People involved in a failing marriage have two choices: to try saving the marriage, or to end it. A marriage needs regular maintenance if it’s going to run smoothly. Like any other well-oiled machine, if it doesn’t get tended to regularly, then what started out as small cracks, dings and scratches can lead to damage that is much more serious. Issues in a marriage are the same way; small annoyances that are often swept aside because the couple is busy, frustrated, distracted or simply not paying attention can lead to problems that could compromise the happiness of your marriage. Protect the marriage before it begins to fail.
In his book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” (see Resources), John Gottman discusses the significance of communicating and building a toolbox for communicating with a spouse. Amazingly enough, when two people get married it doesn’t come with a handbook on how to talk when both partners are busy and overwhelmed with financial concerns, household chores, parenting and general life. The communication exercises that Dr. Gottman advocates are based on his extensive research into relationships and human interaction.
While some advice seems rather standard—make time to talk to each other, use “I” language and table heated discussions until both partners can be rational—his other advice provides couples with real work to dig into the meat of their marriage in order to identify areas of communication breakdown. For example, it’s important to discuss your goals, both individual goals and the ones you have as a couple. Marriages fail for a lot of reasons, but forgetting how to talk to each other doesn’t have to be one of them.
Compliments over Criticism
It’s so easy to point out what a spouse is doing wrong, particularly if a husband does things differently from a wife. Whether it’s how the steak is cooked to how laundry is sorted to what type of lightbulbs to buy, people make different choices based on different experiences. Just because a husband does something different from a wife does not make him wrong, lazy, stupid or inconsiderate. The same is true for wives. Just because a wife wants things done a certain way does not make her a nag, a witch or a shrew. Using those labels indicates that criticism is more pervasive in the marriage than compliments are—and there’s a limit to how much criticism a person can tolerate, no matter how much she loves you.
Compliments are vitally important to a marriage. If a marriage is struggling, heaping more blame on one spouse or the other is like throwing more tinder on the bonfire—it’s hardly going to put it out or bring it under control. Compliments and kindness, on the other hand, can go a long way toward damping the flames. Consider making a list of all the things a spouse does right, all the things a spouse does that are appreciated, and then take that list a step forward and make sure the spouse knows about it. Nine times out of ten, most spouses can tell what annoys their significant others, but they struggle to name what they do right.
Time outs from a marriage do not mean trial separations. They mean stepping back from the negativity, the anger, the regret and the hurt and catching a literal and figurative breath. For example, if an argument is going in circles and is becoming a scorecard of wrongdoings, you’re not arguing productively; dwelling on who did what to whom is just going to create more injury and more hurt. A time out from a fight can mean tabling the entire discussion and doing something together that both partners will enjoy.
Go out to a movie, go to a comedy club or go out for a nice dinner at a restaurant. Decide firmly that no discussion or arguments about current problems is allowed. Discuss trivial things or other areas of life that interest you. Treat the night like a first date if necessary, but try to laugh together and remember for a few hours what attracted you to each other. While this time out will not resolve the issues in the marriage, for a failing marriage it can provide the necessary breathing room so that one or both partners can want to really communicate rather than fight.
Marriage counseling is an obvious answer, but not an easy one for all couples to broach. Marriage counseling can be expensive, and many insurance carriers won’t cover it. So paying for the counseling is a commitment. and without the appropriate financial planning may exacerbate problems related to financial issues. Second, finding a marriage counselor that suits both husband and wife can also be a challenge. Both must feel comfortable talking to the counselor and both must feel that the counselor is understanding. The last thing a couple needs is the feeling that the counselor is taking one side over the other.
Thirdly, counseling is a commitment to avert failure. What turns many couples off of marriage counseling is the realization that by committing to counseling, the couple is committing to making the marriage work. It can be an intimidating prospect, particularly if one or both spouses are uncertain the marriage can be saved. For couples who want to try, consider working with a therapist for six to twelve weeks. Give it a genuine effort, more often than not; the cost and the effort are worth it.
Grief and Letting Go
When a marriage fails whether the marriage lasted six months, six years or six decades, it takes a reasonable amount of grief for both spouses to let go. Mourning a marriage can take spouses through all the stages of grief from anger to denial to acceptance. It is important to recognize that it is okay to mourn a failing marriage and it is okay to feel grief for the lost relationship. Sharing that grief together can help couples repair part of their relationship, allowing them to maintain a friendship and a closeness, if not a marriage.