Eight years after they exchanged vows to build a life together, the Dangerfields were looking to split the property.
They had weathered the tough times -- the sick child, the cross-country move. But storms were brewing over "the little things," the uncooked dinner, the dusty mantel top, the forgotten hug, the rude remark, the cutting criticism, the indifferent look.
Things just weren't "clicking right," says Susan Dangerfield, 39, and the promise of marriage, to become one, was breaking under the weight of two people going in different directions, burdened with the demands of growing up and growing into their careers.
Divorce "looked like freedom to me," Dangerfield says. "It looked like a way of getting away from the problems that we were having at the time. I'm just one of those people who want things really good."
Today, almost eight years later, she has what she enthusiastically calls "a nice, nice marriage" to a "terrific guy" -- the same guy she had been one step away from taking to divorce court.
"I just took a look at his qualities," Dangerfield, who lives in Illinois, says, "and they were the exact same qualities that I would look for in somebody else. So why get a divorce? Why not just work on making what you have better? We just had some real nit-picking stuff, which is often the stuff that people get divorced over."
And at what a cost. As study after study documents what so many people are experiencing firsthand -- that divorce is not a sure-footed escape from pain, nor a sure way to better times ahead; that divorce is not a death you grieve over, but a choice you and your children live with (today and years later) -- some family therapists are helping their clients just say no to divorce.
That's not to say no one should ever divorce, says Howard J. Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "Certainly we wouldn't want to say no to divorce in situations where there is physical and emotional violence, where both people aren't willing to get help," he says. "And there are many situations where people make the wrong choice, they're not ready for marriage, they're not committed to marriage."
But in today's society, Markman adds, where one out of two first marriages fail, "I would bet that fully half of those couples do not need to get divorced."
Michele Weiner-Davis, a family therapist in Woodstock, Ill., and self-proclaimed "divorce buster," agrees. She thinks about her work not so much as "saving the marriage, but as divorcing the old marriage and starting a new one." It's a position she sees gaining popularity.
"More and more professionals and people are starting to be outspoken, that it's okay not to divorce," says Weiner-Davis, who is to discuss her work and forthcoming book, "Divorce Buster: Staying Married for Good and Making It Great" (Simon & Schuster) this Sunday at the annual convention of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
"Most problems are solvable. Even if there's an affair, that doesn't mean the marriage can't be turned around, if there's a commitment on the part of the partners to work through it."
Weiner-Davis says that from the research she has read, it appears that many couples are in divorce court because "women generally say there's a lack of communication and a lack of affection. And men generally say, 'I can't take my wife's nagging anymore.' "
With a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Markman and his colleagues have been conducting a longitudinal study of couples and their families to identify the signposts of happy marriages and to determine whether marital problems can be prevented. "Based on an analysis of premarital communication," Markman says, "we can predict now with 90 percent accuracy who's going to stay married and who's going to divorce."
Markman says he finds it amazing that "the amount of validation, empathy and support that people communicate and exchange doesn't predict well to anything. However, the amount of invalidation, the amount of criticisms, put-downs and indifference that is exchanged, is one of the best predictors for divorce, particularly for women, but it's true for men, too."
Markman, who is expected to present his findings at the AAMFT convention here, calls it the "worst-case scenario, when you're expecting something positive and you're getting something negative." And it happens frequently: Just ask the wife who spends hours trying to make order of the household bills, only to get yelled at for not buying stamps. Or the husband who works to organize the cluttered hallway closet, only to get chastised for making a mess in the process.
Markman also reports that men who show high levels of conflict avoidance and withdrawal "are, with a high degree of certainty, destined to divorce. At the same time, males who are doing a very good job at facilitating a problem discussion with their partner, are in relationships that are destined to remain stable and happy."
Says Markman, "Men are much worse at handling conflict than women, but that looks to women as if they're fleeing from intimacy. So when men start to withdraw, women start to pursue, and probably do it more and more negatively, especially over time. And that only makes men want to withdraw more."
This flight-leads-to-fight, "a very classic and destructive cycle," Markman says, is "the hallmark of marital distress."
"Imagine," Weiner-Davis says, "the woman who decides that her husband doesn't pay her enough attention. She's likely to go after him, to pursue him: 'Honey, is everything okay? Would you mind putting the paper down while we're sitting at the table together?' And imagine for a moment that the paper means nothing to this man. It wasn't his avoiding intimacy, it was just that he was reading an article he liked. Imagine that he then starts reacting to her pursuit by avoiding her. As she notices that, she intensifies her pursuit, and so he intensifies his withdrawal, until finally, what started out with 'Honey, is everything okay?' ends up in divorce."
Not all failed marriages fall victim to conflict mismanagement and this cat-and-mouse pursuit. But couples need to recognize that marriage, long-term commitment, takes work, attention and a mastery of communication, negotiation and problem-solving skills -- not often what couples think about when they embrace the romantic view of marriage -- fancy, fun and fate.
"There are certain tough spots that are part and parcel of couples growing together," says Judith Coche, a clinical supervisor in family therapy for the AAMFT and an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "If couples misinterpret those tough spots as a reason for divorce, then they're really misunderstanding what marriage is about."
To illustrate, Coche highlights three of the most common tough spots in marriage, when hope gives way to disillusionment, overextension gives way to burnout and romance gives way to boredom.
Disillusionment is more common in the early stages, "as people realize that they have married people and not ideals," Coche says. Petty annoyances overlooked during dating take on a life of their own in marriage. "These little annoyances, which early on are thought of as minor problems, become like sand in a sandal. They loom larger than they actually are."
Overextension, Coche says, "is most common after people have moved through the stage of being a young couple and are moving into extended responsibilities, such as those that come with better jobs, more money, moving into or pushing for partnership in a law firm, new businesses taking off and demanding more time, and wives going back to school or pursuing careers."
Overextension "is most evident when it involves two-career couples who are very long on love, resourcefulness and intelligence," Coche says. "They've just piled too much upon themselves and don't know where to stop. They're not only short on time, but they're short on long-range planning as well. What people have been afraid to say is that no couple can do everything that they want in their life. Period. Knowing that they have to make choices is necessary in order to make good choices. And the sooner they know it, the better."
Boredom, Coche says, also "comes into play after people have been married long enough so that the bad habits have become a part of daily living. Bad habits such as keeping quiet when you're angry so you can't ever talk about what's important. And simple bad habits, such as, 'She never clears the table after she's done with breakfast.' Boredom is a very natural thing. It's only because we're so afraid to admit it that it becomes so problematic."
Coche works to get her clients to talk "the language of feeling," to know how to say what hurts without hurting, to vent anger without causing anger and to brainstorm together new directions for a stale marriage. Her tools and techniques are among many new, and some not-so-new, approaches to marital enrichment and divorce prevention. Workshops and classes in relationship skills and conflict management -- what Coche calls skills for "responsible intimacy" -- are taking off nationwide.
"My own sense is that we clearly are in a different era," says Markman, who, through the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program at the University of Denver, works with couples to teach them the skills for constructive arguing. "One of the things we've learned over the past 10 or 15 years is that having a good relationship is vital to one's individual growth and well-being. People know this from their own experiences, and therapists know this from a number of different lines of research."
Weiner-Davis stakes her reputation on it. But she diverges from many of her colleagues in one key area: She doesn't care how a couple's problems have developed, and she doesn't care to hear about family history and background. "The couple on the brink of divorce doesn't have the luxury of time to figure all those things out," she says. "The pessimism will eat them alive."
Instead, Weiner-Davis takes a "future-oriented," brief therapy approach and asks her clients to seek solutions by talking about what's different about the times they get along. "A lot of other therapists say couples need to express their feelings, they need to understand their feelings. I think that's baloney," she says.
"By the time couples get to your office, they know each other's feelings. They've been yelling them at each other for years. They just don't know what to do about them, how to get out of the rut, the vicious circle they've been in. And talking about what I call exceptions to the problem gives them a clue, gives them an out, gives them a way to save face without having to figure out who's to blame."
Weiner-Davis believes that if a couple in distress can identify what makes their relationship work, and then start doing those things, "it will help to foster the kinds of feelings that they'll need to want to work on their marriage."
Too often, though, the misconception "is that you have to wait around until you feel loving again before you can start doing those things that make you feel loved," Weiner-Davis says. "But if you wait around until the feeling comes, you might as well make an appointment with the divorce attorney."
Susan Dangerfield was one step away from making that call. But then she and her husband shifted their focus from past negatives to future positives. And now, Dangerfield says, "When Steve and I start running into snags, I don't panic like I did before. It gives me the self-confidence to say: 'Okay, this has been a really crummy two weeks, but it's not even close to what we were before and we turned that around. Whatever it's going to take, we'll do it.'
"You know," she adds, "if people were willing to do half the work before they get divorced that they have to do after they get divorced, I think there would be a lot fewer divorces."
A sampling of communication skills suggested by Howard J. Markman of the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies:
Air the issues. Either partner can bring up any issue at any time, but the other partner reserves the right to say: "Now's not the time; let's discuss it after dinner." Partners take turns being speaker and listener, keeping in mind the "X-Y-Z formula," as in: "When you do X, in situation Y, I feel Z." Stick to the facts; be specific; edit for politeness, and avoid dragging in your hidden agenda of unresolved, sometimes unrelated, issues.
Seek solutions. Discuss which part of the problem you want to solve first. Then brainstorm. Be creative and list all possible solutions. Select one or two things to try for a week; note progress or change directions.
Be a friend. "I would estimate that 50 to 70 percent of issues that are talked about really don't need to be solved, that once you have a good discussion, that's all that's needed," Markman says. As studies show, he adds, most people in marriages are seeking a friend, "someone who hears, listens and understands."