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Marriage Problems? Here's an 8-Step Rescue Plan

Looking back, was your marriage once happier than it is now?

Key points

  • Marriage problems should not be ignored.
  • Steps to address problems include making a list of your disagreements and learning how to express your concerns constructively.
  • It’s also important to learn to make decisions cooperatively and increase positive energy toward your partner.
This post is in response to
Am I Heading for a Bad Marriage? My Spouse Is So Annoying
(c) photography33/fotosearch
Source: (c) photography33/fotosearch

Marriage problems need fixing, not ignoring.

I am a psychologist who specializes in marriage rescue for couples facing marital problems. When couples first contact me for help with their marriage, they typically feel distressed—even hopeless—about their relationship. If they can look back and remember good times that occurred earlier in their partnership, however, that usually signals that the marriage can be saved. In fact, this kind of marriage still has the potential to become exactly the kind of partnership the couple had hoped for when they said, "I do."

What transitions couples from desperation about their difficulties to delight in sharing their lives together? Here’s the 8-step pathway along which I guide my therapy clients—and which you are welcome to take as well.

1. Make a list of all the issues about which you have disagreements.

This includes the issues that you refrain from talking about out of fear that talking might lead to arguing. Your self-help treatment will be complete when you have both found mutually agreeable solutions to all of these issues and have learned the skills to resolve new issues as they arise with similarly win-win solutions.

If the list seems interminable because you fight about everything—from where you should live to the time of day—odds are, the problem is less that you are facing some extraordinarily challenging differences; rather, it's more likely that your manner of talking with each other needs a major upgrade.

2. Fix your focus solidly on yourself.

Attempts to get your partner to change invite defensiveness. No one likes being told they're doing things wrong—or, far worse, that they are a bad person. It's better by far for both of you to each use your energies and intelligence to figure out what YOU could do differently.

Here's a question that can get you started: What would enable you to stay loving and good-humored even if the frustrating pieces in your spouse’s repertoire never get an upgrade? That's how to become “self-centered” in the best sense. If both of you are seeking to facilitate your own upgrades, the marriage will blossom.

3. Cut the crap.

Pardon my language. But the point is that negative muck that you give each other is totally unhelpful. It only taints a positive relationship. That means no more criticism, complaints, blame, accusations, anger, sarcasm, mean digs, snide remarks…get it?

No more anger escalations either. Stay in the calm zone. Exit early and often if either of you is beginning to get heated. Learn to calm yourself, and then re-engage cooperatively.

Research psychologist John Gottman has found that marriages generally survive if the ratio of good to bad interactions is 5 to 1. Do you want to barely survive? Or do you want to save the marriage in a way that will make it thrive? If thriving is your goal, aim for 100,000,000:1. That means: don’t sling mud at all. Cut the crap.

4. Learn how to express concerns constructively.

A simple way to do that in sensitive conversations is to stick with the following sentence-starter options. In my clinical work, I give couples a handout that includes these starter phrases. I encourage them to use the handout frequently, checking how to start each comment that might be sensitive or on topics that they know could be prickly. Please feel free to download the full 6-sentence-starters guide; click here and scroll down.

  • I feel... [followed by a one-word feeling such as "anxious," "sad," etc.]
  • My concern is…
  • I would like to… [note: NEVER use "I would like you to…"]
  • How would you feel about that? or What are your thoughts on that?

5. Learn how to make decisions cooperatively.

I call collaborative decision-making the “win-win waltz.” Win-win decision-making aims for a plan of action that pleases you both. No more insistence designed to “get your way.” Instead, when you have differences, quietly express your underlying concerns, listen calmly to understand your partner’s concerns, and then create a solution that's responsive to both of your concerns.

Practice this skillset on all the issues you listed in step 1. You may be amazed to discover that, even on issues that seemed intractable, you will be able to co-create solutions that will work for both of you.

6. Eliminate the three A’s that ruin marriages.

Affairs, Addictions, and excessive Anger are deal-breakers. They are out-of-bounds in a healthy marriage. Fix the habit—or it's game over.

If you or your spouse has these problems, saving this kind of marriage could be a mistaken goal. Better to end a marriage than to continue a marriage with these hurtful habits. Better yet is for each of you to figure out what you can do differently in the future. The one with the A-habit needs to figure out how to end it. The partner needs to heal, and also to learn alternatives to tolerating the habit.

Most importantly, especially if you have children who need you to learn how to be more emotionally healthy as individuals and as a couple, is for the two of you both to commit to building a new kind of marriage.

That is, end the old marriage. Build a new one with the same partner. Build a marriage where there are zero affairs, addictions, or excessive anger and instead, abounding love and trust.

7. Radically increase the positive energies you give your partner.

Smile more. Touch more. Hug more. More “eye kisses.” More sex. More shared time and shared projects. More appreciation. More dwelling on what you like about your partner.

Respond more often with agreement in response to things your partner says that in the past you might have answered with, “But...” Listening is loving—especially when you are listening to take in information, not to show what's wrong with what your partner says or to show that you know more.

Help out more. Give more praise and more gratitude. Do more fun activities together. Laugh and joke more, do new things, and go new places together.

The best things in life really are free. And the more positives you give, the more you’ll get. I wrote above about Gottman's 5:1 ratio. Increasing the positives is every bit as important as decreasing negatives to hit a 100,000,000:1 ratio.

8. Look back at your parents' marriage and assess its strengths and weaknesses. Decide what you want to do differently.

When people marry, they bring along a recording in their head of how their parents treated each other, as well as how they were treated by their parents. These relationships are where folks learn patterns of interacting for intimate relationships. Decide consciously what to keep from your folks and what to do differently.

Ready to Get Started?

Would you expect to drive a car without first taking drivers’ ed? Search out books and marriage courses to learn the communication and conflict resolution skills for marriage partnership. Then in addition to ending your marriage problems, you’ll make your partnership a loving success.

(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

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