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2nd Time's a Charm if You Change the Rules

February 13, 1988|JAN HOFMANN

It was one of the most pleasant divorce cases that Santa Ana attorney Allen R. McMahon had ever handled. Both parties were mature, calm, reasonable, and there didn't seem to be any unresolved issues.

"It would have been wonderful," he said. "But they just couldn't keep it going.

"This was back when you had to get an interlocutory decree first," he recalled. "We went into court, and all he had to do was stand up and say, 'We have irreconcilable differences.' I looked over and they were sitting there holding hands. I said, 'You guys are going to give divorce a bad name.' "

They made it through that step, but when it was time for the final decree, McMahon got a frantic call from the husband.

"She has to go in the hospital, and she won't have insurance if we go through with it," the husband said.

"So we had the final set aside. After that, they got back together."

McMahon remembers the case partly because it is so rare. When people get that far into a divorce, he said, they usually stay divorced--from each other, anyway. "Getting back together is not a very ordinary thing to happen."

Orange County marriage counselors and psychologists agree, although most have either heard of or counseled such couples.

"These cases are pretty rare," said Eric Speare, a Laguna Hills psychologist. "And maybe there's a good reason for that."

One psychologist, Charles Browning of Los Alamitos, believes such reconciliations don't happen nearly often enough. A therapist who uses a Christian approach in his work, Browning encourages his clients to reconcile with their spouses or ex-spouses if possible.

Newport Beach therapist Barbara Lee, a marriage, family and child counselor, says that no matter how rare these cases are, they happen too often. She warns couples, especially women, to avoid repeating patterns that may not be good for them just because they are familiar.

But both therapists caution that resuming the same old relationship is asking for trouble. The trick is to start a new relationship, even if it's with the same person.

Browning calls his formula the "Three R's of Reconciliation."

"The three R's stand for Remember the Romance, Rewrite the Rules and Redo It Right," he said.

"The romance--a long time ago something magic happened between these two souls that made them want to spend the rest of their lives together. Both the man and the woman were at their absolute best, loving, caring, listening, cherishing each other. To make reconciliation work, the couple has to go back into their memories and recall all those little things they did for each other during courtship.

"The couple has to rewrite the rules because the old rules simply did not work," Browning said. "If the couple does not want to go through the same miseries a year or so from now, they have to do more than just get back together. First they must spell out what the old, ineffective rules were, and then they have to replace them with new and effective ones." For example, he said, the old rule might be, "I never tell her I think she's pretty." The new rule would be, "I notice her hair, her nails, her clothes and tell her how pretty she looks often."

The next step, Browning said, is the hard part. "They must make careful efforts to observe themselves doing, not thinking about, but doing the new rules. To make the new rules new habits, they almost have to be scheduled. Writing the rules down on index cards and reading them several times a day can help."

And when the "old rules" sneak through, as they are sure to do, it's important for couples to blame the rules themselves, not each other, Browning said.

Lee takes a very different approach. "When people get a divorce, basically it's a power struggle. They get to a Mexican standoff, and then they split up. Sometimes when they get away from each other, they have time to sit back on their heels and look at the other person's viewpoint," she said. "But unless they work on themselves and stop trying to fix the other person, they don't have much chance at a relationship."

And when they do take a hard look at themselves, Lee said, some people realize they did indeed marry the wrong person for the wrong reasons.

"When we're little kids, we develop behavior patterns according to how we perceive our role models. And we unconsciously copy that, even if we say we won't. A girl whose father was an alcoholic, for example, may say she'll never marry an alcoholic, but she unconsciously does that. It's the only pattern she knows," Lee said. "If she's able to break free from that pattern and establish a healthier one, then she can establish a new relationship--with someone else who fits the new pattern."

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