Let’s face it — there’s no way to divorce-proof a marriage. You know it and I know it even if so-called marriage “experts” tell you there is.
As I’ve written before, you can’t control another person’s behaviors and therefore if your spouse wants out, he or she is going to get out. That’s how it goes, whether it seems fair or not.
That’s not to say we should just throw our hands up, look to the stars and accept our fate. We can certainly try to be the best person we can be and we can set up healthy boundaries that respect us and our partner, and our relationship.
That said, we know there are certain things each of us can do to give our union a boost. The Gottman Institute suggests kindness and generosity go a long way. In The New I Do, we suggest creating a marital plan based on our individual and joint needs and expectations, which creates a kind of a road map and baseline from which we can see how our relationship is doing. And then there’s professor Judith Gere’s study on joint goal planning, or the lack of it, and what that might mean for a marriage. When I came upon her study, “The Effects of Lack of Joint Goal Planning on Divorce Over 10 Years,” and her comment that “Given the negative consequences of divorce on health and well-being, it is important to try to identify its predictors,” I was curious.
Basically, what she discovers is that, even when controlling for various demographic, individual and relationship issues, the “lack of joint planning with the relationship partner was associated with a 19% increase in the odds of divorce.”
Well, a 19 percent increase in the odds of divorce is something to pay attention to. While we may not quite be able to divorce-proof a marriage, we can at least make it a bit less likely to end that way.
What’s joint planning?
What does she mean by joint planning? I reached out to professor Gere to learn more about her findings. Here’s an edited version of our email exchange:
Q: What got you interested in looking at how couples might engage in joint goal planning or not?
A: Some of my prior research has shown that goal conflict is really bad for people’s relationships and well-being. I thought that one way to potentially reduce goal conflict would be to plan jointly with the partner. So I wanted to investigate if lack of joint planning would be associated with higher rates of relationship dissolution.
Q: It seems like planning long-term goal would be a no-brainer. From your research, does it appear as if most couples haven’t been doing that? Any reason why?
A: Most couples do, in fact, plan jointly with their partner. However, there are some couples who do less of that, and it seems that the less people plan their goals jointly with their partner, the more likely that relationship is to end over time.
Q: Did you look at specific kinds of goals — if and when to have children and how to raise them, financial, lifestyle, etc. — or just the general idea of planning the future together?
A: (W)e looked at joint planning of both short and long-term goals. One of the questions asked specifically about joint planning regarding medical/financial/family issues, whereas the other two questions looked at joint planning across all domains.
Q: Do you believe joint goal planning occurred more in the past, or did wives basically just go along with their husband’s desires or vice versa?
A: I am not sure if joint goal planning has changed across time. I unfortunately do not have data that could address that.
Q: Does the desire by most of today’s couples for an egalitarian relationship make joint goal planning harder or easier?
A: Joint goal planning is probably challenging in some cases, regardless of the type of relationship people desire. But higher egalitarianism probably promotes higher motivation to plan jointly with one’s partner or at least have equal levels of joint planning between the partners (egalitarian relationships can also mean neither consults the other when setting goals). So it’s hard to say what the effects of wanting the egalitarian relationship would be on planning jointly.
Q: As far as you can tell, did couples merely talk about future goals or did they write them down in some sort of informal contract?
A: We did not assess this. We asked about whether they consult their partner or seek advice from them. So these seem to be issues assessed more in conversations than in writing.
Q: Was there a difference for couples who have children and those who do not?
A: No, joint planning was good for partners regardless of the presence of children.
Q: You mention that “perhaps joint planning is more important in the case of certain types of issues.” Were there some issues that were apparent for you?
A: In this study, we did not have data on the types of issues people discuss. But I would presume joint planning with regards to long-term goals would be more important than short-term daily goals.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you from the study’s results?
A: I was surprised that the effects of lack of joint planning on relationship dissolution were apparent even when we accounted for various relationship quality indicators, the partners’ agreement on various issues, overall goal planning, and all sorts of other things. These effects seem to be really robust.
Q: How can couples best use this information in their own partnership?
A: I think the best way to use it is to make sure one plans goals in some way jointly with the partner. It is really important for people to make decisions about their goals in consultation with those who will be affected by their goal pursuits.
Q: From the results of your study, do you see any value in couples creating a written marital plan with long- and short-term goals clearly addressed with the agreement that they’d revise and tweak as life circumstances may dictate?
A: I do not think that writing things down would be necessary. Goals change all the time and what’s important is ultimately whether the partner behaves in a considerate manner and supports one’s goals, rather than whether you have that in writing or not.
While I agree with professor Gere that “goals change all the time and what’s important is ultimately whether the partner behaves in a considerate manner and supports one’s goals,” I also believe know that, over time, partners don’t always act in a considerate manner nor do once-supportive partners always stay supportive. Which is why I like the idea of writing it down.
Why writing it down matters
Do I think that having goals in writing will prevent divorce? Absolutely not. Still, when a couple writes down their goals together, when they clarify for themselves what they’re both agreeing to and some “what ifs,” then there’s no question or doubt of who said what. That doesn’t mean that you or your partner might say, X-number of years later, “Well, I meant that at the time but now things have changed.” Hopefully, when things change, couples would be addressing it in real time — “I know we agreed to X, but now that I have this job offer, I’d like to talk about what that might mean for us” or something like that. In other words, the long-term goals are not set in stone; they’re fluid.
Still, from my experience, as a twice-divorced woman as well as from the experience of many of my friends who were breadwinning wives with stay-at-home/marginally employed husbands, it’s all too easy to have a partner renege on joint plans (and I imagine many breadwinning husbands will feel the same). “I never said that!” or “I didn’t really mean that” or “I only meant that if …” are not open to negotiations if you actually have a written agreement that clearly spells out your partnership goals.
Yes, you still might end up divorced (sorry, but that’s real!). Still, having some sort of “proof” that you both approached your partnership with the best of intentions may make the dissolution less contentious, which may help you uncouple consciously, without anger, regret or revenge. If you have kids together, this is huge. But even if you don’t, it’s an important step toward acknowledging and accepting that we can love people and they can love us without demanding or expecting that it lasts forever.
Interested in creating a marital plan? Learn how in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.