Ironically, for the past two tabulated years, the number of finalized divorces has peaked in June, the month of brides and hopeful beginnings. Demographers predict one out of every two couples marrying this year will become a divorce statistic before their seventh wedding anniversary.
On the brighter side, newlyweds or longer-time marrieds can improve the odds, say the experts, by learning communication and decision-making skills. In time, with the right attitude and hard work, it may even be possible to turn around an older marriage gone sour.
Three years ago, Brian and Sue Magnum's then 17-year-marriage had reached what Maxine Rock, in her new book, The Marriage Map: Understanding and Surviving the Stages of Marriage (Peachtree Publishers Ltd.), calls "Stage Five: Separation." Couples married for 12 to 17 years, Rock writes, either have to "settle down or split."
For the Magnums (not their real names) the tension in their steadily eroding relationship crested when their children became teen-agers. "I used to absolutely despise being home," says Brian, a 42-year-old computer consultant. "I'd leave work already tense, in a knot, and know that being at home was going to be worse."
From early on in the marriage, neither spouse was comfortable discussing sensitive issues. Postponing conversations that might spark an argument became a pattern. "Then as things became worse," says Brian, "and there were things about our finances and the kids we had to work out, we'd argue over everything. After working all day, I didn't want the added stress of fighting all night."
He picked up some self-help books. Whenever they tried to implement the skills, hostile feelings from issues long suppressed shattered any attempt at a rational dialogue.
He thought of leaving. "But to me, leaving the marriage would represent total failure in my life. Somehow I had a sense of what things could be, and realized we couldn't do it by ourselves. We needed a mediator."
Although he had periodically urged Sue to go with him for counseling, she balked at the idea. Brian asked his pastor to recommend a marital counselor and scheduled an appointment.
"Some part of my background inhibited me," says Sue, a 42-year-old secretary. Because I didn't know what was going to happen, I was afraid to go."
"In the beginning," agrees licensed clinical social worker Mary Sheahen, associate director of Affiliated Community Counselors in Rockville, "there is a lot of fear." The clients' concerns, she says, center around how the counselor will react to their revelations and if they will learn more about themselves than they can comfortably handle.
Others wonder if there is any point in beginning. Psychotherapist Marion L. Usher, who has a private practice and is an assistant clinical professor at George Washington University School of Medicine, says couples walk into her office all the time and ask, "How do we know if there is hope?"
"The fact that you're walking in the door is significant," she answers. "You realize your marriage is in trouble and you're willing to work on it." Still, she notes that even couples who come for help vary in the amount of time and energy they're willing to put into healing an ailing marriage.
Several years ago, the Magnums came once a week for six months to work with Dr. Jarle Brors, director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Relations in Springfield, Va. "Basically," says Brian, "I viewed what was happening as too little too late while I was in the middle of it. By the end of counseling things were starting to happen, but so slowly and in our subconscious so much that I expect an observer would not have seen as much as we felt. But Dr. Brors left me with hope, gave me the vision of what I could be."
Conducting the sessions in a low-key manner, Brors, the Magnums say, defused their anger with humor, tact and anecdotes. Sue recalls while discussing issues, "there were a lot of emotions exposed, crying and shouting, but he was there to not let us devour each other." Brors provided feedback on their interaction with one another. "While we didn't leave feeling angry or upset," she points out, "it was draining."
During the last 30 years, Brors has observed patterns of relating. Many people, he says, carry hidden "emotional baggage" around and are security conscious. When something in the relationship triggers their insecurity, they defend themselves, become primitive, attack. Sometimes the dissension centers around just one small unresolved area of their lives.
Other couples, he says, are too dependent on each other. "Dependency in marriage is really a rotten egg. People feel overwhelmed by the 'gooeyness' of the relationship. It brings out nothing but rage."
Many couples enter counseling when one of them is engulfed by rage and pain over the other's extramarital fling. To determine whether the situation can be resolved, Brors asks the betrayed spouse for a commitment that he is willing to work through the issue. "I don't care how they feel," he says, "but I must have their will."
Even without infidelity, "there is going to be hostility when two people try and live with each other," says Sheahen. After the honeymoon period, "it is not all fairy tales. But that doesn't mean it is a bad marriage. It means they have to learn different ways of being with each other. There are tools for constructive fighting and it can clear the air.
"While you can't always feel good about a relationship you can make the decision to act in a dignified way. It automatically puts you in a position of control," she observes. "You don't have to be ruled by your emotions."
People, says Usher, overburden marriage. They unrealistically expect the relationship to fulfill their personal, social, intellectual and entertainment needs. "Change in marital therapy," she explains, "happens when people begin to unburden the relationship, identify and take care of some of their own needs, alter expectations and see new ones. It is a struggle to get a really functional marriage." Experts stress the struggle is day by day with only incremental improvement.
Do people backslide? "Old habits don't disappear easily," Sheahen acknowledges. The skills learned in counseling, however, enable the couple falling back into old patterns to work out the problems faster, she says, and while people still "fly off the handle" at times, they find it easier to forgive both themselves and their spouse.
"Our relationship has steadily gotten better," says Brian. They reached a milestone, he believes, six months ago while discussing long-range financial and retirement plans. "We were actually able to have a dialogue without any tension or anger."
Says Sue: "It took a lot of courage on my part to walk into that office, but it is one of the best things we ever did." bybio Marilynn Mansfield is a Washington writer. CAPTION: Drawing, no caption, DRAWING BY DANA FRADON; (c) 1985, THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE, INC.