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Love in the Time of Football: January could be the cruelest month for men in relationships

January is not the best month for men. First, it snows like crazy and shoveling the driveway is a lot of work — just ask anyone who lives in Denver. Then, to make matters worse, most of their favorite football teams get knocked out of the playoffs in January as the football season winds down to a close. Although there’s plenty of football to watch, only two teams will survive the month to play in the Super Bowl.

But it gets worse. According to anecdotal reports from divorce lawyers, January is the unofficial championship month for divorce in the U.S., accounting for up to one-third of all yearly divorce filings. With studies showing that women initiate more than two-thirds of breakups, it’s men who are usually on the receiving end of the January "surprise."

Here are the facts. Some 40%–45% of all marriages end in divorce. There are approximately one million divorces each year in the United States and Canada. Assuming that it takes seven to ten years for a marriage to break down, there could be up to ten million marriages foundering on the rocks right now. And those are the official marriage numbers. (We’re not sure of the "living together" statistics, but the breakup numbers for those arrangements have to be enormous as well.) Why is it that January is such a bad month for breakups?

Divorce lawyers surmise that one reason is that people just want to get through the holidays for the kids and relatives before filing the papers. Another reason is that she may not want to go through Valentine’s Day with the status quo. However, it could also be that, by New Year’s Day, she’s just plain tired of her husband watching so much football. It’s a possibility worth considering.

But wait! There could be a bright side to all this football. Before you turn off the tube, why not take something from football to help you improve your relationship and build a winning team that stands the test of time, January after January?

(Women, the football analogy could work for you. If you want men to learn more about relationships, a spoonful of sugar — or football —just might help the medicine go down.)

Consider this, for starters: in football, teams scout each week’s opponent. Similarly, the number-one tip for men from relationship counselors is to pay close attention to (scout) their wives. In football, you need to assess your own skills and talents and those of your teammates. It’s the same in relationships: you must get to know your own tendencies and those of your wife. Assessing the overall ability of your (marital) team should also not be overlooked. How well do you and your wife relate and work together? What can you do to improve the team’s functioning? Football teams and players spend all week and year after year learning how to get better. Why shouldn’t you do the same in your marriage?

In football, each week the coaches use the playbook to develop a unique game plan specifically for this Sunday’s opponent. Similarly, in rebuilding your marriage you need the help of a variety of skills and "plays" (your personal playbook) to help your relationship team be successful. You’ve got to get a game plan.

Now this rationale — "honey, relationships are like football" — likely isn’t enough to get her to forget that she’s mad at you, but — and preferably before you get any bad news — you could decide to use your football smarts to improve your relationship odds. Perhaps you’ll save your marriage from becoming another grim statistic for the divorce version of the Elias Sports Bureau.

Anyway, whatever the reason, January is the official month of breaking up. Forewarned is forearmed, and those men who want to stay married need to get in training. For those who suspect their marriage is already troubled, here are some immediate tips to save the play and work toward a winning relationship team.

First, don’t assume the game’s over when she says it’s over. Often, after some time apart a change of heart can occur. Remember: there was some spark that put you two together in the first place; it may come back if you both work on it. Hang in there and develop your relationship skills. If there’s any doubt in her mind, you need to act fast to save your marriage. It’s also very important in the early going not to say or do anything that can inflame the situation. This is no time to sulk or argue.

Consider suggesting what’s called a controlled separation. What you want to do is both speed up your decision-making and slow down hers. The innovation of controlled separation gives you both a timeout from the marriage to get some perspective and breathing room. Basically, it’s an agreement on what occurs during a temporary separation: how long the separation lasts, who moves out and to where, how to deal with the kids, how you will interact, counseling, the rules for dating each other and other people, etc., so that there are no surprises that can derail reconciliation.

At the end of this process, the two of you can make a thoughtful decision about staying together or splitting up. Controlled separation could be an excellent idea for your marriage. But be careful: if you suggest it too early, she may conclude that you want out more than she does. Overall, controlled separation is a practical decision you can make together that may strengthen your marriage, or allow you to part as friends and become good co-parents.

Get a counselor/mediator you both like to coach you through rebuilding your marital team. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists ( ) is a good place to find one. If you’re a man, you likely need to work on your communication skills (how to pay attention carefully is paramount). Ask the counselor for specific techniques both of you can employ. Ask for and act on the counselor’s advice about your own personal growth. And, most importantly, don’t settle for a counselor that you don’t connect with — make sure he or she is right for both of you.

Become a student of relationships and women. The available knowledge about women and relationships is far more advanced than it was even five or ten years ago, and more books are being written for men. Men can no longer say, "I don’t understand women" — today, it just takes a little work and study. Get reading, as you’ll need to improve your knowledge fast. You’ll be surprised at the good information you can put to use right away.

Talk to your friends. They may not have the depth of knowledge that a counselor or book can offer, but they know you well and can pull in their own experiences. Sometimes friends can provide the feedback and tips you need to make good decisions on keeping your marriage together. Get three or four buddies to give their thoughts and choose what you like from among their suggestions. No matter how it turns out, your real friends will be there for you. (But hopefully not on Super Bowl Sunday at your new "bachelor pad" in somebody’s basement.)

Grand gesture. Remember that American Express TV commercial where the husband surprised his wife with plane tickets to join him in Paris? Your wife will definitely notice a grand gesture (like no longer watching football or, less extreme, watching only one game each Sunday and then turning off the TV to do some work around the house) because it will show you want to change direction. Caveat: if you don’t back it up with real change, it’ll soon be fourth and long in your marriage game.

Bond as a team. How is it guys can walk 36 holes in a day but can’t handle a little stroll around the mall? Think of shopping not as a duty call but as a chance to bond with her. Plus, take note of little items she likes that you could come back and buy later. This is priceless to her; don’t underestimate the impact.

She’s responsible too. Men often say, how come the focus is always on me, she’s part of the problem in our marriage too. True, maybe, but let’s just assume for now that most men need to build their relationship skills more than women do. Work on your skills so that you’re ready for the big game, then you can talk about her skills. As in sports, you can’t complain about a teammate not doing their job if you’re not doing yours.

Pick up your share of the cleaning duties. One of the most interesting findings of recent note is a study that concluded that her interest in sex and enjoyment of the marriage is directly related to how well you two split the household duties. Time to consider getting out the mop on a regular basis. ’Nuff said on that.

It can take a while to see results. How long did it take Mike Holmgren to turn the Seattle Seahawks around? Generally, relationship counselors say it takes about one month of change for each year of dysfunction before changes in attitude can occur. Hang in there and keep working. If, after a certain period of time, she doesn’t change her feelings about you (and you have acted sincerely in changing your behavior for a significant period of time), then you may have to conclude that your marital team is beyond repair. But do yourself a favor and give it the old college try first.

Here’s where the football analogy falls down, fortunately: in football, each year only one team wins the Super Bowl, while the rest fail. This win/lose proposition does not have to extend to marriage: relationships can be a successful win–win result for many more couples. It’s hard work, detailed preparation and consistent skills improvement that will improve the odds of success. So, if you’re looking for a winning team in February and well beyond, stop resting on your laurels and start training for a lifetime of seasons…with her.

©2009, Steve Campbell

Steve Campbell is a communications consultant and author of Third and Long: Men’s Playbook for Solving Marital/Relationship Troubles and Building a Winning Team Third and Long was book of the week on in March 2005. He says that while this relationship book was written for men — husbands, brothers, sons, dads, friends and boyfriends — you don’t have to understand football to read and benefit from it. Steve is from Vancouver, B.C. Canada. or E-Mail or 604.888.5267

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