SALT LAKE CITY — The best marriage and relationship advice may not come from your parents, or even your grandparents after 50-plus years of marriage. It turns out that those who may know the most about what it takes to make a marriage work are those whose own marriages fell apart.
A recent study for the Early Years of Marriage Project found that the best marriage and relationship advice and insight comes from divorcees.
"Divorced individuals who step back and say, 'This is what I've done wrong and this is what I will change,' have something powerful to teach others," Terri Orbuch, a research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, told the Wall Street Journal.
Orbuch began this long-term study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, in 1986. She and fellow researchers followed 373 newlywed couples and found that, by 2012, nearly half of them (46 percent) had divorced. Over the course of the study nearly all of the divorcees (44 percent) wed again, but these participants’ most poignant insights all centered around love lost, not found.
Orbuch conducted interviews with the divorced participants and found five common themes of regret. In other words, if they had the chance to do it all over again, here’s what they would do:
1. Be more affectionate.
Fifteen percent of those interviewed said they would be more affectionate with their spouse, whether giving compliments, cuddling and kissing, holding hands, saying “I love you,” and offering emotional support.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Orbuch says “there are four components of displays of affection that divorced people said were important: How often the spouse showed love; how often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are; how often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things; and how often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.”
The study divorcees didn't specifically identify sex as something they would change, but while physical connection does play a large part, sex is not the only or even the best way to stay connected.
"Interestingly, men seemed to need nonsexual affirmation more than women," writes Kate Fowlie for 29secrets.com. "The couple was twice as likely to split when husbands felt underappreciated."
2. Talk about money more.
Not surprisingly, the No. 1 area of conflict in all marriages is money. Nearly 50 percent of divorced people from the study say they fought about money so much in their marriage that they are sure money will cause problems in subsequent relationships.
"The lesson learned?" writes Kristen Wong for msn.com. "Thoroughly discuss your money plans and financial goals."
Orbuch says these couples argued over a variety of different financial aspects, such as different spending and saving styles, lying about spending, being controlling about funds, and more. Because money matters can be approached in so many ways, it’s important for couples to talk about money and talk about it often.
Couples should discuss their personal spending and saving styles and come up with a plan that suits each person’s preferences as well as their joint needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but if there is frequent communication, it’s less likely that conflicts will grow out of hand.
3. Forget about the past.
Everyone has a past. For better or worse, those experiences have shaped our beliefs and attitudes — and, if we’re not careful, can distort our present and future. That’s why Orbuch says that in order to have healthy, happy relationships, we have to let go of the past.
These grievances are not just relegated to former (or current) romantic relationships; according to Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal, “This includes getting over jealousy of your partner's past relationships, irritation at how your mother-in-law treats you, something from your own childhood that makes it hard for you to trust, a spat you had with your spouse six months ago.”
It can be hard work to be at peace despite past wrongs, but it’s effort well spent. To relieve pent-up emotions, try journaling, chatting with a friend, working with a counselor, or writing a letter and tearing it up. If you’re not emotionally healthy yourself, you can’t expect to have a healthy relationship with your spouse.
4. Let go of blame.
There are multiple ways of seeing a problem. By getting your partner's perspective, and marrying it with your perspective, you get the relationship perspective.
–- Terri Orbuch, researcher
When you’re fighting with your spouse, it’s easy to get caught in the blame game. So easy, in fact, that 65 percent of the study’s divorced participants blamed their ex-spouses. More women blamed their exes (80 percent) than men (47 percent), but Orbuch says that holding onto blame is unhealthy both for the relationship and the individual.
“Those who found blame in factors such as being incompatible or too young, experienced less anxiety, insomnia, and depression than those who blamed their former partner or themselves for a break-up,” writes Sarah B. Weir for shine.yahoo.com. Those who held on to anger, Orbuch found, were less likely to move on and build a healthy new relationship.
To remove blame, look at conflicts with the desire to solve a problem, not hold the other person accountable.
"There are multiple ways of seeing a problem," Orbuch told the Wall Street Journal. "By getting your partner's perspective, and marrying it with your perspective, you get the relationship perspective."
5. Communicate more openly.
By and large, communication is the No. 1 thing divorcees said they would work to improve in a new relationship. In fact, 41 percent said they would do it differently.
For starters, Orbuch says it’s important for each partner to be open about who they are and reveal more about themselves personally. Talking about topics other than work, the relationship, the house or the children, helps your partner understand you better.
"It doesn't have to be emotional," Orbuch told the Wall Street Journal. "But it should be about issues where you learn about what makes each other tick."
But it’s not only what you say that counts — it’s how you say it. Orbuch says couples need to communicate calmly and in a caring way, using active listening to understand the other spouse.