“Project: Happily Ever After” Author Alisa Bowman shares her tips on how to self-mediate your marriage and avoid divorce

by Petra Maxwell on January 6, 2011

Mediation needn’t be thought of as a last resort when your marriage is about to end. In fact, learning to self-mediate the problems and challenges in your marriage can help you build a stronger relationship along the way.

We’re excited about a new project that we have in the works here at Mediationline.  We’re going to be launching Marriage Matters:  Communication Bootcamp for Committed Couples, a special program designed to teach couples how to self-mediate their way through certain danger zones and make their marriages happier and healthier. 

To celebrate our anticipated launch this spring, we’ve interviewed Alisa Bowman, author of the new book, Project Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters and blogger at ProjectHappilyEverAfter.  Bowman was ready to end her marriage (and was daydreaming about her husband’s funeral) when a friend encouraged her to try harder. As a result, she turned her marriage around and now offers encouragement and advice to those who face the same problems she did. The lessons she learned while pursuing Project Happily Ever After (PHEA) can benefit any marriage.

What were the signs and symptoms that there was something wrong with your marriage?

I had many. I fantasized about divorce. I planned in my mind who would get what and how we would share custody. I had it planned down to the couches, china and rocking chair. I also fantasized about him conveniently dropping dead (so I wouldn’t have to bother going through the divorce). We weren’t having sex. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d done it—and I truly would not have cared if I never had sex with him again. We had nothing to talk about. We’d go out to dinner and stare in silence. We would fight about stupid stuff like what was allowed to go on the bathroom countertop. I also had an ongoing sense of resentment that never seemed to get solved.

 Why didn’t you get a divorce?

I was ready to go that route. Then I had dinner with a divorced friend. I asked her, “How did you know it was time to give up? How can I tell if my marriage is truly broken?” I thought she would give me permission and encourage me to end it. She didn’t. Instead, she asked, “What have you done to try to save your marriage?” I’d tried nothing until that point. She made me promise to try something. Then if that something didn’t work, I could walk away knowing that I’d given it my all.

Can you briefly describe the steps you took to get your marriage back on track?

I read. I bought 12 marital improvement books. I went online and read some, too. And I even interviewed a few friends who seemed to be happily married. I wanted to learn as much as I could about marriage.

I broke the project down into smaller steps, too. They included:

  • Forgiveness
  • Sex
  • Romance
  • Communication
  • Intimacy

I worked through one area at a time, trying everything I could to improve it. Then I moved onto the next.

Why didn’t you seek professional help, i.e. a marriage therapist?

Some of this was logistical. Money was tight, and I didn’t have reliable baby-sitting support. Some of it was fear. And I just didn’t think it would work for us. I imagined my husband rolling his eyes and sighing through the sessions. I figured the counselor would ask why he was there and he would say, “Ask my wife.”

I also wrote self-help books for a living and I’d used them to solve other problems in my life. It seemed comfortable for me to use them to save my marriage, too.

Were you terrified this wouldn’t work? Were you afraid that working through your problems might be hurtful and painful? How did you get past that?

Honestly, I never expected it to work. I know that sounds shallow. But I entered the project with one goal: to find proof that my marriage was doomed. I also wasn’t too worried about the process being hurtful because I was at rock bottom. I didn’t think I could hurt any more than I already did.

As it turned out, I was wrong. As I grew to love my husband again, our disagreements became more painful. I allowed myself to feel again, and that was excruciating.

Do you think that others can do what you did?

I know some couples can. Countless couples have told me their success stories of going from bad marriage to good.

That said, I will not promise that everyone can. Some marriages cannot be fixed. These marriages usually suffer from a terminal issue: serial cheating, mental or physical abuse, addiction, Peter Pan syndrome (one spouse becomes a parasite and refuses to grow up), or intractable mental illness. Some marriages can’t be fixed because one spouse isn’t willing to try.

And some, even with all of the therapy and books in the world, just don’t improve. I don’t have any magical insights as to why this is. I only know that it’s the case. And you can’t know if you are in one of these marriages until you try to save your marriage and nothing works.

How do you think a person knows if the marriage is really over? How much should you put into it before giving up?

I recommend couples start a project that spans four months. Rate your marital happiness on a 1 to 10 scale at the start and again after 4 months. After 4 months, you might not be completely cured, but you should see some improvement. If your marriage is just as bad or it has become even worse – and you’ve been diligently trying to improve it the whole time—you have to question whether your marriage can be saved. I would argue that it probably can’t.

What are the keys to a happy marriage in your opinion?

Most of us struggle in marriage because no one teaches us how to be married. We expect marriage to be instinctual. We assume it’s some sort of magical mystical process of picking the right person.

But it’s really just about skills, skills that no one teaches us in home, etc. It’s about communication skills, listening skills, forgiveness skills, and affection skills. It’s also about patience and it’s about positive thinking. It’s about seeing the potential in your spouse, and the potential in yourself. In its essence, it’s about humility.

What do you do if you want to turn your marriage around but your spouse is not on board 100%?

This is a tough one. I think if your spouse is on board some, then be the leader. Work on changing yourself for the better and see if your spouse follows. Some spouses do. For instance, if you take steps to warm up your marriage and be more affectionate, you might find that your spouse returns that favor.

How would you recommend people customize their own PHEA?

Think about what’s wrong with your marriage. It might be everything (like mine). It might only be one or two areas. Focus on the areas that need the most work, and learn all you can about those areas. Think of this as a problem that you can solve, and use the scientific method to solve it. Try different solutions and see what works and what does not. Not all of them will work, and that’s okay. But if you embrace possible solutions with an open mind, you just might find that some do work.

You essentially self-mediated your own marriage. What do you think about the experience of self-mediation after having been through it?

I think this worked for us because neither one of us is hot and spicy. We didn’t necessarily need a referee. But some couples do. If you tend to really lose your temper, you probably need someone there with a whistle to call a time out for you every so often. It doesn’t matter if you do it alone, with a friend, with a clergy person, with a mediator, or with a counselor. All that matters is that you try something.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this on your own without professional help?

The advantages: it’s cheaper and easier logistically. It’s also easier to talk a strong and silent man into the self-help approach than it is to talk him into seeing a counselor.

The disadvantages: You need to be a good self-starter. Counseling appointments are nice because they give you a weekly deadline. If you tend to be a procrastinator or tend to need a boss checking up on you, then the self help method probably won’t work so well.

What do you think your life would be like now if you had gotten a divorce?

This is hard to answer because I’m looking at it from a place of current marital happiness. That said, I think I would feel guilty about shuttling my daughter back and forth between Mommy and Daddy. I think money might be even tighter than it is for me now. I think I would feel more alone and less supported. And I think I would have an emotional scar that may or may not heal.

Would you describe the self-mediation process you went through as something that changed the dynamics of your marriage, of you and your spouse as people, or both?

Yes, it changed everything. Most notably it changed me, though. Now I don’t fear problems. I embrace them. Solving the problem of a bad marriage is a huge accomplishment. It makes me believe that I can solve any problem.

The skills I learned during marital improvement have also helped me every where in life. They’ve improved my friendships, my career and even my relationship with my mother.

How do you know if your own PHEA project is working? What signposts should you look for along the way?

You should see your marriage incrementally improving. Your sense of happiness should be getting stronger. You should notice that some of those symptoms are ebbing. You might be having sex more often. You might be bickering less often. You might be feeling more attached and connected.

How did the PHEA project affect your daughter?

My husband and I are both happier now. As a result, there’s less tension in the house. That benefits her greatly. She also sees that we love each other. And we can now have fun as a family—something we couldn’t do when the marriage was bad.

What kinds of things have you learned in writing your blog?

I’ve learned that I have nothing to hide, that I’m not alone, and that we’re all flawed humans who are struggling to get through life and are doing the best we can as we struggle along. No one sets out to be a bad person—not even your spouse. It can be hard to believe when you are mired in misery. Yet I’ve heard from both sides of so many marital arguments that I can clearly see just how desperate both spouses are. In the end, most people want the same thing: to be adored. In the end, most fights are about the same thing: not feeling adored.

Is PHEA an ongoing project that lasts the rest of your life or at some point do you say “we fixed it”?

I don’t think a marriage is ever cured. You don’t cross the finish line, get a metal and say, “That’s it.” I will always be noticing symptoms of potential problems. I’ll always be reading about marriage and taking steps to improve ours.

That said, I think we’re past the worst of it, and things are amazingly great right now. I don’t work on my marriage as regularly as I did during the project. It’s more of an awareness—the same sort of awareness I have about our daughter, my career and other pieces of my life. I make sure to notice if something seems to be slipping, and I do something about it.

You’ve been talking a lot about your marriage – on TV, on your blog, on the radio, and in your book. Does talking about it help you understand it more or are you finding that you’re enjoying just helping other people?

Both. Talking about it helps reinforce the skills for me. I’ve become a better wife because I talk about and write about marriage. But I also love connecting with and helping others. That’s priceless.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl January 7, 2011 at 2:42 am

Mediating your own marriage – now that sounds like a big project but definitely one worth pursuing. I’m glad it worked so well for the author – and that she is able to communicate and share what she learned with everyone.

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Petra Maxwell January 7, 2011 at 4:18 am

Sheryl, I completely agree! A big project indeed. But I love Alisa’s comment that ‘no one teaches us how to be married’. If many of us only learned some basic problem solving, listening, and respectful communication skills at the outset, think of how many divorces could be avoided!

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kerry January 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

one thing that struck me about his is the author’s conversation with her friend at the outset, which set her on the path to working on her own marriage and helping others by writing about it. that was a thoughful bit of listening and talking on both the part of the author and her friend. a further reminder about listening skills…

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Casey January 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Sage advice that even those of us with currently happy marriages can learn from. You can always work to make your marriage better.

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Jeanine Barone January 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Great advice that I intent to pass along to my married friends.
Jeanine

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Petra Maxwell January 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Some of the important lessons for me in all of this were the need for humiliation, forgiveness and good communication. Clearly, if we can learn those lessons before it’s too late, then it’s a win-win for everyone. But some us – like me – weren’t so lucky. It wasn’t until I went through the process of mediating my divorce that I began to learn some of the problem solving and communication strategies I should have learned 10 years earlier! Personally, I think many people can gain a lot from Alisa’s journey, no matter where they are in the life of their relationship.

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