Relationships aren’t easy. Whether it’s between a husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister or longtime friends, keeping a relationship strong and healthy is as challenging as it is rewarding. It’s been said time and again: you have to be willing to do the work. You have to listen as well as you talk and give as much as you receive to foster a thriving relationship that stands the test of time. There will be moments when it seems impossible and moments that take your breath away. And while you can read every helpful book on the shelves about how to create and preserve a solid connection with a loved one, sometimes the best way to learn is through the examples of others. Here, two tales of relationship success offer precedents not only for sustaining an already good relationship, but also for finding ways to adjust when a relationship changes. Through these stories, you may just uncover the nugget of wisdom you need to make the most of the relationships in your own life.
Clay and Anne Preston: Practice Makes Perfect
Clay Preston didn’t know what to think when his younger brother, who was away at college, called him up one day. Clay's brother said he knew a girl that his older brother just had to meet. Her name was Anne, and it turned out that Clay’s brother was right.
“He had good intuition,” Anne says. “I knew from the beginning—from the moment I saw Clay—that I was going to be with this man for the rest of my life.” In addition to the physical chemistry they shared, Anne was enamored with Clay’s energy, sense of humor and calm mysteriousness. Clay in turn fell in love with Anne’s “amazing outlook on life,” he recalls. “She had this tremendously positive way of seeing things, and I had never met anyone who was more generous with people than her.”
Clay and Anne Preston married at her parents’ home in the North Georgia Mountains on May 31, 1980. And after 30 years of marriage, they are as much in love today as they were the afternoon they walked down the aisle. They are the parents of two children: Helen, 26, and Paul, 24. And although their relationship has always been solid and healthy, they have gone through their fair share of trials and tribulations—struggles that would have tested even the most steadfast of couples.
When Helen was only 11, she developed a serious eating disorder that took her more than four years to fully recover from. It was during that time that Clay and Anne had to lean on each other for support. “We had to grow up in a hurry,” Anne says.
“We had to pull together and say, ‘This is life and death. We have to be a strong couple to give her the strength she needs to get better.” Clay adds, “We had to be selfless for her to survive. We had to learn to give up our own petty complaints and focus on what she needed. And we made that decision mutually.” They even had to decide to live apart for a year while Anne stayed close to the out-of-state treatment facility they had chosen for their daughter; Clay stayed back in Atlanta with their son. “That was when we became the closest emotionally,” Anne observes.
During the experience, Clay and Anne realized that they had to strive to create a truly stable home environment for their daughter upon her return home. They decided to do some “outside work” to better themselves as well as their relationship and chose a personal development program through Landmark Education, a global educational enterprise. Through various courses and weekend seminars, they learned about themselves individually and how they could progress. “It was very constructive for us,” Clay reveals. Ann continues, “Because we did that, we were able to bring ourselves as healthy individuals into our life as a couple.” The Landmark program also opened the door for Clay and Anne to participate in other similar activities, such as Couples Coaching Couples (CCC), which they began 7 years ago.
“As our youngest was heading off to college, we realized that the focus would no longer be on our children. We had to ask ourselves who we would be as a couple and thought that it was time to redefine what our relationship would be about,” Clay explains. And CCC was the perfect venue, allowing them to spend 30 minutes a week focusing solely on their marriage in the framework of a small group discussion with other couples. “We always thought we had a great marriage, but this ratcheted up the quality and brought us to a whole new level,” Anne notes. “It’s amazing—after 30 years, we still surprise each other. It helps you keep your relationship alive and allows you to actively create the marriage that you want.”
By being part of an organization like CCC, which teaches them how to be caring, generous and forgiving with each other, Clay and Anne prove that working at a relationship can actually be an enjoyable experience. “It gives you the same great feeling you had as newlyweds,” Anne says. “Who wouldn’t want that?” As Clay concludes, “When you want to get better at golf, you practice and take lessons from a pro. When you want to get better at tennis, you practice and take lessons from a pro. It’s the same thing when it comes to marriage—it’s all about practice.” And clearly, practice makes perfect.
Margot Swann: A Different Approach to Divorce
It’s been 18 years since Margot Swann’s life was turned upside down. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and her husband of 20 years came to her and told her that he did not want to be married anymore. However, for the sake of the children, he would not move out of the house until the day after Christmas. From that moment on, she experienced every expected emotion—shock, anger, confusion and fear. And even though she couldn’t see it then, she recognizes something now. “He actually handled everything in a mature way, and he was very kind in those initial stages,” she says. “In the time before he left, he allowed me to have what I now call ‘the exit interviews.’ He allowed us to have a conversation about what happened, and he listened to me very respectfully. But we were not good for each other anymore, and it was becoming toxic. So he made the decision to leave.”
Since Margot had never been through a divorce before, she had no idea how to handle the legal side of the situation. She had not worked outside of the house for many years, as she helped raise her stepdaughter and the son she and her husband had together. And her concern was that, as a lawyer, her now-ex could make the process very difficult for her financially, especially since her first lawyer mishandled the negotiations and she simply did not understand all of the numbers. Fortunately, she found people to turn to for legal and financial advice. In addition, she observes, “[My husband] could have taken a very adversarial stance and just crushed me. But he’s an honorable man and he did the honorable thing—he took the high road.” It took more than three years to finalize the divorce, but in the end, the former couple came to a very amicable deal that involved an innovative approach to handling their assets. And Margot followed her former husband’s lead in how she dealt with the circumstances of their separation.
“I got a good support system put up around me, and I found outlets that would allow me to get the fear and anger out so I wouldn’t direct it at him,” she explains. “I saw a therapist and joined a support group that met on Friday nights at church. I screamed in the shower. My brother, who is a businessman, let me wail to him, and it helped that he really listened to me instead of just telling me what to do. I realized that directing the anger at my former husband was not going to do me any good. I had to learn to separate my emotions from the business side of the situation—they were two different things, and they needed to be tended to separately. It took several months, but I was able to be respectful of him as well.”
And with their children in mind, they managed to form a unique post-divorce bond. “We’ve worked hard to approach the situation with integrity and think about the children. When it came to our son, I realized that my former husband was the only other person in the world who loves him as much as I do, and we could talk about that. And it’s wonderful that we can do that.”
“You always have to do the next right thing, and you can never badmouth the other parent,” she continues. “And when you do the next right thing for yourself and the people around you, you will reap the benefits over the years.” That perspective has paved the way to spending time together as a family, including holidays and special occasions.
In fact, Margot’s divorce opened the door to many opportunities that she never expected. Because of lessons learned through her divorce, she founded Visions Anew: The Divorce Resource for Women, which offers a wide array of support to divorcing or newly divorced women, including retreats, educational materials about all of the legal issues involved in a divorce and more. And because Margot is friendly with her former husband, his now-wife talks to people about the organization and the great work it’s doing.
What’s more, after a lot of soul searching and healing, Margot found love again and has been happily married for 10 years. And when she and her current husband are in the same room with her former husband and his wife, it’s very pleasant and drama-free. “I realized that we love the same people, so we should be comfortable with each other,” Margot says. It may sound like an unusual approach to marriage and divorce, but Margot would not have it any other way. “In many ways, I was fortunate,” she reveals. “I became more mature through this experience.”
Look Inside Yourself
It’s easy to play the blame game when a relationship doesn’t seem to be working. However, personal coach and relationship expert Patty Binns Farinola, founder of PF Coaching, recommends looking inside yourself for what may be impeding your path to relationship bliss. “When you’re trying to figure out why something isn’t working, you have to figure out what’s in the way,” she explains. “You have to step back and start with yourself. What have you learned from your past experiences that may be blocking you? Did you learn that relationships are hard from your parents? Did a past relationship make you believe that you don’t deserve a good relationship? You have to determine what patterns you [have] in your relationship and find practical techniques for moving away from those patterns. Sometimes you need help getting out of that cycle.” If you believe you could benefit from this kind of assistance, there are classes, coaches and a wide variety of resources for you to consider. And when you find the answers about yourself, you just might find the answers you need to repair your relationship.