Ron Ousky knows it’s odd that he created a nifty little packet of cards for couples to help them improve communication and strengthen their marriage. That’s because Ousky, of Edina, is a divorce lawyer. But after 35 years of trying to lead couples to civility as their marriages imploded, Ousky began to wish he could “turn back the clock” on behalf of those couples to a time before distractions and resentments grew insurmountable. What if couples had a way to proactively practice talking to one another, not about kids or money stresses or in-laws, but about their own needs, vulnerabilities and desires? So Ousky (ousky.com) created free “Conversation Cards” designed to do just that. He tells us more here.
Q: First, congratulations. You and wife, Marlys, just celebrated your 40th wedding anniversary. What’s the secret sauce?
A: I think about that a lot. A lot of it is intentionality, a willingness to continue to work at it, to not let little things become big things.
Q: Tell us about your “conversation cards,” and how you hope they are used.
A: Each packet contains eight cards with an activity or things to talk about, such as gratitude, mistakes, forgiveness, and how we express love and want to be loved. We spent months interviewing couples, asking them for the kinds of things they thought would be interesting. The ideal way to use the cards is on a date night when you can pull a card out and use it to spur a conversation. It’s a way to stretch ourselves. We’re fine with small talk, but it’s hard to bring up deeper things.
Q: Are the cards written for couples in need of a tuneup to an already pretty good marriage? Or for couples in trouble?
A: The former. We’re trying to catch people earlier in their relationships. So often in my practice I think, five or 10 years ago, they really could have used these. By the time they come to my office, the sad reality is that the likelihood of this working becomes diminished.
Q: So don’t wait to start using these and other tools to keep talking?
A: Start as early and as often as you can, particularly when you get into kid-busy time and the we-never-talk-anymore stage. When the conversations start to not happen, when jobs and kids make life really busy, that’s when couples can start to drift apart.
Q: Which card are you hearing the most about?
A: Forgiveness is the big one. One couple told us that it triggered a three-hour conversation. Forgiveness hits a raw nerve for folks, which is why it doesn’t come up as often as it should. We’re more likely to talk about our anger than our sadness. When we start talking about how scared we are, the other person is more likely to respond to that vulnerability. That’s what these conversation cards are about — opening up that vulnerable side.
Q: Another conversation card asks couples to recall a moment when they learned from a mistake. Why is that important to do?
A: It’s an interesting thing to talk about. It helps you look at your life differently, realize that things have happened in your life that are painful, but still useful.
Q: Do you think there’s a tipping point, when it’s simply too late for couples to save their marriage?
A: There definitely is a tipping point. What’s sad is when it happens for one spouse and not the other. Sometimes, one spouse will understand what’s been lost and will say, “I’m willing to work really hard,” but the other person is just checked out. It’s really hard to reignite that. What invariably happens is that the checked-out partner lets other relationships seep in. You see that so often. Letting a relationship run stale created room for it.
Q: Even if couples do end up divorcing, or maybe especially when they do, isn’t communication essential, particularly if they have kids?
A: The relationship still continues, but in a different format. Helping people think about their post-divorce, co-parenting relationship is a central part of our job. People think this relationship is done but it’s not. It’s just changing.
Q: What’s been the response among fellow divorce lawyers?
A: They know me and my work for decades in collaborative divorce practices, so they’re less surprised that it’s me doing this. But most divorce lawyers don’t want to see people in pain. It’s almost the reverse of what you think a divorce lawyer would be thinking, but most get why this is important. It’s no different from a doctor talking to people about staying healthy. If having better conversations causes even a handful of people to avoid the pain of divorce, I will happily accept those consequences. There’s always going to be plenty of conflict to go around.
Q: Your cards nod to giving compliments and allowing each other time to chase individual pursuits. What else do couples forget to do over time?
A: Say “please” and “thank you.” And ask for what you need. That’s another thing that makes us feel vulnerable, so we don’t do it. But our partner can’t guess.
Q: How will you distribute the conversation cards?
A: Through mental health professionals and clergy; plus, almost everywhere we go, people say, “This sounds interesting.”
To receive a free set of conversation cards, e-mail Ron Ousky at firstname.lastname@example.org