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

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

Posted Mar 18, 2013

Marriage problems need fixing, not ignoring.
(c) photography33/fotosearch
Source: (c) photography33/fotosearch

I am a psychologist who specializes in marriage rescue for couples facing marriage problems.  When couples first contact me for marriage help, they typically feel distressed and even hopeless about their relationship. If they can look back and remember earlier good times however, that usually signals a marriage that can be saved.  In fact, this kind of marriage has potential to become 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, including 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 found mutually agreeable solutions to all of these issues, and also 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 time of day to where to live, odds are the problem is less that you are facing some challenging differences, and more 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.   Better by far for both of you each to 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 do your own upgrades, the marriage will blossom.

3. Cut the crap (Pardon please my language).  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 welcome 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's your thoughts on that?

5. Learn how to make decisions cooperatively.  I call collaborative decision-making the “win-win waltz.”  Download a handout about how to do the win-win waltz by clicking here and scrolling down.

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 responsive to all the concerns of both of you.

Practice this skill-set 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 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 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, and also 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?  Take this free marriage skills assessment. Then focus in and learn the skills you need to make you a stronger candidate for marriage success. 

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


Further online resources:  Dr. Heitler's website that teaches the skills for marriage success.

Prescriptions Without Dr. Heitler's website that teaches strategies for overcoming depression, anger, anxiety and addictive habits.

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the skills that sustain a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test. 

In addition, see Dr. Heitler's latest book, Prescriptions Without Pills, to learn more about how to overcome the 3-A's that destroy marriages.

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

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