"I think my husband is having an affair with a co-worker," my friend confided. My heart broke. And I felt even worse when she later announced that she was getting a divorce.
While my husband, Greg, and I lived in Northwest Arkansas from 2005 to 2010, we heard many similar stories. The divorces weren't always because of infidelity. Sometimes the reason was that one spouse had an addiction. Some people simply said, "We just can't seem to work through any of our issues." The statistics backed up what was happening in our community. That specific region had one of the highest divorce rates in the country at the time.
This inspired us to fight for marriage with even more fervor. Greg and I both worked at the John Brown University Relationship Center, and Greg applied for and received a federal grant for the Center to help lower the divorce rate in Northwest Arkansas. Amid our research and work, we had previously studied the differing risk factors for a high divorce rate, such as age at marriage, socio-economic status and number of previous marriages; however, we began to hear about another possible cause: "Divorce is contagious."
I have seen waves of divorce, much like an illness, travel through social circles, workplaces, neighborhoods, MOPS groups and even churches. I recently came across a study that found people are 75 percent more likely to divorce if a friend has divorced. And if a friend of a friend is divorced, the odds of getting a divorce still increase 33 percent. The research showed a cluster effect to divorce. It falls under the category of "social contagions." When couples pursue divorce, others in their social circle tend to perceive it as tacit permission to do the same because "If it's OK for you — well, then it may be OK for me, too."
But just because a friend is going through a divorce doesn't mean that your marriage is doomed. There are a few things you can do to strengthen your marriage even while you support your friend who is going through divorce:
Address the issues in your marriage
If you walk with a friend while he or she is seeking a divorce, you will more than likely become privy to his or her hurts, complaints and irritations with his or her spouse. Listening, empathizing and caring for your friend could lead you to recognize dissatisfaction in your own relationship. If you focus on the negative characteristics in your marriage, that's what will stand out. Psychologists call this phenomena "confirmation bias" — if you perceive your spouse as flawed, you will find "evidence" of it in all he or she says and does.
Hearing about difficult divorce issues from your friend may call attention to the "difficulties" in your own marriage. But this observation ultimately may not be a bad thing. Discuss with your spouse how you can handle any issues in your marriage differently from the way your friend addressed issues in his or her marriage.
As these realizations arise, you may not be sure what to do. I want to encourage you to offer them to your spouse. Just be sure to do this in a manner that isn't accusing or attacking — simply address the issue calmly and concisely.
Also offer what your heart longs for. For example, if you realize that you aren't getting enough time with your spouse or that when you do, his or her eyes are always plastered to the cellphone, be honest about what you observe. Explain how that behavior affects you. Then request what you would like to experience instead. It could go something like this: "Hon, I've been aware that we haven't had a lot of quality time together lately. And often when we're together, the cellphones are out. I dislike this because my heart longs to connect with you. I'd like to request that we start planning an outing — technology free — once a week."
Focus on the positives in your spouse and your marriage
The power of noticing good things in your relationship is incredible. Keep a list of what you appreciate about your spouse and your marriage — especially if you're supporting a friend through a divorce.
Some couples surprise each other with little notes of what they appreciate about each other. One wife said that it blessed her greatly to see that her husband had jotted down, "I love how committed you are to our family — running kids everywhere, working full time and still finding time to be there to listen to our daughter when her boyfriend broke up with her."
When you're looking for good things, you'll find them. It cheers the human heart to focus on the positive things happening in life instead of concentrating on the negatives and things that are lacking.
Surround yourself with people who are willing to fight for your marriage
Over the years, Greg and I have been part of a marriage small group. Few things are more reassuring than being around other couples who are willing to be vulnerable about their marriage relationship. Others in the group can offer hope, encouragement and support to those who are struggling. They can pray for one another as they encounter difficulties or blessings. And they can also redirect a member of the group if that person is dishonoring his or her spouse or marriage.
Care for your marriage every day
Some married people believe they can focus the majority of their attention on careers, kids or personal pursuits. They don't realize that a strong marriage needs time and attention each and every day.
Marriage is like a living entity that each spouse is 100 percent responsible to care for. Feed your marriage by spending quality time with your spouse, maintaining a commitment to work through conflict in healthy ways, experiencing fun adventures and having great sex. Talk to your husband or wife about areas that are lacking and then develop ideas about how you can strengthen the weaknesses.
During flu season, you're at higher risk for an acute illness. You can be intentional to strengthen your immune system so you're less likely to get sick. In a similar way, when a friend goes through divorce, you're at a higher risk for divorce. However, you can be intentional about strengthening your marital immune system so you don't catch the negativity. By doing this, your marriage will become even better than before.
Erin Smalley serves as the strategic spokesperson for Focus on the Family's marriage ministry and develops content for that department.
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