Marriage Trouble? Here's How To Save Your Relationship

09/02/2016 4:02 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Two sharply dressed business people are waiting on a sofa with a serious expression on their faces. Maybe they're waiting to enter a job interview, or maybe they're a couple waitng to see a divorce lawyer

It's probably safe to assume no one actually wants to get a divorce. As at 2014, the average duration from marriage to divorce was 12.0 years -- an indication people work hard on keeping their marriages alive -- and hardly a Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries "whoops I've changed my mind" scenario.

However, try as we might, people and circumstances do change, and divorces happen.

So what are the most common reasons people choose to end their marriages? And is there anything you can do to stop it happening?

"One of the things couples constantly come and say to me is 'we can’t communicate'," clinical member of the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors and relationship therapist Guy Vicars told The Huffington Post Australia.

"They'll say, 'we’re bad communicators. We don't talk any more.' So I'll sit with them and get to know them and understand what their issues are, and nearly always you'll find they are actually very good communicators, and they are articulating the problems they have quite clearly."

So what's the issue then? If both are good communicators, why then the problem with communicating in their marriage?

"The idea that couples have about a communication breakdown in their marriage on one hand is true," Vicars said. "But they think of themselves as bad communicators, and that isn’t so.

"The important part of communicating isn't actually talking -- it's listening. A lot of people don’t know how to listen. That's not because they are pig headed or stubborn or stupid, or that they don't have the skill.

"One of the main things I teach clients to do is to listen, and, from my experience, it can change the relationship completely."

It sounds simple enough, but Vicars states the ability to listen is often overridden by the desire to be heard -- which can actually elevate into a full-blown fight in no time at all.

"You need to come from the approach of, 'he or she is telling me something about their own self, and it is not a criticism about me. If I can listen to something they are saying about themselves, I don’t have to be so defensive and come over the top of them'," Vicars said.

"You don't need to say, 'no, no, no, that isn't right, listen to me.' Because what happens then is instead of listening, the other person gets defensive and says, 'well you did that to me yesterday' and you get an escalation cycle.

"Part of the importance of listening skills is they encourage a de-escalation cycle instead."

couple arguing

Communication is a two-way street.

If you have something important to discuss with your partner (which you suspect may turn into a fight), Vicars says it's a good idea to approach the exchange with some rules or boundaries in place.

"You need to set ground rules -- and couples are terrible at doing this -- and one of those ground rules should be 'if I listen to you, do you promise you will listen to me?'" Vicars said.

"If I have that guarantee from you, it makes it easier for me to listen to you, because I know I'll have my turn.

"Most people are trying to rush in and get heard because they fear they aren’t going to be heard themselves."

Vicars also points out not both parties might feel like talking at the same time, and this, for the most part, should be respected.

"I''m not saying it always goes this way, but typically, the female partner is wanting to talk, while the male partner withdraws," Vicars said. "And of course, the more he withdraws, the more she tries to get a hold of him and talks and talks and talks.

"There is no beginning or end to that cycle -- but it can be stopped by either person listening, even if it ends up with someone saying, 'okay, you don’t want to hear me right now, I will stop pursuing you. But tell me when is a good time to listen to me and we will go from there'."

Now, there's bound to be a host of people reading this article thinking, "sure, listening is important, but surely there are other aspects that contribute to the breakdown of a marriage. What if someone cheats? What if we have money problems?"

But according to Vicars, the catalyst doesn't matter as much as the handling of the issue, and that's where a breakdown of communication -- or, more accurately, listening -- can prove to be particularly problematic.

"It doesn’t matter what the thing is. It’s about the communication," Vicars said.

"It could be an affair, finances, your mother, our sex life… these are a few some of those hot topics that people really struggle with. But from my experience, it's not just the topic itself, it’s that they are emotionally loaded and people can’t listen to each other.

"Generally speaking, it all comes down to that."

couple arguing

It can help to set some ground rules before having a discussion.

Vicars also advises each party consider if a particular event or aspect of their upbringing could be influencing the way they deal with arguments as an adult.

"It's important to recognise if you communicate with a different style," Vicars said. "One persons take might be, 'If you don’t scream and yell and throw plates, it means you don’t care. My interpretation is you don’t love me.' But that might be how that person was raised.

"Alternatively, if someone says something like ‘you sound just like my mother’, then they have to take responsibility for that. Because she doesn’t sound like your mother, she’s not your mother. But something has been triggered -- what is it?"

At the end of the day, though, Vicars says the key factor is to get off the defensive and listen to what the other person has to say, knowing your turn to speak will also come.

"This isn’t my saying, but the idea is you have one mouth and two ears and you want to use them in that ratio," Vicars said.

"It's a universal thing -- as soon as someone feels listened to, their emotions start to come down. It's a way of acknowledging what they have to say is valuable, even if you don't agree with it."

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