Why do some marriages make it through rocky times and others do not? The answer is not always about how much you love your husband or wife. Sometimes it is about knowing how to respond appropriately to relationship troubles. There are proven ways to save a marriage and re-kindle your relationship so that you can build a happy life together again.
These steps are simple and may seem obvious once you learn them, but they are vital – and effective. With work, communication and compassion, your marriage does not need to end in divorce.
Questions to ask yourself before you start
First, make sure this strategy is really what you’re looking for.
- Do you truly want to save your marriage, or is this just a perfunctory step before you seek a divorce?
- Do you accept that saving your marriage will mean admitting your own failings and accepting (polite) criticism?
- If your partner is uncooperative, are you prepared to be patient and give the marriage a chance to improve?
- Are you prepared to dedicate your time and energy to working on your marriage, (knowing you might not see results for months) for up to a year?
- Can you truly forgive your spouse for their past transgressions?
True forgiveness means putting past transgressions behind you forever, which means not bringing it up again in a future argument, or talking about it constantly, and so on. There are some things that you might not be able to forget completely, and that isn’t right or wrong, but do some soul-searching and see if you can imagine sitting down next to them on the couch in the future, having a loving conversation without constantly being distracted by the past. Can you imagine that? Good, then keep going.
Open your mouth and talk (and listen)
Do you know what your spouse is thinking? You probably think you do, but you may be very wrong. Even if the two of you are barely on speaking terms right now, you can probably get him or her to say a couple of things he or she is having problems with.
Pay attention to exactly what the other person is saying. Ask them for as much detail as they are willing to give. Do not pass judgment, and do not get angry. You don’t even need to give a response right now if your relationship is very fragile. Just say “thank you” and think about what he or she said. What are hearing? What would your spouse probably say you’ve been doing wrong? How does he or she feel right now?
Find the root problem
Marriage difficulties are almost always a symptom of an underlying problem that has placed stress on your relationship. Thinking about what you know and what you’ve heard from your spouse, you should be able to figure out some of the major cause(s) of your marriage difficulties.
Money/finances are probably the biggest one – financial difficulties, or even just differences in priorities in earning and spending money can put a huge burden on a couple. Creating and agreeing to a budget may help, or seeking help from a financial planner can help you feel comfortable with a plan created just for the two of you. If you are still struggling with financial disagreements and both spouses are income-earners, consider setting up separate bank accounts in addition to a joint bank account where each spouse contributes toward the household bills. If there is a big discrepancy in salaries, establish a fair amount for each person to contribute to the household expenses.
If the cause is not finances, look at other stressors in your life to find the root cause of your fights with your spouse.
Children. Are you presenting a solid and united front in parenting? Does one of you pit your children against the other spouse? Work with your spouse to come up with the same parenting philosophy and implement it in exactly the same way. Your children should not receive vastly different punishments or rewards from each parent.
Intimacy. Intimacy is often not the source of the problem itself, but the lack thereof can become a second source of stress when something else is going wrong. Your romantic experiences with your spouse are very important to a healthy marriage. And romance isn’t all about sex – go with your spouse on dates. Take day trips, go out to dinner, and do fun things together. You’ve spent a lot of the drudgery of life together – why not spend some time enjoying the fun things in life together, too?
With whatever the source is, work with your spouse if possible, and if not, work alone, to find a way to take the stressor away. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Can you feasibly remove the source of the stress?
- Can you reduce your exposure to the source of the stress?
- Would open communication with your spouse reduce the source of the stress?
- Would a compromise between you and your spouse reduce the source of the stress?
Understanding the causes, and not just the symptoms, of your marriage difficulties will help provide you understanding and help you take a rational approach to a very emotionally difficult situation.
Action planIf you’re willing to begin this uphill struggle, and you understand where the bulk of your problems are coming from, then you are already much more prepared than most couples who struggle and seem to go in circles.
Step #1: Communicate your plans with your partner
Put aside your hurts and anger, and approach your partner politely and sincerely. Instead of saying something like, “I hate you when you criticize me. Why can’t you just stop it?” try saying, “It seems we don’t appreciate each other anymore. I would like things to be different, and think there are things we both can change. Can we work on this together?”
It’s important for this request to sound genuine and fair, but also not as if it’s a major commitment that your spouse needs to deeply analyze for hidden meanings. Don’t try to “overtalk” it – make your request and wait for a response.
If your spouse agrees, you have taken a huge step forward. If you get the brush-off, do not be discouraged. You can move forward on your own, and in time, your partner may join you.
Step #2: Start making small changes in your actions and reactions
Many times, couples in a bad marriage can get caught up in a vicious, negative cycle of lashing out in anger, fear, and pain, at their partner, and they hurt before they can be hurt in return. To restore your marriage, you must break this cycle, which can mean accepting pain, criticism, and anger without resorting to it yourself. You will be vulnerable, but this is necessary to change the destructive patterns your marriage has fallen into.
Here are some of the most important changes to yourself you should begin to make.
- Forgive your spouse. This does not mean pretending your spouse did nothing to hurt you; however, it does mean not using his or her past behavior as a weapon. Your relationship should be forward-looking, not burdened by the past.
- Ask for what you want clearly. Specifically describe the behavior that upsets you, explain how it makes you feel, and outline alternatives that you would prefer, such as: “If you have to work late, I would really appreciate it if you would call me and let me know. Otherwise, I worry that something has happened to you.”
- Listen to your partner’s opinions. Funny how this is the part of communication that most people forget. Listening means more than waiting for the other person to finish so you can start talking again. It means fully taking in what your partner is saying and not immediately assuming that you are right and he or she is wrong. Instead of thinking about yourself, forget about yourself and for that instant give your care and support wholeheartedly.
- Be respectful, even in arguments. From now on, you should make a vow that you will never say anything to intentionally hurt your partner – cruel words have no place in repairing a relationship, no matter how justified or hurt you feel. Al it accomplishes is making your significant other defensive, which means they stop listening to you.
Step #3: Set up a “communication date”
It may be months before your spouse is willing to discuss your relationship with you. You know your spouse best, so you will know if they would prefer to set aside a time beforehand or if you should “casually” bring it up one quiet afternoon.
It is normal to be afraid of speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about something that you care about as much as your marriage. However, happy, long-lasting marriages are built on truth. In the rare chance that what you have to say destroys your relationship, it is better to find out now rather than later.
Ground rules for the discussion
You may have never had a conversation with “rules” before, and you may feel silly explaining the guidelines, but marriage counselors have used rules like these in client sessions for decades for a very good reason: it makes honest communication much more likely.
- Agree to no interruptions and listening completely and fully to each other.
- Speak with 100% honesty on how you are feeling and why you feel that way. Many marriage issues stem from poor communication and misunderstandings. If you can clearly articulate how you feel, you will be able to address the underlying problems in your marriage directly, and, hopefully, begin to come to a resolution. However, you have to acknowledge, with your partner, that there’s a chance that something you say may hurt their feelings. Ask only that you be allowed to say everything you need to say first, and then you will do the same favor for them and listen to them.
- Try to keep conversations free of defensiveness or aggression. Sharing feelings with one another is only a helpful exercise insofar as each party remains open to hearing what the other person is saying. If at all possible, keep your conversations focused on how you are reacting to situations, not how you feel that your partner should be acting. When couples start to get defensive, they can begin to shut down and the conversation cannot move forward.
- If your partner makes a complaint about you or your past actions that you agree is justified, offer a sincere apology right then. Apologies are powerful tools to repair wounds couples have made on each other.
Learn how to handle conflict productively
A healthy marriage does not mean you never argue, but it does mean you’re trying to solve a problem together, not resort to personal attacks against each other. Again, this may be you going at it alone for a while, but when you change your behavior, it is likely that your partner will make at least a little improvement in his or her argument style over the coming months.
Turn arguments into respectful discussions
Do not raise your voice, regardless of what your partner does. Shouting will only prolong the negative experience unnecessarily and make matters worse. If your partner is not taking this foray into productive arguing with you, be patient and give him or her the time to let the emotions out and for his or her anger to cool. Respond calmly and politely to questions or accusations, but don’t cower. After a while even the angriest person starts to feel a little silly yelling at a brick wall.
Then, after the storm has passed, initiate communication to try to genuinely understand how your spouse feels, the cause of the anger or frustration, and what the two of you can decide to do (together!) to make things better in the future.
ApologizeYour spouse is not wrong 100 percent of the time, and you are not perfect 100 percent of the time, either. Admitting you made a mistake in how you handled a situation isn’t shameful or embarrassing, and taking the first step toward admitting what you have done wrong in your relationship may encourage your spouse to apologize for his or her past failures, as well. Take responsibility for the things you have said, how you have reacted, and explain how you plan to handle things better in the future.
Walk away when you need to
Refrain from saying and doing things you may regret. If you can’t stay calm during a disagreement, tell your spouse you need some space to clear your head. Your argument may be frustrating, but your spouse does not deserve the cruelty that you might display when you are angry and not thinking well.
Use “I” statements
Starting a sentence with, “You…” immediately puts the person you’re talking to on the defensive. If someone is on the defensive in a conversation, they won’t be open-minded to your concerns and they probably won’t be very understanding. Don’t tell your partner how they “make” you feel; instead say, “I feel…” You, and only you, are in control of your feelings.
Set conversational boundaries
Once your spouse is ready to work on your marriage with you, you need to put conflict resolution near the top of your to-do list. Many couples do not have boundaries when handling disagreements with each other, but it can make a huge difference in not making arguments a horrible experience.
Pick a non-stressful time to sit down with your spouse and create strategies for disagreeing and dealing with conflict with one another. These might be items such as agreeing to walk away instead of shouting, not bringing up past mistakes, and working to get a good solution and not get your way.
Fall in love again
These steps as you repair your marriage may humble you, and they may open your eyes to how your partner thinks about you and feels about your actions. Little things may have mattered to him or her, like greeting him or her when they arrive at home, and what you thought were the big things, like major anniversaries, may not matter at all to them.
Feeling romantic about your spouse does wonders for how natural it will be to show them love, plus it is a huge mood and confidence booster for your significant other to feel desired. Openly and unashamedly show how you feel about your spouse, even if you are afraid that your gestures may not be reciprocated in the beginning.
Demonstrate your love with actions
Use thoughtful gestures as well as physical affection. Make sure your partner knows that they are appreciated and loved. There are different “languages of love,” so find out which is most effective at showing your partner you care, whether that is gifts, help with tasks, words of appreciation, or quality time spent together. Try to display your love several times a week. You may be rebuffed in the beginning, but trying costs very little and will likely be reciprocated with time.
Spend time together
Continue to date while you are married. Spending alone time together can rekindle the old feelings that made you fall in love in the first place. This is great especially if you have children. Make the effort to get away at least a couple times a month for a special date night and have fun together. It should not be a high-pressure evening that has to rival an anniversary celebration or your wedding day, but a time set aside that is planned for the sole purpose of staying in touch with one another. Moving your relationship beyond just a series of chores or administrative discussions and back into the fun carefree place that it was when you first met can help you find happiness in each other again.
Things you can change right now
Everything we’ve discussed so far involve actions you can start working on immediately, but they may need time to implement and/or the cooperation of your significant other. Here’s what you can do today to improve your relationship.
Keep your complaints few. Simply put, complaining is not productive at this point. If it’s an important issue, start on the steps above for discussions with your spouse. If it’s not, ask politely for what you need or drop the issue. If it’s a minor problem, it can be worked on when the two of you have more experience having positive arguments.
- Tell your spouse what you like about them. Mention in passing something they do or say that makes you happy. Smile at them when there is no reason. Show them how wonderful you think they are with affection, thoughtful gestures and soft kisses.
- End the blame game here and now. Have the mindset that the two of you are in this together. No single person is right, and what’s more, it doesn’t matter. Both of you have contributed to both the good and bad aspects of your marriage.
- Ask your partner what you can do to help. If your partner is struggling with a task, don’t ask if you can help, but what you can do. For example, if your partner is cleaning, ask him or her where you should start. If he or she is working on a stressful assignment, ask what you could do that would make their day less stressful.
What if you can’t fix your marriage on your own?Some marriage problems are too big to be tackled on your own, or your spouse is already so resistant to fixing things that you can’t get past their barriers, and you may reach the point where you need guidance from a marriage counselor.
Marriage counseling (whether in-person or online) can prevent many divorces, but they work best when couples haven’t waited too long. Many couples put it off until the problems are very serious, and by that point one partner may even have given up and be unwilling to give marriage counseling a serious chance. If you don’t think you can handle all the steps involved in improving your marriage on your own, do yourself a huge favor and get counseling now – if you want to stay in this relationship, it may be the best thing you ever do. Think of your relationship as a flame – as long as the slightest spark is still there, you can fuel the fire gradually to rebuild a happy marriage, but if too much damage has already been done, there is no spark to rekindle, and divorce will likely follow.
One advantage that counselors have is that they provide a truly objective assessment of the marriage’s root problems. Even when you try your hardest, you can’t be totally objective about how you or your spouse is behaving. A counselor can give both you and your spouse constructive tips on addressing the core problems, and teach you how to handle new issues that arise after the sessions are over. At the very worst, the experience can teach you how to be civil and courteous to each other, even if the marriage does end up in divorce.
Whether you choose to go through this alone or with a professional, be prepared for a slow slog. It takes many couples a few months and up to a year for their marriage to begin showing serious signs of improvement. If that sounds like a long time, think about how long these relationship problems have been building up. It takes time to break down bad relationship habits and construct new ones.
When times are tough (and they will be!), remember that difficulties will make your marriage stronger in the long-run. Many couples that have struggled and succeeded have made their marriage better than it ever had been.