We all know that 50% of marriages end in divorce.  On top of that, countless unmarried couples separate each year.  And yet, less than 25% of all couples seek counseling. Which means that the vast majority of all couples who separate have never had counseling, and that underscores a thought I’ve had for years: rather than splitting up, is there a way more of us could actually become Better Together?

My parents separated when I was nine and my brother was six, and we spent the next ten years traveling back and forth between their two homes every single day for the rest of my childhood.  As an adult I became a divorce lawyer and clerked for a divorce court judge in NYC; I’ve now been a lawyer and mediator for over twenty years and I’ve resolved hundreds of trial-ready cases,  helping hundreds of people unravel their relationships and move forward.

For some of us leaving is the right answer. But for some, there may be an alternative.

You can spend less time planning your escape and more time enjoying the relationship right in front of you.

The saying “marriage takes work” is more than sentiment. My husband and I have been in and out of couples counseling for most of our sixteen years together.  For many of us, marriage can be downright difficult, but, that doesn’t mean we have to leave. All relationships—love interests- friendships—have problems and bumps. Some end up in a good place, while others just end. Why is that?  In my professional and personal experience, I’ve learned that just a few small tweaks in how we relate to ourselves and to our partners can make all the difference.   Before deciding our relationships are over, consider these simple steps:

First, practice self-care.  

Second, slow down and listen.  

Third, respond rather than react.  

I’m not talking about a total personality overhaul, though I’m pretty sure my husband would like that sometimes.  I’m recommending three small tweaks that just might dramatically shift your relationship for the better. Remember, as much as we’d love to change the people we love, we only have the power to change ourselves.

What if instead of concentrating on how selfish our partners are, we start focusing on paying closer attention to our inner voice?

Let’s look at self-care.  We hear this word all of the time these days, but what does self-care actually look like?  It means saying yes to ourselves. Saying yes to doing things that nourish our souls, like taking an art lesson or going back to school. For me, it meant pushing back against my inner critic and saying yes to writing my book. Saying yes is a skill that has changed my relationship with myself, with my children, and within my marriage.

What if instead of concentrating on how selfish our partners are, we start focusing on paying closer attention to our inner voice? Often we begrudge our partners for the circumstances we find ourselves in, even when we’ve been willing participants.   

While it seems counterintuitive, relationship dynamics can actually improve when each partner takes better care of herself. Radical self-care is not about a yoga retreat. It’s about engaging with your SELF and noticing where and how you can become more whole. Even if you’re a trailing spouse who moved from San Francisco to North Dakota, you can still do this. Slowly, by putting your own needs first one step at a time. With increased self-care comes increased self-respect, greater satisfaction, and more confidence. And, ironically, in the process, we often become more attractive to our partner. When you integrate your true vision of your life into the life you are living today, you create possibilities for yourself, and ultimately this impacts your marriage.

Next, slowing down and listening. I know I’m often so busy paying attention to my children, career, and phone, that if I’m not careful I just whizz through the motions of life, and fail to truly listen.  Then, I get annoyed and when my husband argues with me, creates problems, or doesn’t meet my needs. This is a very common dynamic for busy, super engaged, high achieving personalities.

But, there is a fix for this as well, what if rather than reacting and jumping to blame and criticism we made the conscious effort to listen to each other speak? Slowly and mindfully reflect what one another has to say? Without judgment. The listener simply reflects back the speaker’s feelings as stated.  No name calling. No “I feel like you are a jerk when…” or “It feels like you’re so stupid when…” It’s “I feel lonely when this happens.”

When we feel triggered, what if instead of giving into instinctual reactivity, we found the patience to consider the alternatives?

Active or reflective listening is a skill that takes time and practice.  In my house where reactivity can be commonplace, much to my husband’s dismay, I’ve become a bit of a militant reflective listener, but when pressed he does admit to feeling more heard. As awkward as this process may sound, reflective listening really works. Even if it feels artificial, keep doing it. Interestingly, this process can prevent arguments.

So here’s the third shift: learning to respond rather than react.     

When we feel triggered, what if instead of giving into instinctual reactivity, we find the patience to consider the alternatives? With some space and commitment to move forward, you may find forgiveness and compassion can begin to unfold. Begin with deep belly breathing, in through the nose and out through your mouth, five times. We can calm our body, slow our mind and make space for transformative discussion. With some patience and quiet reflection, we can find a more measured response. 

Sometimes to move forward, we have to take a step back. When we’re faced with the seemingly unforgivable there are always edges to explore, opportunities to create success even when it’s messy. When we leave our relationship without first going deeper we are more apt to repeat the problem in our next one.

While some of us may indeed be better apart — before deciding your relationship is over, why not commit to engaging in more self-care, slowing down and listening, and responding rather than reacting. What if we each commit to spending fifteen minutes a day as better individuals, so that ultimately we might become better together?

Gabrielle Hartley

Gabrielle Hartley, is an attorney, mediator, speaker, and first-time author.  Her new book, Better Apart; The Radically Positive Way to Separate (Harper Wave) integrates mindfulness, meditation together with practical legal wisdom and insight.  People magazine has called it the “conscious uncoupling how-to” and The NY Post compared it to Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up. Gabrielle has resolved hundreds of trial ready contentious divorces over the past 20+ years with forward-thinking insight and skill.  Her non-toxic approach to divorce, keeps 99% of her cases out of the courtroom and at the negotiating table as she effectively supports her clients create a healthy, uplifted post-divorce life family–together apart. Her legal practice is informed by her professional experience as well as her personal understanding from growing up with parents who navigated their 1980 divorce in a manner that can only be described as radical and revolutionary. Gabrielle served as court attorney for Judge Jeffrey Sunshine, in NYC matrimonial court, and is a member of the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation.  Gabrielle presently has an active legal, divorce coaching and family mediation practice. She resides in Northampton, MA, is married and has three sons. Gabrielle can be contacted via gabriellehartley.com