Mort Fertel is a marriage coach. He gets his clientele because of work-life balance. “99.7 per cent of the people I see were not sensitive to work-life balance and as a result got themselves into a crisis situation,” says the creator of the Baltimore, Md.-based Marriage Fitness Boot Camp, which has clients from around the world.
People initially assume that their marriage will take care of itself. Love is strong, after all. Since work pressures are imminent, they focus, for now, on work, hoping to compensate down the road. But he cautions: “A marriage, if neglected, will die.” His male clients were often immersed in their careers, ignoring issues of balance. “From their perspective they were doing it all for the family. Unfortunately, now they are at risk of losing their family,” he says.
Having gone wrong once, to get themselves into crisis, he feels they often go wrong again, by working with conventional assumptions that are wrong-headed.
Here are six unconventional approaches that he argues you must adopt to try to save your marriage:
Go it alone:
The traditional advice is that couples must work together to save their marriage. Many therapists and marriage counsellors insist on that approach, often counselling the couple together. While he agrees it’s best if a couple work together, he says too many times when one partner is not willing to take part the other party gives up. “That’s ridiculous. There is a ton a person can do to shift the momentum of a marriage,” he insists. “The first step is to take the first step. Often you taking the first step helps the obstinate spouse to take steps as well.”
An example: Give a thoughtful gift that “shows your knowledge of them and tickles their soul.” His program has a “Lone Ranger” track with a series of unilateral actions people can take to change the downward spiral of a marriage. If one person starts contributing differently to a situation, he argues it can change the dynamics.
Stop asking the wrong question:
Many people wonder, “Did I marry the right person?” But that’s the wrong question. “The key to succeeding in marriage is not finding the right person. It’s being the right person. It’s learning to love the person you are with,” he says.
If you believe you can do better – find the right person next time – he offers some sobering statistics. While 50 per cent of first marriages fail, 70 per cent of second marriages fail and 80 per cent of third marriages end badly. People who try second and third marriages figure they’ll do better next time as they understand what they are looking for, but he says the problem is “no matter who you marry, you are who you are.” Often people in second and third marriages had poor relationship skills on their first try, and it doesn’t get better unless they adopt and practice new behaviours.
Absence does not make the heart grow fonder:
Often people in marital crisis decide that if they can arrange a bit of an absence from the other person – a trial separation, for example – the marriage can be rejuvenated. However, the problem they face is that there is already too much separation, and if they seek more, it will aggravate the situation. About half his clients are separated. He tells them to find connection with the other person.
Don’t talk about your problems:
When in a marital crisis it’s human nature to identify problems in the marriage and believe that if you could only talk to your spouse about those issues it will solve everything. But he argues that route only makes the problems more and more a focus of your attention, draining or depressing you. Instead, temporarily put those issues aside and spend time and energy trying to create goodwill. “You will never save the marriage with your mouth,” he warns. “You have to start doing things differently. You got into this because of the way you treat each other. You have to change those behaviours.” Build the habits of a great husband or a great wife.
Don’t think marriage counselling is a solution:
In trouble, often people turn to marriage counsellors or therapists. He argues that too often will fail because it focuses you on your problems and on talk, not action. Marriage counsellors and therapists, he says, are trained to be amoral – a professional responsibility not to pass judgment and to be passive. But he finds in most cases of marriage fragility a behaviour or series of behaviours are wrong and the individual needs leadership in changing the situation.
He recalls the client who mentioned he was having an affair, which let Mr. Fertel to retort: “That’s wrong. You have to stop it.” The client countered that his therapist had never told him it’s wrong. Recalls Mr. Fertel: “I said, ‘I’m telling you it’s wrong, and you have to end it.’ He was actually waiting for someone to tell him it’s wrong.”
Don’t talk to your family or friends about the situation:
It seems reasonable to talk to others about the situation – share the reality of the problem and gain support. But in doing so you have violated the privacy of your marriage, talking about your spouse’s marriage without permission. You have also potentially changed the relationship your spouse will have with the individual. “You may feel better you got someone on your side,” he says. “But you have made the situation worse.”
Of course this advice is helpful even before you slide into crisis. Remember work-life balance threatens marriages – it did for almost all his clients. And the solution is to change behaviours and re-build connections.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter