3 Actions to Take to Save Your Marriage

Here are three commandments for the married and coupled up.

Posted Feb 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

When talking doesn't help and fights go unresolved, try at least one of these three things.  Even if you're going along swimmingly with your partner, aim to keep these three things in mind.

1. WARM THINGS UP

Warm things up?  Not everyone responds positively to this suggestion. As one therapy client put it, “I’m supposed to warm her heart and do little things to make her feel special?  Give me a break! I’ve spent most of my life being nice, and I’m not going back there.”

Sometimes we have to deliberately refrain from criticism and negativity and, instead, experiment with such virtues as kindness and generosity of spirit.  This may feel impossible when you’re the wronged party and you have a long list of legitimate complaints.  Actually, it’s not impossible. It’s just extremely difficult.

Why should you practice kindness when your partner is behaving badly?  The goal s is not to put a patina of false brightness over real problems. Rather, kindness, respect, and generosity of spirit prepare the way for authenticity, truth-telling and productive problem solving. As colleague, Marianne Ault-Riché puts it, “It’s just when your partner is being the biggest jerk that you’re called upon to be your best self.” 

2. RESPECT DIFFERENCES

Marriage requires a profound respect for differences. One of my favorite cartoons, drawn by my friend Jennifer Berman, shows a dog and a cat in bed together. The dog is looking morose and reading a book called, Dogs Who Love Too Much. The cat is saying, “I’m not distancing! I’m a cat, damn it!”

I adore this cartoon because marriage goes best when at least one party can lighten up about differences. Of course, we all secretly believe that we have the truth of the universe and that the world would be a better place if everyone were just like us.  I have this problem myself. But it is an act of maturity to recognize that differences don’t always mean that one person is right and the other is wrong.

We all view reality through different filters, depending on our class, culture, gender, birth order, genetic makeup, and unique family history. There are also differences in the habitual ways individuals manage anxiety (under stress, one person seeks togetherness while the other partner seeks distance).

“Respecting differences” doesn’t mean that we accept demeaning or unfair treatment from our partner.  It’s just to say that differences don’t necessarily mean that one person is right and one person is wrong.  Work on staying emotionally connected to a partner who thinks and feels differently than you do, without needing to convince or otherwise fix them.

3. UNDER STRESS DON’T PRESS

If you’re a talker, you may find it hard it to live with a more private do-it-yourselfer. Surely, this is a difference that makes a difference.  Maybe you admired their cool, self-reliant style when you first met, but what initially attracts us and what later becomes “the problem” are often one and the same.

While self-disclosing is one way to be intimate, it’s not the only way.  Social psychologist, Carol Tavris recalls:

Years ago, my husband had to have some worrisome medical tests, and the night before he was to go to the hospital we went to dinner with one of his best friends who was visiting from England. I watched, fascinated, as male stoicism combined with English reserve produced a decidedly unfemale-like encounter. They laughed, they told stories, they argued about movies, they reminisced. Neither mentioned the hospital, their worries or their affection for each other. They didn’t need to.

Try to appreciate the fact that you and your partner may have opposite ways of managing emotional intensity and getting comfortable.  You’ll do better engaging your partner in conversation, if you keep in mind that connection in marriage takes different forms, and love is communicated in different ways.  Maintaining privacy may not be your partner’s way of hiding out, but rather their preferred way of being in the world.  Try to welcome that “way” rather than wasting energy trying to change it.

You may not want to do all three of the above challenges, or even one of them.  It may not feel "authentic."  But too often we insist on doing what feels “real and natural,” which actually means doing what's familiar, a life on automatic pilot in a marriage on a downward course.