Are you trying to save a marriage that’s on the rocks? Hoping to turn things around from anger and resentment to happiness and love? It can be done. Most marriages can be repaired if both parties really want it – but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. You will likely have to have some difficult conversations, take a hard look at where you’ve messed up, and make real changes to the way you do things in the future. If you want to know how to save your marriage and are up for the challenge, read on.
1. Find a marriage counselor.
This may seem like a cop-out answer, but it truthfully is the first thing to consider. Any of the following steps you might take can be facilitated by a competent marriage therapist. Trying to change the patterns in your relationship is not easy, and having a coach to motivate and guide you can be invaluable. What’s more, a marriage counselor is an unbiased third party who can look objectively at the situation, which neither you nor your partner can reasonably claim to do – no matter how hard you try, it is nearly impossible to be perfectly objective about your own mistakes, wishes, and needs.
Even if you’ve tried therapy before and it hasn’t worked, it’s worth considering again. Did you quit dating after your first breakup because you’d already tried it and it didn’t work? Unlikely. Just because one therapist didn’t meet your needs doesn’t mean another one won’t. Make sure to find a therapist you feel is a good fit for you, not just one who has the best website or the most experience (although those are certainly factors you can use to help you make your decision). See here for more information on finding a good therapist.
2. Think about what’s really bothering you.
I can guarantee you that it’s not the way she squeezes the toothpaste tube or the way he leaves his socks on the floor. Those are mild to moderate annoyances, but they do not make somebody want to leave a relationship. What does make somebody want to leave a relationship is the deeper meaning of these otherwise insignificant occurrences. What does it mean that he leaves his socks on the floor? What does it mean that he leaves his socks on the floor after you’ve already asked him not to do that? Here is where things really start to matter.
In this example, there are many things that could actually be at the root of the problem, which is why you need to think about what the “real” problem is. Perhaps you are a neat freak and socks on the floor raises your anxiety about your need for a clean house. Maybe it’s simply something you’ve asked him to stop doing and his refusal to do so makes you feel disrespected and ignored. Or maybe they’re a sign of a greater disorder in your lives that is driving you crazy – a subtle reminder that your house is upside down, you’re late to everything, your kids are out of control, and you’re unhappy in your marriage – all in a pair of dirty socks. Pretty heavy, huh? (This is the kind of thing that makes me recommend a professional therapist to help sort through!)
Avoid arguing about the little things like socks or toothpaste – or the timing of dinner, or the forgotten birthday, or the empty milk in the fridge. Figuring out what the underlying problem is will be a much more valuable guide to where your work will need to be.
3. Don’t avoid the elephants in the room.
In every marriage there are old wounds and infractions, missed opportunities and minor (or major offenses). Trying to avoid them may leave you spinning your wheels as you attempt to resolve current problems without considering the impact of these lingering issues in the relationship. Are there things in your marriage that you “just don’t talk about?” Here are some common topics that might be hiding in the closet:
- Substance use/abuse. Alcoholism and drug addiction can wreak havoc on a marriage, and can also be extremely difficult to look in the face (especially when the other partner has a personal or familial history of substance abuse as well). People struggling with addiction tend to have a lot of denial about it; and it is not uncommon for spouses of addicts to look the other way and even enable their behavior. Facing up to it together is critical for healing the marriage.
- Pornography. For some people this is no more than a pastime, while for others it is just as damaging to the relationship as a full-blown affair. Not discussing this ensures that a solid connection between spouses can never reach its full potential. (See here for my post on using pornography in a marriage.)
- Your best friend of the opposite sex. If you have a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex, it may be a sore point for your spouse (even if s/he has never seemed bothered by it.) Close friendships and romantic relationships often have fuzzy lines separating them. Even if you’re sure it’s completely platonic, this is a topic that might need to be talked about openly with your spouse.
- That time that he/she… Sometimes couples can point to an event that happened some time ago that was never quite resolved but they just moved on anyway – an insult that was spoken, a forgotten anniversary, a vacation that went poorly. That might be an important sticking point to go back to, especially if one or both of them are holding on to it deep (or not so deep) down. (Of course, the idea is not to have the same old arguments again, but to look more closely and calmly at what happened and work through it – again, definitely something that is easier with a counselor on hand to walk you through it.)
Whatever it is that “we don’t talk about” may have to be talked about in order to save a failing marriage.
4. Learn new communication tools.
All these topics can lead to intense conversations. If you’re hoping to save a marriage that’s on the rocks, you will probably need to learn how to use different tools from the ones you’ve used until now. Getting into loud, angry arguments didn’t work in the past, and it probably won’t work now either. Here are some more approaches that won’t work: defensiveness, criticism, putdowns, and the silent treatment. Instead, you’ll need the skills of validation, empathy, and mutual understanding, among others. There are many good books out there to help with that (check out the writings of the Gottmans and Sue Johnson, for example), and of course, practicing them with a professional is extremely useful as well.
Few marital problems are so large that they necessarily mean the end of the marriage. However, if your marriage is on its last legs, you are going to need patience, determination, hard work, and possibly outside help. To find out more how we can help you save your marriage from ending in divorce, contact us today.