Learning From Divorce: How to Maintain a Healthy Marriage After a Failed One

Between me, my mother and my father, we have racked up a whopping seven divorces -- all of them before anyone turned 40 years old. Two of them are mine.
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Between me, my mother and my father, we have racked up a whopping seven divorces -- all of them before anyone turned 40 years old.

Two of them are mine.

My parents scandalized the upper-middle class suburb of Great Neck, Long Island when they dropped out of high school, got married and had two children -- all before the age of 20. If that wasn't a recipe for a disastrous marriage, add to it that my young father was a drug addict.

Yes, conventional wisdom can be right: teenagers should be in school. Not playing house. And marriage to a substance abuser is an uphill battle and you will never come first. Chances of divorce are pretty high.

With all of my family's instability, it's no wonder I gravitated toward the world of make believe and acting. I became a professional actress at the age of 14 and developed crushes on every father figure I encountered. And there were a lot of them.

As an 18-year-old New York actress, I was in a relationship with an older man when I was flown to LA to work -- going from one divorce culture to another.

Okay, it was the late 70's and the "Me" generation was in full bloom. People got divorced at the drop of a hat -- unlike their parents' generation who stayed married until the (often) bitter end.

As a young adult on my own in Hollywood, I was terrified of commitment and even more so of being abandoned. Then I fell in love with my co-star in a mini-series. He left his wife and child and we proceeded to break each other's hearts over the ensuing four years.

On a rebound, I married husband No. 1.

He was another actor, 15 years older, talented and charming, but overly critical, and sexually withholding. Three years later, we got a quickie divorce in the Dominican Republic -- easy to do when you have no children and a prenup. In contrast to most of the marriage, we had fun, spontaneous "goodbye sex" over that weekend.

I moved back home to New York City and immediately met husband No. 2. He swept me off my feet but our backgrounds were too dissimilar, and although loving, generous and "successful," he was insecure and became verbally abusive at the mere mention of one of my past boyfriends. I desperately wanted children, but we were too incompatible. The combined efforts of two therapists, a marriage counselor and a rabbi were unable to prevent the inevitable. We divorced after two years of marriage.

No. 3 is the charm, and six weeks after meeting my third husband I got pregnant with our first child. We had a huge amount in common including divorced parents (crazy moms and addicted fathers) and respective "slutty" pasts. Three children, two cats, a dog and 14 years later, we truly want each other to be as happy and fulfilled in life as possible.

In addition to the fact that it's important to get out of a bad marriage early, what else have I learned?

Marry your best friend: Find someone with whom you share common interests and background -- even and especially of the dysfunctional kind. The notion that opposites attract may work for a fling, but it's not advisable if you want to have a lasting marriage.

Share your fantasies (both in bed and out): You should both be secure enough to be able to tell your partner everything -- and that includes finding others attractive (you're married, not dead, right?). It doesn't mean you need to act out on it, but why not acknowledge the fact that your waitress/waiter is hot and sexy? Don't think that if you look at -- or even flirt with others -- it is a slippery slope and will destroy your marriage. It won't. It will probably spice things up for you.

Know when to put your spouse before the kids: Having children definitely stresses a marriage. It's important to remember that your marriage happened before they did and will (hopefully) be around after they leave the nest. My husband and I have a "quarterly update," which is a full night and day away from the kids, four times a year. (If you can't afford a hotel, switch off with a good friend who also has kids.) I know it's heresy to say in this era of entitled children, but the kids shouldn't always come first.

Practice separating: Maintain your own friends, hobbies, career, independence, etc. Take mini vacations away from each other. Hanging out all the time together will smother the marriage. Familiarity does breed contempt. Besides, it's nice to miss someone a little.

As for my marriage, while flirting is an option, divorce is not. Though we both know that it's long shadow lurks over every marriage, we choose to acknowledge it and even joke about it. And just as near death experiences reinforce life, we use it to propel us on to a stronger, more exciting, and conscious marriage.

Stacey Nelkin is an actress and the co-author of "You Can't Afford to Break Up: How an Empty Wallet and a Dirty Mind Can Save Your Relationship". She is a relationship and parenting expert and blogs for the website: The Daily Affair.

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