What Can I Do To Save My Failing Marriage?

Marriages are fragile.  These intimate relationships often do not survive the demands of work, children, personal change, new relationships, boredom, loneliness, and other hurdles.  If you believe your spousal relationship might be salvaged, I believe you should make the attempt.

Even the marriages of well-intended, caring people sometimes fail.  There is a difficult number everyone should know.  Over the next forty years, a married couple’s statistical probability of divorce is sixty-seven percent.  Divorce is dramatically painful and can injure you and your children permanently.  So, in my view, it is worth taking steps, starting today, to prevent that all-too-common outcome.

John Gottman researches human relationships at the University of Washington.  He runs the “love lab,” an apartment overlooking Portage Bay, across the canal from the University.  There couples stay the weekend, subject to constant surveillance, except for bed and bath.  Based upon years of examining these electronic records, Dr. Gottman writes of seven principles that make marriage work.  His book is Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work.  If you profit from Dr. Gottman's thoughts, you might also want to consider reading his text about fixing relationships generally:  The Relationship Cure.

According to Dr. Gottman, successful marriages emerge from deep friendships.  All friends have positive and negative experiences of one another.  People stay intimate friends by finding ways to make their positive feelings overwhelm their negative feelings.  One builds an excellent marriage by building an excellent friendship with one’s spouse.  Dr. Gottman calls this the “emotionally-intelligent” marriage.

Principle One:  Learn all about one another.  Don’t learn by osmosis, waiting for information to seep in over years.  Be active.  Ask.  Be persistent.  Learn everything about your spouse.

Principle Two:  Nurture your fondness for and admiration of one another.  Happily married people like and admire one another.  Appreciate one another.  Say it out loud.  Protect your view of your past together.  Keep it positive.

Principle Three:  Turn toward one another, not away.  This is not advice about how to fight.  This is a rule for every interaction.  Do the little things.  Touch one another.  Listen attentively.  Give a peck on the cheek.  Build your emotional bank account.  There will be hard times enough to deplete your account.  Be rich in good feelings about one another.

Principle Four:  Let your partner influence you.  Guide one another.  This is especially important for men.  Our culture has a chauvinistic bent.  Reject that.  Let your spouse influence you.  Wives are much more likely to bring up sticky marital issues than husbands.  So listen to and talk with your wife.  Wives, husbands, though often relationally dense, may persuade you.  Yield to one another.  No sulking.  No withdrawal.  No recriminating.  Work with one another.

Principle Five:  Solve your solvable problems.  Some problems you will face cannot be fixed.  Accept that and make the best of them.  Others problems can be fixed.  Fix those.  Learn which of your problems is which.  Start difficult conversations gently.  Welcome attempts to apologize and make relational repairs.  Soothe yourself and one another.  Compromise.  Tolerate the annoying parts of one another.  Husbands, do some housework.  Wives, don’t nag.  Neither partner should take sex problems personally.  People’s needs and bodies change with time.  Adjust.  Learn what your partner needs.  Strive to negotiate with one another better and better over time.

Principle Six:  Overcome communication gridlock.  Two people marry.  When they disagree, it is necessarily gridlock.  One overcomes marital gridlock by starting dialogue, not by fixing everything.  Often, gridlock sprouts from broken dreams.  Learn one another’s dreams.  Help one another realize dreams.  Dreams cannot be buried.  They surface as gridlock.

Principle Seven:  Create shared meaning.  Shared meaning is the essence of marriage.  Make an inner life that thrills both of you.  That inner life will have spiritual dimensions.  Learn one another’s convictions.  Support your spouse’s values.  Create symbols of your shared meaning.  Make your life together a big neon sign silently declaring what you both care about.

Marriage takes some time to build or rebuild.  Make time for that.  Push aside less important things.  When the effort goes badly, forgive yourself, apologize, and try again.

A skilled marriage therapist can be a great help if you have trouble communicating.  Please do not believe that a marital therapist can fix your marriage.  None can.  Only you and your spouse can make the needed repairs.  But a therapist can help you stay on track, communicate fairly, and set aside regular time to work on improving your friendship.

If, in the end, you decide you need to divorce, then do so peacefully and with respect for one another.  See this website’s materials on facilitative divorce mediation and collaborative divorce for ideas about the attitudes and processes that may help you divorce with dignity.