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Judge Lynn Toler: The Biggest Mistakes People Make in Dating and Relationships

The audience for “Divorce Court” is up almost 50 percent from last year and a big part of the attraction is the common-sense approach taken by its presiding judge, Lynn Toler, who began overseeing the drama of separating couples in 2006.

Naturally, Toler has learned a lot from her eight years on the bench of the TV series, during which she has taken note of the most common mistakes that couples make — resulting in an appearance before her!

That, added to the fact that she has been married to Eric Mumford since April, 1989 — coming up on 25 years, not all of which were smooth sailing, led her to write Making Marriage Work: New Rules for an Old Institution.

Toler, who has two sons and four stepsons, cautions that the biggest impediment to marriage these days is that couples take their vows based on what she considers to be the most irrational of criteria: falling in love — without doing the necessary follow-up homework.

In a society where there are no longer strict demands to keep a marriage together, Toler advises couples to think of the union as a job, and to do the work required to make it work. To illustrate her points, she uses anecdotes from “Divorce Court” and closer to home, her own marriage and those of her friends.

Toler’s advice has been sage enough that she has actually managed to save a few of the marriages of the couples who have appeared before her on “Divorce Court.” Here she shares with eHarmony her best tips on how to get from falling in love to happily ever after.

eH: What is the biggest mistake people make in dating and relationships?

LT: I think the biggest mistake that people make is not understanding the chemistry of it. In other words, that overwhelming feeling makes you believe that he or she is The One when really it is like a chemical reaction. You have to ride that out and really let it pass.

Then, you have to examine the situation. What does he want? What is he interested in? What does he do? How does he handle pressure? How does he handle money? What is he like when he’s sick? Of course, that goes for both sides. What are our goals? What are we like with respect to children? All of that needs to be examined and don’t force feed it. In other words, I think women do this a lot: Well, he doesn’t want to have kids and he isn’t interested in the same things I am, but I am really in love. It will work out once we get married … and it doesn’t.

eH: You said that that once initial attraction hits, both men and women need to do their homework and recognize any red flags and be prepared to walk away. What are some of those red flags?

LT: When I was talking about red flags in the book, I was talking about signs of potential abuse. But what I will say in regard to warning signs is someone who has had a lot of bad relationships before. You have to examine what part they played in it. If there is too much too soon, if someone has to have you — he met you on Tuesday and he can’t do without you on Thursday — that is a bad sign.

eH: Do you think people can change for a relationship?

LT: I am not the same person I was when I married my husband 25 years ago, but you can’t expect change because it is usually not the change that you want. You get the guy you pick. If he mellows with age, hallelujah!

eH: One of the aspects that your book is predicated on is the belief that love isn’t enough to take couples from head over heels to happily ever after. So, how do you bridge the gap?

LT: I think you bridge the gap by being mindfully married. Now that we don’t have all the strictures that keep you married, you have to find reasons to stay married. You have to find a common passion that is outside the home: something the two of you love to do together. You have to set up rituals and routines while you are still in love and doing silly stuff that you continue throughout your marriage. You have to check in with each other.

My husband and I stopped having conversations at one point about how everything was going, and how we were feeling. He thought it was over here and I thought it was over there. It was a mess. But if you have rituals and traditions of checking in, and talking to one another, and you do silly stuff, like I have friends who have divorce parties.

Every year they tell each other, “I am divorcing you and I am remarrying you next year.” They invite all their friends and they make jokes about what they don’t like about each other. Then they forgive each other and start fresh the next year. It sounds silly but it is a way to keep your eye on things and have fun while you’re doing it.

eH: It also lets your partner know what you are thinking.

LT: You have to keep checking in. You have to know where the other person stands and what they are feeling. Don’t assume you know how he or she is feeling. You have to actually ask.

eH: What else do you think is needed for long-term success?

LT: I think you have to have a real understanding of money. Money is one of the biggest stresses that people have. You have to understand how to use money. You also have to understand your emotional relationship to money, because if you don’t understand your emotional relationship to money, no matter how much of it you have, the two of you are probably going to disagree about it.

eH: You say that marriage is a like a job, you have to put in the work and that there are different rules for men and women. Can we take these rules one at a time and elaborate on them?

For women:

Eliminate white noise: Talking too much. Men don’t want to hear all that all the time. I always say that my husband listens to a few more words than he likes and I say a few less words than I like to reach some kind of compromise.

If you want a guy to hear something, you have to say it in his language. He doesn’t hear how you feel and all that stuff. You’ve got to give him points: This is what I am talking about. This is what my concern is. This is what I need from you.

If you really want him to hear, don’t say, “I was just so upset and I don’t understand.” You have to speak in terms they can understand because if you keep talking, they drift off.

Accept Not Right Now: Men don’t do stuff right now very well. Joe, my bailiff, used to tell me that and I asked him, “Why is that?” He said, ‘I don’t know why but when you ask a guy to do something, give him a minute to do it. It makes him feel that you are less like their mother.” You can give them a time frame: “Can you get it done by the end of the day?” That will give you an opportunity to check in on it. If he doesn’t do it right now, don’t go after him.

Avoid the False Okay: Women like to make things okay. We like to make peace, we don’t like to make waves. I have talked to a lot of women, who, when he says, “Let’s go to the ___,” will say, “okay,” when it is really not okay. You can’t keep saying, “okay,” because they believe you. They don’t see your dejected look; they don’t see how this is unfair; they don’t see how you have compromised so many times before. They take you at your word. Not all women do this, but enough that you have to be careful.

If something isn’t okay, you have to say it. Don’t get mad. You don’t have to get crazy, but you do have to say, “No, that’s not okay,” so you don’t harbor a lot of resentments, or he doesn’t realize you are making a compromise when you really are. Say, “I don’t want to go but I will go,” and you have a nice time, but he has to understand when you are compromising and appreciate that. If you keep saying, “okay,” no matter what, that never happens.

Just Ask:  A lot of women don’t understand why he doesn’t see how hard they work. They don’t understand why he doesn’t help. They don’t understand how he can see them doing all these things and not help. I used to be one of those women.

I will just tell you a quick story. I was in the kitchen. I was doing a whole bunch of things all at once and my husband walks in, he looks in [the refrigerator] and he says, “There’s no milk.” I got really angry. I thought, “Why are you telling me there is no milk? Don’t you see I am doing a million things here? You’re watching the game and you’re telling me there’s no milk.” I was going to yell at him. Then, I said, “No, before I yell at him, let me just ask. I said, ‘Honey, can you go and get some milk?'” He said, “Yeah. Anything else you want?” I was all, “Doesn’t he see everything I am doing? Doesn’t he see how hard this is?” But if I don’t ask him to do something, he feels I don’t need him to do it, so you ask.

Sex: They just want more of it.

eH: I think there maybe some relationships where the women want it more than the men do.

LT: That is very true. But, I rarely sit in a group of friends, where a bunch of women say, “I don’t get enough sex.” We women talk about how much they want sometimes, but it rarely goes the other way around. That may be because I am old-fashioned. All my friends are over 50.

For Men:

Make Sure You Hear Her: It’s what I spoke about before. Women need to be heard. Women  need to share their feelings with you. If they don’t feel heard, they don’t feel validated. You can’t dismiss those feelings and those wants and those needs. One of those needs is to say, “I feel this way. I am hurt. I am upset.” Just because it is something you don’t normally want to hear, you still have to listen.

Be Emotionally Proactive: Actually ask your wife is she okay, how is she doing? An unbelievable number of men getting divorced say they didn’t see it coming, because they think everything is okay because she is not actively complaining. But if you express a desire to know how she feels, it is huge for women. My husband always says, “If something was wrong, I thought you would tell me.” The fact that he asks now, makes me feel better and that he is interested, and it gives me an opportunity to tell him.

Listen in the Right Language: When women talk, you can’t look at the literal truth of the thing. I think a lot of men get caught up in that. For example, if your wife says, “We never go out,” and your response is, “Yes, we did. Three Thursdays ago. Remember, I took you to the movies?,” you are not listening in the right language. What “we never go out” means is this is how I feel. I feel bored; I feel lonely; I feel unengaged. That is what it is. It is not an accurate, factual statement, so you have to listen for the feelings behind the statement that might not be accurate factually.

See All of It: I think women do a lot of stuff that men don’t see. She takes care of their health, when company comes over, she does all the stuff, and she cleans up and does stuff that that doesn’t normally get applauded. Make sure that you notice all the stuff that your wife does for you. Say, “Thank you for that, babe,” or, “I appreciate it,” because, I think, a lot of women feel taken for granted in some respects because we tend to people.

All-Day Foreplay: If guys are worried about getting more sex, it is easy. The best way to do it is a call from work, a call from where you are, a kiss on her neck, a “how was your day, baby?” If you want to have sex around 8, don’t start thinking about it at 7:30. You start early in the morning. A couple of small gestures throughout the day gets our boat going, so the rest of the boat can come along that night. Men can transform what is happening in her head to something happening in the bed.

 eH: The best advice you can give to couples to make a relationship work?

LT: Continue to talk. When I say talk, speak in the right language. Speak to have a problem solved, don’t express your frustration. Start your sentence with “I feel” and go from there, but don’t express your frustration, express need.

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