For anyone who struggles in a marriage, it can be helpful to seek out the help of a marriage professional. With that in mind, I sat down with Dr. Lee Baucom, PhD, author of Thrive Principles, host of Thriveology, therapist and relationship coach.
We talked about what it takes to make a marriage last and how you can come back from the brink of divorce.
Divorce Prevention Advice from Dr. Lee Baucom
BRAD: Dr. Lee, tell us a little bit about your background, about your expertise, and what you do with your clients.
DR. BAUCOM: I got involved years ago as a therapist and what I realized along the way–and this was back in the 80s–was I was doing more coaching than therapy and so I did training and coaching and developed those skills and focused really on relationships.
That led to working with people who want to have a better marriage but are holding on by their fingertips sometimes and that’s what led to some of my programs and also some of my writing.
Along the way though, I came to understand that in order to have a great relationship, you need to be thriving as an individual and in order to thrive as an individual, you’ve to pay attention to the relationships and that’s kind of what led to “thriveology.”
BRAD: We always hear, you know 50% of marriages that begin today are going to end in divorce. What’s your take on that stat? And how many of those divorces are preventable?
DR. BAUCOM: So statistically, it’s just over half. We kind of throw that out and act like it’s a coin toss. It’s really not a coin toss, right? I mean, you know it’s not just luck or happenstance that leads to successful marriages and that’s really the place where I struggle.
I see so many relationships that get into trouble because people don’t have the knowledge base and have the understanding and the bigger thing is they try to hit the pause button on their relationship. And you can’t just pause a relationship. So yes, there are a lot of relationships that don’t need to end.
You’ve got to get back to some way of living life that’s not just the adrenaline-based, trying to run after your spouse.
I’m pretty sure that if you both want out, there’s not a thing I’m gonna say or do that’s going that’s going to change that so I help in situations where one person is not convinced it’s over or both people are not convinced it’s over. What do you do in that situation?
I think a lot of relationships that do end, end unnecessarily just because they didn’t know how to give it a chance, they had no other solution.
What’s the solution that they hear in culture? Well, just get a divorce. Everything will be okay.
BRAD: Are the red flags that you see in people consistently that indicate that a marriage is in crisis or that it’s breaking down?
DR. BAUCOM: Yeah, so interesting if we step back, I just talked about the pause button. That’s one of the big warning signs and it’s one that a lot of people don’t pay attention to, don’t even see it.
Let’s follow a scenario. You meet someone, you fall in love, you get married because you want to be with this person and show them that you love them.
Not long after that, you’re going: “Okay well, how are you showing me love? What am I getting out of this?
It begins to be a question.
The other thing that happens though is that all of the passion–that desperation to be together that comes along in the early stages? It starts to fade.
BRAD: Well, it’s natural to some extent to be expected to a certain degree, right?
DR. BAUCOM: Yeah, I mean you’ve got to get back to some way of living life that’s not just the adrenaline-based, you know, trying to run after your spouse.
If I’m madly in love with this person, I want to spend every minute with them, I want to show them all of my love and it’s effortless. And as that frantic feeling fades, then it begins to take some effort because we become comfortable and our brain readjusts to get used to that other person.
It doesn’t mean you fall out of love, it just means you don’t have that same drive anymore, the same adrenaline. And some people mistake that adrenaline for love, and now that it’s faded, that can lead to a breakdown.
I did a lot of work when I was in my clinical office with people who were getting married. If they were getting married in about 6 different religious institutions, they were coming through my office to see me, so I saw a lot of people before their weddings, and it was the same delusion every time. They felt like their love beat it. You know, they had already won.
BRAD: That it was gonna work no matter what?
DR. BAUCOM: Because they have the special kind of love that other people don’t have.
And what they didn’t calculate is that there is a normal readjustment and then you have to decide what you’re going to do. You have to make a decision to focus on the relationship.
Some people mistake that adrenaline for love, and now that it’s faded, that can lead to a breakdown.
Along the way, we have all these things coming at you. You know, you have kids, have a career to build, have hobbies you want to chase, friends you wanna be with, all these things. And so people inadvertently hit the pause button.
Hitting The Pause Button In Your Marriage
BRAD: What does that look like when you say “hit the pause button”?
DR. BAUCOM: Unfortunately, I wish it were that there was an acutal button you push and say “Oh yeah, I’m hitting pause” because then we would have known that we’d done it.
What it means is you go “Oh, okay, time to be a parent.”
You know, once the kids go to school or I mean it starts off once the kids are out of diapers. You know, once the kids are in school. Once the kids are out of school. Once the kids are on their own. Once the kids are… yeah it goes on and on once we get through the grandkids, we’ll get back to us, right?
Or the career, you know. Once I get to this certain level, and it’s always one level beyond where you are.
BRAD: Right, and you keep pushing it back and back.
DR. BAUCOM: And so the idea that people have is once life settles down, we’ll get back to us and we’ll go do the fun things and so what happens is one of two possibilities.
One possibility is they get to that point they finally go, “Okay, time for us,” and they look at each other and go “Who are you?” Because they lost track of each other decades ago.
Or the other possibility is the pain of disconnection. You know we miscalculate how painful it is to be disconnected to somebody we should be connected to.
And so often, one person is getting that connection somewhere else–kids, friends, job, affairs–wherever. And so they are not feeling it as painfully but somebody goes “Wait, this hurts. I’m in pain.”
So many times I hear people say “I had no idea that we were this bad.”
And “I thought we would get back to us” or “I thought we were okay and it turns out we weren’t.”
They hit the pause button at some point and the truth of it is that no relationship can be paused.
It’s either going to grow or decline. There’s no static in it and it gets easier and easier to be disconnected in relationships and it’s certainly true in marriage.
The problem is we assume that the marriage is going to be that vital connection.
It’s going to give us what we need and when it doesn’t, it’s painful.
I mean the same receptors in our brain that have physical pain is where that emotional pain registers and so when people say, “I’m hurting from this relationship.” They’re meaning they physically are hurting so somebody is kind of the canary in the mine.
The truth of it is that no relationship can be paused.
Somebody is and that’s often when I see a couple come to me and one person is really struggling and the other is going, “I wasn’t at that point.”
Does Marriage Counselling Work? Dr. Baucom’s Opinion
BRAD: As a trained therapist, what is your take generally on traditional couples counselling? Does it have value? When should it be used?
DR. BAUCOM: I’ve often said that I’m a recovering therapist (laughs)
So I was trained as a therapist and I always was looking for looking for how effective this is and there are so many times that I went “Why are we not seeing what we should be seeing?”
I mean, if therapy is about the relationship, why are we not seeing it make a difference in relationships?
I’m looking at research that from other researchers. They look at the metadata–you know, the whole picture–and what they discovered is that about 50% of couples who go to marital therapy end in divorce, does that sound like a familiar statistic?
Same as general population, right?
About 50% of couples who go to marital therapy end in divorce.
So we haven’t changed that. What they also say is that–depending on the study–only 10, 15, no higher than 20 percent of couples in those surveys ever said that they got any benefit from therapy.
So I just want to imagine for a minute you got to the doctor and the doctor says “Hey you’ve got this problem. And you know, it’s a pretty big problem so you have to have this procedure. I got to tell you that 50% of the people who have this procedure die.” So a coin toss “Oh and let me just also say that only at best 20% will say that it helped at all.”
Who’s going to sign up for that?
And yet, we have people doing it all the time.
Now, let’s return that 20%.
There are people, there are therapists, I know many who are effective therapists. There are clients who it doesn’t matter how bad the therapist was, they’re going to improve because they’re ready to have a change.
And so there are a couple of things that cause problems in marriage therapy. One is orientation of the therapist–meaning how they think about the relationship.
If they think they have two people in their office and those are their clients, they miss the fact that as a marriage therapist, the relationship is their client.
And so where we see this is when somebody is an individually trained therapist, so they’re seeing two individuals and they’re trying to do marital work where they’re coming in as a unit, right? So that’s a problem.
Another theoretical problem is a lot of therapists have been taught that they have to be objective.
They say, “it doesn’t matter whether your relationship is better, I can’t have a bearing on that, that’s up to y’all.”
And you know, to me, back to the doctor analogy, I break my arm. You know, I came and my arm’s hanging in half to the doctor’s office and the doctor looks and says “Yep, it’s broken. So I don’t know. I mean, we can go either way. You want me to fix it or you just want to let it dangle there?”
I mean, I don’t want an objective viewpoint. They’re like “Okay, let’s fix this, right?” And so that’s an orientation issue for the therapist.
Are they pro-relationship?
If the relationship can’t be fixed, that’s one thing, but many times I hear stories where someone will go to marriage counselling and it’s like 5 minutes in and the therapist says, “Well, it looks like we need to take you all apart.”
In their attempt to be objective, they’re almost subjectively moving towards “Well, let’s just take this apart.” So another problem.
Then there’s the problem when you drag a spouse into therapy thinking that the therapist is going to convince your spouse to work on it.
And A) The therapist isn’t going to be able to do that. There’s no magic spell for that. B) All it does is it creates more resistance on the part of the spouse, so there’s a mismatch when spouses are coming in and they’re not both coming in with the same agenda.
So that’s, those are some big pieces. Some others are that marriage therapy often has ended up being communication-focused, right?
And this is what I was taught: “help them communicate better and they’ll get better.”
If I teach people to communicate better, they’re going to become more effective at arguing. Now they’re much better at getting their message across, right? But communication isn’t the issue. It’s a symptom of the issue.
That’s why I think we have such crisis in therapy. Are there good therapists who can get around all those? Yes. Are there good clients who can come in and make progress just because they have somebody there who is distant? Yes, 15-20% of the time.
Communication isn’t the issue. It’s a symptom of the issue.
BRAD: Dr. Baucom, as far as one party, one partner being more keen on saving the marriage, is it possible to repair a marriage where you have one partner who’s checked out and another who’s still desperate to repair things?
DR. BAUCOM: I sure hope so because that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years. So let me tell you why.
First of all, I think the danger is when a person who wants to save the relationship begins to try to convince, try to beg, plead, do all of the very typical responses to get the person to come out and they become more resistant. Right?
And so they cause a bigger problem. Instead of going “Okay, what are the issues?” and then talking about those issues. But what are the issues and how can I address them? This is really the part of my Save the Marriage system. It’s also–we’re taking a slightly different attack–I’m doing a husband boot camp.
So this is basically for husbands who are going, you know, “You know what? I’ve not been the best at that. And I’ve got to figure out a better way of doing that.”
And that’s whether it’s the relationship really is in trouble or they want to keep it from getting in trouble and that’s one person saying, “How do I need to change?” Not just like “Who do I need to be?” or “What does my spouse want me to be?” but “How do I really need to be changed personally to be a better person?”
My theory is that–remember Algebra? What happens if you change one side of the equation?
BRAD: The other one changes accordingly.
DR. BAUCOM: You change the other side, right?
And so that’s what this is. You know when you change some things on this side, that will affect the other side.
Another way to think of it is in a dance. If I change my dance steps, it’s possible that my partner is going to continue dancing the old dance but many times, we’ll adjust to the new dance steps.
Dr. Baucom’s “Three C’s” To Save Your Marriage
BRAD: Dr. Baucom, I know you talk a little bit about something you call the 3 C’s in your work. Can you tell us a little bit about the 3 C’s and how they apply to saving a marriage and you know, rescuing relationships?
DR. BAUCOM: So one of the things I discovered early on is how you save a relationship, pretty much follow the same path of having a great relationship. You’re starting from a different place.
It’s like, are you at base camp or are you near the summit? How far are you gonna have to climb?
The 3 C’s are connection, or connect with your spouse. Change yourself. Create a new path.
So connect with your spouse. now we’re at the root of the problem in a relationship. You’ve got a broken connection. Disconnection. And for the most part, most of the symptoms you see come from that.
So people will contact me and say, “Hey, my spouse is having an affair. So how do I deal with that?” I’m like, “Well, it’s still about disconnection. Why do you have affairs?”
Aside from addictions, we have affairs, we had a lack of boundaries and a lack of connection. So we were vulnerable and hurting. And those two things, you know, create the scenario.
So you’re still talking about the connection piece so how do you heal the connection? How do you reconnect? And there are three levels of connection that, you know, people can work on. So we deal with that connection piece.
The second piece of that is change yourself and this is when I get people going “Wait, how do you know that there’s something wrong with me?” I didn’t say fix yourself. I didn’t say heal yourself. I said change yourself because the fact is that all of us, at some point in life, kind of stop growing.
So the kind of the social science term is self expansion. This doesn’t mean you have to go to therapy or a Tony Robbins event, there’s nothing wrong with that but I mean you don’t have to go, you know, do a self growth thing.
You may just say “Hey, you know what, I need to maybe pick up a new hobby or try some new food or go to a different concert” or just try some different things to expand a bit, to…
BRAD: To grow.
DR. BAUCOM: To un-stagnate. So the stagnation is the problem. If you’re stagnant in your life, you don’t have much energy to bring into the relationship.
So that’s kind of, it’s not saying there’s something wrong with you as much as is there a more right place, is there a place you can dig in deeper and all the research shows that we get to a certain point in adulthood and unless we’re conscious of it, we really stop. Right? We don’t try new food. We don’t listen to new music and instead we fuss about everybody else’s music.
BRAD: Kids these days, right?
DR. BAUCOM: *chuckles* Yeah, these days. Just like it was said to us, right?
And so we stop trying out new things, new hobbies, you know, we stay in out comfort zone and out comfort zone gets to be pretty stagnant around us, so now change yourself is where can you grow. And the third one is to create a new path. My belief is that marriage is about building a “We.”
You go from me before I met my wife, it was just me. And I met her and it was “you and me”, and then “you and me” as kind of a group. But “us” doesn’t happen in our transformation.
And that’s the “we” right? So you and me is a really strong relationship even when we were dating and even when we serious, it’s like you’ve got your stuff, I’ve got my stuff, that’s your family, my family, your money, my money. All of that still has some separation.
And then we have this choice when we get married to try to stay that way. Unless you know that what you’re trying to build is a sense that we are the new thing. Right? It’s “we.”
And so it replaces you and me, so we think of it as a team. Now using a sports analogy, which is always dangerous because a team has the job of winning so making it through life requires both people to show up the best way they can.
I mean, it’s not just merging themselves into each other, it’s saying “Okay, we’re a team. We’re getting through this together. We’re supporting each other. We’re going for the win for life. and so we got to play our best to do that.” And one of the worst ways to be on a team is to fight with your teammate rather than taking on your opponent, right?
So we were in this together. We’re a team. How are we gonna move forward? And so that’s the path.
Okay so to back up a minute, I’ve never seen a couple who had a strong sense of “we”–not that I didn’t see it in therapy because they sometimes hit difficulties in life where they just needed to figure out how to do it together–but I’ve never seen a “we” end a relationship.
When I’ve seen them end a relationship, they never often didn’t even know that was the goal. They didn’t know that’s what they were trying to get to, so if you don’t know that’s what you’re trying to get to you, don’t get to it. And so they would, they go from you and me, they get married and then slowly becomes you versus being
And so in that intimate relationship where you can’t agree on anything, and if you win, I lose and all those are constructs start getting in the way unless you know that you’re trying to pivot to a we.
BRAD: I find a lot of the people that come to me that are struggling with their relationships, they want to know, what can I do today to start turning the ship around. So is there anything that you would suggest to somebody who recognizes that they’re struggling in their marriage, that it’s on the rocks, that they can start to change about themselves to make a difference in their marriage starting today. Tonight.
DR. BAUCOM: So you’ve already kind of touched on the beginning point of that which is that they said, “What can I do?” Let’s call it responsibility.
I love that term. Jack Canfield has used it so expertly to say that responsibility is two words: response ability. I have the response-ability to respond, right?
And so I’m not saying fault. Whenever I say “Well , you’ve got responsibility” they go “Oh, don’t blame me.”
That’s not blame. It’s choosing to step into a place of responsibility and so that starts the process.
When you can say “I wonder what I could do,” It’s no longer “What does my spouse need to do?” or “What is my spouse doing wrong?” It’s “What could I do?” and so that’s when I use those 3 Cs to try to track it.
Okay, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about what level of connection is missing in your relationship. How do you restore that relationship? How do you change your orientation to that, right? So working on the connection is an immediate piece and the danger is you go from, you know, zero to a hundred? I mean that’s rough…
You’re in a car and you hit the accelerator, the passenger’s going “What the heck is going on here?!” They’re holding on for dear life instead of going,“Oh, okay, thank you for getting started.”
And so, slowly figuring out how to add in connection at the same time to step back and say “Okay, where do I need to grow?”
“What are the places I need to expand into; what can I try differently?” Maybe it is about learning some new capacities.
Maybe it’s “I just need to get back interested in life” and you know, bring some energy back in.
Those two pieces–we can put off the we building we, that sense of that process until you’ve looked at those two pieces. Just those pieces often change it.
I’m a big fan of the whole Love Language piece. Gary Chapman has this elegant that just is so easy for people to grasp because a lot of times, you know, along the way, you’ve been trying to show love from your own language…
Which sounds like gibberish to your spouse because sometimes, it’s not that you were not being loving, you were just speaking differently.
BRAD: You were speaking the wrong language.
DR. BAUCOM: Exactly, the wrong language. And those are some easy concepts to kind of figure out and adjust in how you connect, right? And so I think that if you start thinking about where the connection, where’s the connection missing, what ways did we connect earlier? I mean, you had to at some point presumably.
BRAD: On your honeymoon you were connected at least, right?
DR. BAUCOM: Yeah and probably before that.
And so there’s lots of different levels and a lot of times when I talk about you know, connection, people like “Oh well, they won’t, you know, be intimate with me.”
Well, I mean, let’s step back a little bit and let’s build towards that, you know? What about emotional intimacy? What about spiritual intimacy? Sharing what’s important to you: What your goals, your hopes, your dreams are. Those levels.
And then we can talk about physical but there’s a lot more to that like, you can hold hands and rub each other’s back or rub their back or other little steps along the way and you’re looking for little steps which set up the relationship that you’re looking for.
I mean if you’ve been at zero, anything is gonna start feeding that but a lot of times, it’s not a zero.
I mean it’s just so reduced that it feels like “Oh, we become roommates.” and then you can add some pieces in because–and this is the thing that most people miss–we are so wired for a connection as humans that we’re hungry for that connection.
And so if it starts coming our way, it’s like “I’ve been hungry and there’s a buffet,” right? I mean, let’s load up that plate.
And so a lot of people think “Oh, I’m going to be rejected” and sometimes you go, you know, your spouse might be going “What is that about because you haven’t touched my back in months?” or “You haven’t told me about your day in months or asked me about my day in months or told me about your dreams in months.” Or I mean, there’s so, there’s a little bit of that getting it started.
It’s like inertia. You start that and you build up some momentum and suddenly it’s rolling.
BRAD: And speaking of rolling, where can people find more about what you do and learn more about your bestselling Save the Marriage system? Where can they go?
DR. BAUCOM: So there’s The Husband Bootcamp opening up pretty soon and so what we’re doing right now is just kind of getting people to tell us that they’re interested in being a part of that. Right now we’ve got a special offer for people who go ahead and say “Hey, I wanna be on your wait list.”
It’s not a commitment to be in the program, but you can go to my site and see the special offer, it’s on that page. You can sign up and just be notified about that.