As someone who enjoys basketball, I’ve watched with interest the recent NBA contract drama involving DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers and Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Jordan was unsatisfied with the role he had been playing on the Clippers as a third option in their highly successful offense and was not happy with the relationship he had with Chris Paul, the team’s point guard. He decided to leave Los Angeles and verbally committed to a four-year, 80-million-dollar contract to play for Dallas this upcoming season.
But then he began having second thoughts about his agreement with Dallas. In response to the threat of Jordan leaving LA, his Clipper teammates rallied around him, assured him things could be different next season, and even engaged in a media and Twitter campaign to rally support to keep him in LA. Chris Paul reportedly apologized for not listening to Jordan more during the season and promised that in the future he’d make sure Jordan would have the ball more. Paul said that he had no idea Jordan was upset with him and said he thought they were “brothers.”
This story of shifting verbal agreements, contracts, helpful friends, spurned suitors, and bitter feelings among fans began to remind me of my experiences as a marital therapist working with couples on the brink of divorce.
The main commonality between the Jordan-Cuban-Paul drama and struggling couples has been the amount of non- and mis-communication between those involved. Jordan apparently never expressed his concerns during the season with the way he felt he’d been treated by Paul (although sportswriters seemed to sense it). Chris Paul thought things were fine in their relationship. Mark Cuban, upon discovering Jordan’s wavering with the Dallas contract, rushed to speak with Jordan but was kept away and was misled about Jordan’s availability. Jordan stonewalled and shut Cuban out, later apologizing via Twitter to Cuban and the Mavericks’ fans for going back on his word. To date, Cuban and Jordan still haven’t discussed the events of last week in person or over the phone.
Similar stories of miscommunication are told by couples on the brink of divorce. Often, one member of the couple is blind to the extent to which their partner has been hurt by things that have happened in the relationship. In the extreme, it seems as though this person has absolutely no clue that his/her spouse is feeling so disrespected and devalued that they’re considering opting out of their contract.
Second, if someone is feeling devalued in marriage, as Jordan felt unappreciated by the Clippers, it is not hard to be wooed by a new potential partner. People in this situation hope to be more appreciated in a new relationship for what they have to offer, even if leaving their current marriage means leaving some pretty good things behind.
Third, the spouse who feels disrespected can be unwilling or unable to bring the concern to their spouse in a way that ensures it’ll be heard. (It’s easy to see how a partner might be clueless about existing marital problems if the person with the problem isn’t talking about it.)
Fourth, the decision to end a relationship and the lack of communication about it affect the lives of outside spectators, whether children and extended family in the case of a marriage or teammates and fans in the case of DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers. Deciding to divorce has major emotional fallout. Children, relatives, and social networks have an investment in seeing the “team” stay together in a healthy way. The fans who watch the drama unfold are left in an ambiguous place where they may feel disregarded, unimportant, and pushed to the side. Once this happens, and in the absence of clarity about the situation, it is very easy for those who are peripherally involved to vilify players on all sides.
I saw this dynamic play out recently when I interviewed a man who had been married for twenty years—and considering a divorce for fifteen. He has never shared these thoughts with his wife. He had talked to some friends about his marriage, here and there, but not with much purpose or even to seek answers on how to change things. He was not interested in, and had not even considered, going to marital therapy to try to resolve the problems he’d noticed. I wish I could say that this was a unique story. However, many of the people I talk to share some of the same elements in their own pre-divorce narrative: lack of communication, turning away from their partner, and insulating themselves from people and resources that might help.
As I talked with this man I realized that I was witnessing a divorce slowly take shape. It was frustrating to watch it unfold, knowing that if he would just begin talking with his wife, he might avoid the seemingly inevitable outcome of divorce, or at least experience it in a healthier manner. I’ve come to believe that whether you’re the DeAndre Jordan or the Chris Paul in your marriage, there is some hope that with a little risking, and opening up to your partner, you can change the trajectory of your relationship and help yourself, your spouse, and the fans that surround you live a happier and healthier life.
Steven M. Harris, Ph.D. LMFT, is Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota. He is also the Associate Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. He and his wife have been married for twenty-five years, and they have four children together.