It's not you, and it's not me, either

I'm going through the big D, and I don't mean Dallas.


No, it's not me, at least not this week, but my friends' marriages seem to be curdling faster than last month's eggnog. As a bystander to the breakups, I can't help but feel incredibly sad.

Over the past few years, I've watched couple after couple divvy up the fondue forks, the kids and the credit card debt and arrange visitation for the family ferret. And every time I watch a couple split up, I think, "There but for the grace of God and a few highly paid counselors go I."

I've been married for more than 20 years. I spent the first 10 trying to change my husband and the next five miserable that I couldn't. Only in the past five years have I finally gotten a clue as to what this game is all about.

It's kind of funny the way we romanticize marriage. The public failure rate is more than 50 percent, and I suspect the private failure rate is closer to 90 percent. Yet for some reason, when the road gets rocky we blame the problems on ourselves, or more likely our spouse, and we rarely consider that mastering marriage is more challenging than it is for a middle-aged man to do a back-handspring. The fact that you're failing doesn't mean you or your spouse are doing it wrong; it means it's hard.

Society tends to promote the fallacy that if we choose the right person, life will be bliss - aka the "you complete me" myth. It sounds good in theory, but when you're operating under the delusion that another person can - and should - make you happy, it's not too hard to understand why people assume that marital troubles mean you've made a bad match.

Several years ago, I was in the pre-fantasy of divorce myself. It's when you don't actually say the word out loud, but you spend a lot of time fantasizing about what life might be like without your spouse: Who you should have married, who you might marry now if you had the chance and how perfect your life might be if only your spouse weren't messing it up.

During that time, I happened to read "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study" by Judith Wallerstein (Hyperion, 2000). Read this book if you ever want a wake-up call about what a divorce can do to your kids - it's not pretty.

Guilt kept me in my bad marriage for a few years. But just as I was growing weary of the one-woman pity party, I got an invitation from a friend to a workshop based on Harville Hendrix's book "Getting the Love You Want" (Owl Books, 2001). That invitation opened the door for my husband and me to find happiness, romance and a real grown-up love that is much more satisfying than the TV version I'd been longing for.

Oprah Winfrey says Hendrix's therapy model (www.imagotherapy.com) radically changed her views on relationships forever, and I agree. Talk about a new way to love: We got more out of that one weekend than we did our previous 37 rounds of traditional he says/she says finger-pointing counseling.

Wallerstein's divorce book guilted me into hanging in there, and two years later, Hendrix's workshop changed the direction of our entire lives. Today, we have a truly happy marriage, something we both once thought was impossible - at least with each other.

Marriage is a tough gig, and I'm sure some people would be better off divorced, but I don't believe it's more than half of us.

Every happily married long-term couple I know has struggled through serious issues to get there. My husband and I are very up front about our past marital misery in hopes that it might help someone else see that it's never too far gone.

If your New Year's resolution was to find true happiness, call a counselor before you call a lawyer. The hourly rate is about the same, but the lifetime payout makes it a much better investment.

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is nationally recognized speaker and the author of "Forget Perfect: Finding Joy, Meaning, and Satisfaction in the Life You've Already Got and the YOU You Already Are." She has been seen on "Good Morning America" and featured in Lifetime, Glamour and The New York Times. Contact her at www.ForgetPerfect.com.