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As widely recognized and trusted sources of advice on healthy relationships, and the authors of Loving In The Grown Zone: A No-Nonsense Guide to Making Healthy Decisions in the Quest for Loving, Romantic Relationships of Honor, Esteem, and Respect (Balboa Press), people are often surprised to find that we are not married, although we are committed to each other as life partners. (Radio Host Tom Joyner and Comedian J. Anthony Brown got major laughs about this revelation when we were interviewed by Jacquie Reid on the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show.) In fact, we have divorced a total of four times (two each). We know exactly what happens when you try to erect a marriage on the poor foundation of an unhealthy relationship, because we’ve tried it—and have four failed marriages to show for it.

If we knew then what we know now! On the other hand, what we know now is harvested from the experiences resulting from our past choices. And our experiences are what motivated us to launch our Grown Zone Relationship Education initiative, with a mission of sharing what we’ve learned in hopes of shortening the learning curve for others, so they can avoid the high experiential “tuition” we paid for the lessons. With that in mind, here are a few of the many key lessons (covered in Loving In The Grown Zone) we’ve learned from our failed marriages.

The characteristics that attract you to a person are different from the characteristics that sustain healthy relationships. God-fearing. Physically attractive. High earning potential. Well-educated. Great sex! These are among the things that attract people to one another and provide the spark for romances that often lead to marriage. Some combination of these factors—what we call attractors in our book Loving In The Grown Zone—were major drivers in getting us and our erstwhile spouses to the altar.

There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to good-looking, sexy, smart, gainfully employed people. However, as we learned the hard way, none of those factors can sustain relationships. We made probably the most common mistake leading to failed marriages: failing to seek out and develop the factors proven to sustain relationships over time. Sustainer characteristics include the capacities for respect/admiration, compassion, fidelity/loyalty and physical safety/emotional security. Attractor characteristics are unable to sustain relationships because they will inevitably change—for example, there will be times in your life when great sex just won’t be possible. When attractors go away or change, marriages built on them crumble. On the other hand, sustainers not only last, but grow stronger with a healthy loving relationship; marriages rooted in these characteristics have resilience and get better with time.

It is not your responsibility, nor is it within your power, to change, fix or control another person with your love. Not recognizing this fact was a key factor in the failure of Alfred’s first marriage. Instead of learning and accepting his first wife for who she was before they got married, he believed that he could “love” (i.e. bribe, guilt, seduce, punish) her into being who he wanted her to be. In his next marriage, he learned how that felt, when his second wife attempted to do the same to him.

People like to accuse their spouses or exes of changing after the wedding. Actually, the characteristics, habits and behaviors a person exhibits during a marriage (such as infidelity, financial irresponsibility or verbal abuse) are usually exactly those that were exhibited in the relationship before the wedding. We just either missed them, or ignored them. We convince ourselves that marriage will transform us, and that we can love each other into becoming different people. Or, we are so determined to get to the altar that we dismiss the obvious red flags about who a person really is (especially if we are loath to lose access to what they are, i.e. rich, physically attractive, sexually stimulating, etc.).

Marriages can only be sustained with a truly healthy relationship as the foundation. To establish such a relationship, partners must commit to learning and accepting each other fully and without conditions, before getting married. A marriage based on each partner pressing for change in the other will be unhappy, a breeding ground for resentment, and all but sure to fail. A marriage built on a healthy relationship of unconditional, loving acceptance provides an environment where people can safely be who they are while being free to grow together—perfect conditions for a thriving, happy marriage.