Let me state upfront that I wasn’t able to save mine.
After more than 20 years together, and with three amazing children, my former husband and I ended up apart.
Divorce is not a happy option most of the time. It is gut-wrenching and painful and should be entered into after serious and lengthy consideration and sincere efforts to work out whatever your issues might be.
Not every marriage can be saved, but many can be, even after some very difficult and divisive challenges. I’d like to share with you how you can save yours if you are considering ending it, or if it is really on the skids and you don’t know what to do.
Now you may wonder what kind of authority a divorced person has to tell others how to save their marriages. I don’t really have any authority except that which comes from experience, failure, learning, and personal growth. Sometimes the best lessons come from those who have failed and who can examine their failures to see what should have been done differently.
I’ll also add that I’m now in a committed, loving, happy, mutually respectful relationship with my life partner. Through my failure in marriage, I now recognize what a healthy, happy relationship should be, and I will not settle for anything less, even if it means being alone.
Creating a healthy, happy marriage is one of the most important things you can do for your overall well-being. Study after study confirms a committed, loving relationship is the #1 predictor of life happiness. It is well worth the time and effort it takes to heal and strengthen your marriage, not only for your individual happiness, but also for the happiness of your children, family, and close friends.
If you want to know how to save a marriage, here are some critical steps to consider:
Go to counseling quickly.
This seems like a no-brainer, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t do it or put it off until it’s too late. They don’t want to pay the money, it’s inconvenient, it’s painful, they don’t want to air their personal laundry in front of a stranger, blah, blah, blah.
If you are at the point of considering divorce, you are well past the time of needing counseling. If you’re currently having difficulties in your marriage, and the two of you are becoming more and more disengaged, get to counseling quickly before things get worse.
Renowned marriage researcher John M. Gottman says that the average couple entering counseling has experienced marital problems for over six years. The longer you wait to seek assistance, the more deeply entrenched the difficulties, making them much harder to treat.
Look, most couples can’t work out these difficult issues on their own. You need someone who is trained in relationship therapy to see things from a detached perspective and to give you the tools you need to work through the problems — or to decide the relationship can’t survive.
Of course both of you need to be motivated to go to counseling, and that leads to my next point.
Understand it takes two.
You can’t save the marriage alone. Both partners need to be invested in saving it. If you believe your spouse is totally at fault for the problems in your marriage, you’re wrong. If he or she has a problem, you both have a problem, and you both need to work on it together.
If your spouse doesn’t think there’s a problem, or he/she doesn’t think it’s necessary to address it, you are responsible to do everything in your power to convince him or her otherwise. Sometimes you have to be super direct and blunt. You can’t tiptoe around it. Say something to your reticent spouse like: “I am deeply unhappy in our marriage. Things have to change, and you need to participate. We need counseling if this is going to work. Are you on board?”
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Counseling and talking through hurtful and uncomfortable issues is a pain in the butt. Counseling is costly and often makes things worse before they get better. But I promise, divorce is far more costly and disruptive. If your spouse won’t budge, go to counseling by yourself and discuss strategies with the counselor about how to get your spouse in the door.
If your spouse still refuses, this can be a deal breaker. You may need to call their bluff and separate for a while to see if it motivates your spouse. If not, they have already disengaged from the marriage anyway.
Make the relationship king.
Nothing, no nothing, should come before your marriage relationship. Not your job. Not your hobbies. Not the computer or TV. Not your best friend or your mother. Not even the kids. The marriage is the centerpiece of your family life, and your spouse should be your number one priority. If you back-burner the marriage, even unconsciously, you are jeopardizing your intimacy and close connection.
Believe me, I know how easy it is to get caught up in the children’s needs and activities. I know how demanding work can be, and how relaxing it feels to plop down in front of the TV at the end of the day. I know how stress makes you want to shut down, and how exhaustion makes sex feel like a chore. I know how much easier it is to bottle it up rather than work it out.
You both have to fight all of that tooth and nail and get in the daily habit of nurturing the relationship. What does that daily habit look like? It looks like taking the time in the morning to hold your spouse in bed before you get up. It looks like sharing a cup of coffee together before you head off to work. It looks like shooting a loving text or making a “just wanted to hear your voice” call in the middle of the day.
It looks like telling your kids to pipe down because Mom and Dad need their time together. It looks like saying no to the golf outing because you and your wife have a standing date. It looks like leaving the laundry or the messy kitchen so you can listen to your husband’s hard day. It looks like stopping whatever you are doing to address the frustrated comment, the eye roll, the tears, or the unspoken pain until you reach a loving solution.
If one of you doesn’t prioritize your relationship, you’ve undermined the marriage and your family happiness for both of you. If one of you is trying and the other isn’t, you can’t have a healthy, emotionally intimate connection. You can’t give lip service to your commitment. You have to act on it every single day, conscientiously and mindfully.
Address conflict immediately.
Is is nearly impossible to live so closely with someone and not have conflict. Conflict is inevitable, and because you entered this romantic relationship with years of old baggage, expectations, and hopes and dreams, anything that negatively triggers those is bound to set your teeth on edge.
Knowing that conflict is inevitable, even in the best of marriages, be prepared for it. Rather than getting all up in arms and upset, step back for sec and recognize that something’s been triggered in one or both of you. Address it and work through it as quickly as you can. Find out what triggered the anger or hurt. Talk through it without blame or judgments. Let go of anger as quickly as possible and work toward a compromise or solution calmly and kindly.
Now I know that’s easier said than done, especially if things have been rocky for a while and both of you are hanging on to old resentments and wounds. But going back to the “relationship is king” notion, you can’t deep dive into the muck of ugliness while taking loving care of your relationship. Does it help the relationship to yell and scream, get defensive, or stomp around? No. It might make you feel better for a few minutes, but it pulls the marriage into the garbage. Again, if you can’t work it out calmly between the two of you, go see the counselor.
Learn more about your spouse.
So many marital conflicts arise from a lack of understanding and compassion for the person we’re married to. We get so caught up in defending our turf, being right, trying to control the other, and getting what WE want, that we have no idea what is in our spouse’s head and heart.
It’s hard to be compassionate and understanding in the heat of conflict. That’s why you need to proactively learn more about one another during calm and happy times. Finding out what motivates your spouse, what they value, what their hopes and dreams are, what they need from you, and what makes them feel loved, gives you a window into the heart of this person you love.
Don’t you want your spouse to be happy, loved, cared for, understood, inspired, fulfilled, and cherished? Don’t you want to be the person offering that to your beloved? One of the best ways to nip conflict in the bud before it ever arises is by questioning your spouse and finding out the answers to some of these important issues.
If you don’t know the questions to ask, I’ve written a book for couples with 201 questions designed just for that purpose. Go through the questions together, and you’ll be surprised at how much closer you become.
Treat your spouse with kindness and respect, no matter what.
Couples can treat each other terribly. They call each other names, yell, put their spouse down in front others, disparage them in front of the children, shut them out, withdraw, pout, sulk, use sarcasm, and point fingers. We are adults here, yet in our marriages we act like whiny, bickering children.
You would never say or do the things to your boss or a friend that you might say or do to your spouse — this person you’re supposed to love above all others.
Even if you’re hurt, upset, frustrated, or even downright angry, you have the self-control as an adult to treat this other human being, who is inherently worthy of kindness and respect, with kindness and respect. If you are so mad that steam is coming out of your ears, and you want to say something really ugly, just step away and calm down before you talk.
Even if you two decide to go your separate ways, this is the person you once loved and decided to marry. Unless they have physically harmed you or someone else or done something profoundly unethical or illegal, they deserve being treated with decency.
Kindness and respect go a surprisingly long way in healing wounds and facilitating solutions. Do you know anyone who is motivated by screaming, yelling, put-downs, and ugliness?
Take your time.
If things have gotten to the point that one or both of you is considering divorce, then all of these suggestions might be moot. But I strongly encourage you to take your time before signing the divorce decree. The emotions you have today may not be the emotions you’ll have next year, and the reality of being divorced is far different from the concept of “freedom” while you’re married to that person making you crazy.
There are a few really solid reasons to get out of your marriage immediately — like physical abuse, addiction, serial cheating, illegal behavior, complete financial irresponsibility, and untreatable mental illness. However, if you have any shred of doubt that divorce is the best option, wait it out for a few more months if possible. If you decide to leave, you want to feel you did everything possible to save your marriage, and gave it enough time to make sure you made the best decision for you and your family.
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