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Experts Solve Major Love Disasters (Their Own)

Sometimes, professionals struggle with the very things they're hired to fix - and that's when they learn the most. Three of them drop the thera-speak and get honest.
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"I'm a marriage counselor who was this close to divorce"

As a couples therapist, Nancy Fagan helps clients resolve their marital issues for a living. But six years ago, she was sneaking out between appointments to consult with a divorce lawyer to end her own marriage. She felt her husband was controlling and that he put his adult daughters (from his previous marriage) before her. "For the first time, I experienced emotions that I'd only heard about from my clients," she says. "I'd lost my sense of self because of our problems."

Although Nancy had been married once before, to her college boyfriend, that divorce had been extremely amicable. Her second marriage was supposed to be the forever one, and she was blindsided when it began to sour. "I could look at my clients and think, Oh, my gosh, so this is what you're going through!'" says Nancy. "But since I couldn't reveal that I was failing at my own specialty, I couldn't talk to anybody. I was so ashamed." She felt herself shutting down emotionally and says, "I'd seen so many other women do that, and I knew that withdrawing makes it nearly impossible to rescue a marriage. But I just couldn't stop myself." Nancy explains that it's pretty typical for women to assume the role of relationship caretaker, and if the husband won't participate in trying to improve the marriage, the wife eventually takes it as evidence that he's no longer emotionally invested and just gives up: "When this happens, it's crucial that the husband take the reins to help fix the problems, because by then the woman just feels over it."

Luckily, her husband, a corporate strategic planner, wouldn't go down without a fight. "He said, 'We both have these incredible tools that we use to help others, so how can we apply them to ourselves?'" They sat down, listed each other's strengths, and then tackled each other's shortcomings. Nancy told him that she hated how he shared intimate details of their lives with his grown daughters, and he said he resented that she no longer trusted him and wouldn't give him a chance to change. Then they identified specific actions that would fix those issues. For example, "He committed to always tell me what's going on in his life first, and we made a list of topics that should never be discussed outside of our marriage," she says. "In exchange, I agreed to open up to him again without waiting for him to prove his trustworthiness. I gave him a clean slate."

Lists, agreements, actions -- it all sounds like a meeting with human resources, but it resonated with the Fagans. "It was a very pragmatic way of looking at the issues, and it worked," Nancy says. She used their experience to launch a brand-new type of service, which she now calls "marriage mediation." "Unlike traditional marriage counseling, mediation isn't about exploring your emotions or the roots of your issues; it's about identifying specific problems, hammering out solutions -- and being committed to changing your ways," she says. Her technique: Approach your marital problems as if they were work issues. "Use a pad of paper or a white board to write everything down. It will help you remove some of the emotion from the situation." Once couples agree on a game plan, she tells them to put it in writing and sign the document as they would a legal agreement.

Nancy's marriage is now better than ever. When she has a bad day at the office, her husband will show up with homemade chocolate chip cookies, and he recently whisked her off to a seven-course gourmet dinner, just because. But more important: "He sticks to the rule that I get to hear his secrets and important news, and first." Of course, "it's human nature to revert back to old habits, but if you put your new plan in writing, it's harder to," Nancy says. "My husband and I still 'check in' every few months to make sure nothing negative is festering." So far, the agreement is binding.

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