flaw" or their relationship disconnect before they got married. About 95 percent of the time, they believed that it would change. But your spouse won't change, and in fact, those little imperfections will only worsen over time. Realize early what they are, and determine if you can live with them forever before you tie the knot.
3. Consider whether to sign a prenuptial agreement.
Signing a prenup gives you a way out, and marriage is a forever commitment. Do you really want that? If you're not ready to promise that you'll stay together through thick and thin, perhaps you shouldn't get married. While most attorneys will advise that a prenuptial agreement is a wise financial move, a wiser move is to wait to marry someone to whom you can really make that permanent pledge.
4. Marry someone who shares your financial views.
Money is the most common cause of divorce; people have diverse philosophies about how to handle finances, and when they're teamed together in marriage, they never really address how to harmonize their different value systems. They start out in love, and small disconnects go unnoticed. Later, when they're comfortable, they overlook larger disconnects; later still, they discount them. At some point, their differences become too great to ignore; they can't make excuses anymore. Because the couple has never learned to address the issues, the financial struggles have caused rifts in their abilities to communicate, to problem solve, and to grow together.
5. Decide to grow together.
Let's talk about the finances again. Many people marry before they've solidified their views on many issues, including spending. So take classes together on financial management, child rearing, religion, and other sensitive topics before the issues start raising their ugly heads. Get educated together. This will ensure that you both have the same information. Then decide together how you'll handle complex issues, before they arise and become emotional.
6. Go to a marriage counselor (of some kind) early and often.
Seeing a counselor shouldn't be an admission of failure; it should be like signing up for guitar lessons or for Tae Kwon Do. If you can't think of a good reason to go, I can: work on your communication, problem-solving, and/or co-parenting skills.
7. Ensure that you both have the same day off once a week.
Maintaining a strong relationship requires spending time together. Stay in bed one morning a week and talk, with no agenda. Well, if there's any agenda, it's just to cuddle. If you have to brush your teeth first, get up and do that, and then get back in bed. Lock the door; no kids; cuddle. (One of you needs it, and the other one will find that he enjoys it more than he thinks he will.)
8. Share a hobby.
Again, it's important to spend time together. You don't have to share all of the same hobbies, but it's important to share most of them, since our hobbies consume much of what little free time we have. So, run races; play golf; watch movies; play music together. My husband insists on running the weekend errands with me, instead of splitting up to get them done in half the time. (I brag about this all the time, even though he first made this declaration 22 years ago!) Whatever interests you share, engage in them together. And if you don't share any, then one of you must change your interest. My husband took up golf; I had no interest. But he was spending six hours every week out on a golf course somewhere so I took it up, too. I developed an interest, if not in the sport itself, at least in the nature I enjoyed while out on the course, and more importantly, in the talking we did while we were out there.
9. Shower or bathe together.
My husband and I purposely installed a double-headed shower. At least twice a week, we shower at the same time. It's a great time to plan, unwind, and to discuss matters outside of the hearing of little ears. It's easy to add to busy schedules because you both need to bathe. And it's good to be naked with each other every day. It's something private and special that you only share with each other, so it will keep you connected. And you never know where it will lead! Which segues into my next tip....
10. Never stop having sex.
It's the one thing that you share together that you don't share with anyone else. Even if you are best friends, you're more than that; your relationship initially grew because of your sexual intimacy with one another. Sex is a basic, biological need. As a married couple, you depend on one another to meet this need. Even if you're tired, not in the mood, or not even attracted to your spouse in that moment, make sex a regular part of your relationship. Vow to make love at least once a week. If you get to the end of a week without having done so, do whatever it takes to be intimate before the clock strikes midnight on the seventh day. It will also add an element of fun to your relationship!
11. Know that the grass isn't greener.
While it may be tempting to explore a new, exciting, attractive, and interesting person, remember that person comes with his or her own set of flaws. The turmoil that an affair brings with it is not worth the excitement, and people don't end up any happier when the dust settles. Be happy with the one you have, and actively work together to remember why you chose each other.
12. Don't give up too soon.
Remember that you vowed to be together "for better, for worse," and sometimes, it's a "for worse" period. But, this too shall pass. The good times will return if you weather the storm together and don't jump ship.
Joryn Jenkins is a trial attorney with 35 years of courtroom experience, and she's now in private practice, where she concentrates on the collaborative practice of family law. She received her B.A. degree from Yale University and her J.D. from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.