Step Back from the Brink

Step Back from the Brink

A recent PAIRS Foundation study found that four out of five couples on the brink of divorce can transform their relationships through participation in brief, evidence-based marriage education classes.

A recent PAIRS Foundation research report found that four out of five couples on the brink of divorce can transform their relationships by participating in brief, evidence-based marriage education classes led by qualified instructors. The PAIRS study offers ample cause for distressed couples to step back from the brink of marital breakdown to explore how relationship skills training programs such as PAIRS could be the difference between creating a future of family and personal harmony or the lifelong cost and impact of marital breakdown.

The PAIRS study is additional evidence that the most important step a couple can take when facing a crisis in their marriage is not therapy, counseling, a divorce attorney, apathy, resignation or surrender, but enrollment in brief marriage education classes that are widely available online and in person at locations nationwide.

My own life was forever impacted by my parents’ divorce when I was barely a toddler. My father’s parents also divorced during the earliest years of his childhood. Like my father, I became an adult with no model of what a healthy relationship based on love and intimacy looked or felt like. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know – something we call “unconscious incompetence” — about the skills I’d need to sustain a happy marriage or the shared values and qualities I should look for in a potential long-term partner.

I married and had children knowing from the outset that divorce was an option. When my children were about the same age I was when my parents split-up, their mother and I separated and eventually divorced. Three generations of marital and family breakdown has taken a toll on each of us and those we love. Surely we’ve survived, and in some areas thrived, but we will never recover the years squandered, the lost opportunities and memories, the price children paid for not growing up with the support, security and model of a stable, two-parent home, and the financial and emotional scars that never fully disappear. It didn’t have to be; it shouldn’t have been.

My professional involvement in the field of marriage education over much of the past 15 years – personal experiences with thousands of participants in all stages of relationship who attended PAIRS classes — contributed immeasurably to my life, helping me learn, grow, mature, and, hopefully, model for my children skills and attitudes that are the foundation of lasting relationships based on love and intimacy. The experiences also helped me develop greater empathy for generations of men in particular who have tried their best to navigate their roles as husbands and fathers with either no example to build upon or examples that for whatever reason do not apply.

Time and again I’ve seen marriages and families transformed as couples discover the practical skills offered in PAIRS for understanding emotions in themselves and others, confiding, listening with empathy, releasing negative emotions, dealing with differences in ways that strengthen relationships, and discovering how to be a pleasure to each other. Historically, a very high percentage of couples who enrolled in PAIRS arrived only as a last resort, hoping and praying their participation would help them restore and reconnect with each other after months or years of turmoil, frustration, anger, often betrayal, enormous pain, hurt, and sadness. The far majority succeeded in finding each other again and creating successful relationships. For those who did eventually part, they did so with deeper understanding of what went wrong, greater empathy for each other, and significantly enhanced opportunities to lovingly co-parent their children and never have to repeat the mistakes that led to the dissolution of their marriages.

Today, more and more couples and singles are recognizing the benefits of relationship skills training as important building blocks to lasting marriages that are an ongoing source of love, pleasure, happiness and fulfillment for both partners, participating in record numbers in brief educational programs prior to or in the early years of marriage. That’s good news, as the skills they learn provide a lifetime of benefits that enhance their lives at home, work and in their communities and make a profound contribution to the health and well-being of their children.

The next time you or someone you love says any of the statements we frequently hear from participants who arrive at their first PAIRS class on the brink of separation or divorce, please think about their children; ask about the wishes, hopes and dreams that originally brought them together; encourage them to participate in a PAIRS class before making decisions that will have a lifelong impact. Help them step back from the brink.

  1. I can never forgive you. By design, human beings are works in progress, growing and learning throughout the duration of our lives. While we make many great decisions, sometimes we make bad ones, especially when we’re in pain, not getting our needs met, or feeling hopelessness, fear, or despair. As we learn to accept our own humanity, we’re also more likely to have compassion and empathy for others that can lead to a significant shift in how we interpret their actions, behaviors and decisions. While each person has to make their own decisions about whether or not to forgive those we feel have wronged, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed us, the process of choosing to let go of grudges and the choice to forgive is a profoundly healing, empowering, adult experience.
  2. I can’t talk to you. They say you can tell the married couples in a restaurant by looking for people who aren’t talking to each other. It didn’t start that way and doesn’t have to stay that way. Confiding is the lifeblood of intimacy. Couples at every stage of relationship can easily learn skills for creating an environment in which it’s safe to confide without fear of judgment, blame, or criticism. Sometimes that means first having the opportunity to release emotional intensity, often it requires fully recognizing the price we pay for losing the ability to talk and listen to each other – whether that’s with our children, spouse, or others we cherish. Many people bring behaviors that help them succeed (or survive) at work into their homes and families. Often what’s needed is the opposite. Very quickly in PAIRS classes, couples learn to talk and listen to others in ways that make it safe and natural to confide.
  3. I just don’t love you anymore. Love has its own logic, which too few people understand. Feelings of love naturally wax and wane. Quite simply, the logic of love is the logic of pleasure and pain. We’re drawn to what we anticipate will be a source of pleasure and will find all kinds of creative ways to avoid what we anticipate will be painful. The work of the relationship is to create an environment in which we’re consistently a pleasure to the people we cherish. How we do that changes during different periods, chapters and circumstances. PAIRS teaches couples how to create a positive balance in their relationship “Love Banks” so feelings of love don’t just survive, they thrive!
  4. I never really loved you. For generations, the basis for marriage was security, stability and raising children. That still remains true in many cultures across the globe. Yet in most western societies — increasingly after women entered the workforce in large numbers during and after World War II — the basis shifted to meeting each other’s needs for love and intimacy. The rate of marital and family breakdown increased dramatically as generations of men found themselves ill-prepared for the new rules of love relationships, often behaving as their fathers and their fathers before them only to discover their wives weren’t happy, satisfied, or committed to staying in relationships in which they didn’t feel loved, cherished and fulfilled. And in many cases, with the resources to leave, they did. Often, especially for couples who immigrated to the United States from other nations as well as seniors who have been married for decades, PAIRS offers a road map through the course of true love.
  5. I’ll never be happy in this relationship. The people we’re closest to are often the mirrors through which we see and experience ourselves; the witnesses to our lives. It’s not unusual to go through periods of self-doubt, contemplation, confusion, even turmoil and frustration as we navigate the passages, chapters and transitions that are a natural part of our collective human experience. It may be easiest to blame those people who are most present in our lives for periods of unhappiness. An important part of PAIRS is the chance to better understand emotions in ourselves and others, including a deeper understanding of what may be at the root of feelings of unhappiness. Too often, well intentioned friends and counselors advise us to treat the symptoms of unhappiness instead of getting to the heart of the situation. Most often, unhappiness comes from not getting our needs met, including our need for bonding (emotional openness and physical closeness). Once couples learn to create an environment in which they can meet each others’ needs for bonding, including confiding, releasing negative emotions, dealing with past hurts and disappointments, negotiating differences, and creating a positive balance in their “Love Banks,” happiness and feelings of love generally grow and flourish.
  6. I’m in love with someone else. The emotion of love develops as a response to the anticipation of pleasure. It’s normal to feel love for the people who are a pleasure in our lives and confuse fireworks we may feel as our body chemistry reacts to those experiences with “being in love.” Certainly, those feelings can eventually lead to true love, although so can creating an environment in which we have similar experiences within our existing relationships. It’s often easiest to be misled by the feelings we have connected to interactions with people who are only remotely and minimally connected to our lives versus those with whom we share nearly the entire field of our lives. Consider how easy it is to be a pleasure to someone when we have no expectations, obligations or responsibilities opposed to those with whom our lives are so intertwined that the slightest criticism or disappointment can leave us feeling intense sadness or anger. PAIRS is a chance to discover what’s possible when you create an environment that encourages connection, compassion, empathy, authenticity, and confiding within a committed relationship. Most often, couples discover feelings of love beyond what they may have ever imagined possible. For those who choose to end their relationship in pursuit of another, they’re generally able to do so with deeper understanding of what went wrong, empathy for all involved, and better opportunities to effectively co-parent and avoid finding themselves in a similar situation again with another partner.
  7. I’m so angry at you. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of anger, fear, sadness and disappointment and no surprise that emotions are most intense in our closest relationships. Negative emotions are like the waves of the ocean that frequently lose their energy as they dissolve upon the shore. We can spend our entire lives trying to keep those waves from breaking – struggling to control, manage, or deny our feelings — depriving ourselves of countless experiences and opportunities to feel love, joy, tenderness, and relief. PAIRS classes help participants expand their emotional intelligence, including a safe process for confiding the full range of emotions and being comfortable with authentic emotional expression from others. For many participants, as they discover their ability to release pent-up feelings of anger, fear, disappointment, and sadness, they realize how much more room they have for positive feelings as well as greater empathy, compassion and closeness within their relationships.
  8. It’s too late. It’s never too late. With good will and openness to learning, couples in any stage of life can learn skills to create and sustain happy, healthy, loving relationships. Whether or not to sustain a relationship is one of the most important decisions of a lifetime. When children are involved, the impact on them is both particularly significant and lasting. Often, especially for couples in crisis, both partners are not open to learning at the exact same moment. Regularly, one partner will attend PAIRS on their own, seeking to learn and discover what’s possible for themselves, even when the other is unable or unwilling to attend. Nearly a third of the people in a typical PAIRS class participate as individuals, either attending without their partner or because they’re not in a relationship. While our basic character and nature may be determined long before adulthood, behaviors are not. We learn to behave certain ways as a result of our life experiences; sometimes the very behaviors that enabled us to survive in one environment are sabotaging us in another. PAIRS is a safe opportunity to learn about the behaviors that help nurture and sustain loving relationships, to try them on, and discover what’s possible. Once you’ve had a chance to learn, practice, and integrate the skills into your life, you’ll have a much better idea of the real potential for experiencing love, happiness and fulfillment in your closest relationships.
  9. There’s no chemistry. As couples learn to become more emotionally open, expressive, and comfortable asking for what they want, being a pleasure to each other, and dealing constructively with differences, physical intimacy also improves. Research has repeatedly validated significant improvements in sensual and sexual satisfaction as couples deepen empathy, compassion, expand their ability to confide in each other, and learn to resolve typical conflicts. While the impact of chemistry is experienced in different ways at different stages of life and relationship, the depth of connection and pleasure many couples are able to bring to their lives as a result of relationship skills training is often far beyond what is typically referred to as good chemistry.
  10. You betrayed me. Like air, food, water, and shelter, bonding – the unique combination of emotional openness and physical closeness with another human being — is a biologically-based need for humans from our first breath to our last. Consistently meeting each others’ needs for bonding may be the most important work of a relationship; it is regularly the foundation of successful relationships. Relationships become extremely vulnerable when couples are not meeting each others’ needs for bonding. When a person is starving for connection – emotionally or physically – they can make decisions that contradict their most deeply-held values, similar to the impact of being deprived of other human needs such as air, food, water or shelter. As participants in PAIRS begin to understand the Relationship Road Map and symptoms of bonding deprivation, they often experience a paradigm shift in how they interpret decisions that may have led to behaviors that betrayed their values and vows. Many choose to forgive themselves and their partners for – more often than not – the incompetence that led them to lose each other along with a promise to invest time and energy daily to stay closely connected, open to listening, confiding, sharing, and bonding as the best protection for their marriage, vows, and most cherished wishes, hopes and dreams.
  11. You’re not the person I married. People change. Our experiences — positive and negative — the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences, and the decisions we make show up in our behaviors, attitudes and beliefs. Life itself is a series of opportunities to define and know ourselves through our responses to the circumstances and situations we encounter and the choices we make. Human behavior is often deeply connected to how we interpret the motivations of others, how we feel about ourselves at a given moment in time, and the choices of which we’re aware. When people are scared, sad, angry, feeling guilty, insecure, or going through a period of low self-esteem, those feelings show up in how they behave, especially (perhaps ironically and tragically) towards those they love most. When couples and families learn to create an environment in which it’s safe to be vulnerable, learn to respond to each other with empathy, authenticity, and compassion, they have the best chance of bringing out the parts of each other they most enjoy. PAIRS offers a road map to creating an atmosphere that is safe for the best parts of people – our most precious human qualities — to shine.
  12. You’ll never change.
  13. At any moment in our lives, we can change our behaviors. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or instant. Changing behaviors begins with recognizing what you want to change (including seeing and embracing the benefits), changing it, and then sustaining the change under stress and over time. Participants in extended PAIRS classes — including partners, fellow classmates, and instructors — help provide the supportive environment necessary for the best opportunity to make and sustain the changes we choose. Key concepts taught at the beginning of PAIRS contribute much to this process. First is an understanding of the “Levels of Learning,” beginning with recognition that in many important areas of our lives, we don’t even know what we don’t know (unconscious incompetence). Fairly quickly, participants reach the second level, conscious incompetence, where it’s safe to see the impact our lack of knowledge and skills (as opposed to bad intentions) has had on important relationships. As participants practice the skills and exercises offered, they recognize their ability to become consciously competent, meaning the new behaviors are not yet habits – support and reminders are vital – yet they experience the difference that’s possible. Long after the end of PAIRS, when participants have consistently decided and practiced the skills to create new habits and sustained those behaviors under stress, they reach the level of unconscious competence where the changes are part of their regular interactions with loved ones. PAIRS helps couples focus on the behaviors they want to change as opposed to trying to change a person’s character, values, or nature. While it takes patience, persistence, and determination, at any time in their lives, people can change their behaviors when they truly recognize the price they’re paying for their actions, clearly see what they want instead, and have the chance to grow within an environment that supports creating new habits.

For more information on PAIRS classes, visit www.pairs.com, e-mail info@pairs.com, or call (877) PAIRS-4U (724 7748). For information on other marriage education programs, visit www.letsstrengthenmarriage.org or Diane Sollee’s SmartMarriages.com website.

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Seth Eisenberg is President & CEO of PAIRS Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and leading relationship skills training organizations.

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