How to Work on a Marriage
Six steps you can do alone or with your spouse to fix your marriage and become closer.
1. Identify the main issue causing problems.
Just as a huge truck tire can become completely useless from a little hole, our marriages can be drained of love from one single issue. Love could be draining out of your marriage because of communication issues, sexual issues, financial issues, family issues, a lack of trust or forgiveness, or difficulty getting past a traumatic event. Get a piece of paper right now and in one sentence write where the leak is in your marriage.
2. Understand your spouse’s motives.
Whatever your spouse is doing, the reason is NOT to make your marriage worse. Although sometimes people end a marriage, no one wants to have a bad marriage. Getting clear about what he or she wants and is trying to have (not trying to do) will put you in a better position to help the both of you. On your paper, write down what your spouse is trying to have with his or her behavior.
3. Make a plan.
The best plans involve communicating and problem solving, as well as increasing intimacy. These are not done at the same time. For example, communication needs to happen before problem solving. Trying to do both at the same time will just shut down the communication. People often waste their time trying to find one single answer that will solve all of their problems. A multistep plan will allow you to focus on one small thing at time and will keep you from needing to figure it out as you go along. Even one session with a marriage coach at this point can make sure you are on the right path.
4. Anticipate and Prepare for Resistance.
People don’t react to change optimistically–even when those changes are beneficial to them. This includes your spouse. Expecting a bad reaction, and understanding that it is a normal and temporary adjustment will let you know that what you are doing is working. Put in your plan how you are going to deal with those expected negative reactions. They are as necessary to change as feeling sore is when you first start working out at the gym.
5. Give your spouse extra praise and attention.
It’s important that you encourage the change long before you feel like being encouraging. He or she may still have a long way to go, but if you see effort, encourage it. Try to overlook bad facial expressions and tone of voice that happens while changes are being made. They are often the last part to change.
6. Work together with your spouse after the initial improvement.
Many people try to work together too soon, before good communication. Working too soon with your spouse can cause conflict which turns your spouse off from wanting to work together. By improving communication and respect first, your efforts to work together will be more successful and more enjoyable.
A real life example
Angela knew there were things that she should do, must do, if her marriage was to improve. But she was afraid of making things even worse.
When Angela first consulted me, she said that she used to be such a positive person. However, her marriage had become so stressful that her her good mood would burst like a bubble with just one uncaring, irritated look, or one sharp tone from her husband. She felt emotionally and physically drained. She played reruns of the past over and over in her mind. She was focused on how bad her marriage was. She had little hope about improving her marriage and was contemplating ending it.
Angela had been so wrapped up in what her husband did that she hadn’t considered what her husband wanted.
Together with Angela, we listed the problems that were obvious in her marriage. Most of them had to do with a lack of sharing. They couldn’t get closer because of the protective “walls” they each had. Conflict, not sharing was the result. But, Angela knew that her husband didn’t like conflict either. And in all probability, her husband wanted the marriage to improve as much as she did. Taking some steps to improve it would help him as well as her.
Angela needed steps that she could manage
We made a step by step plan which included starting conversations with her husband, managing his responses in a positive way, learning to communicate assertively (rather than aggressively or withdrawing), problem solving, and increasing intimacy. By focusing only on one step at a time, and by knowing what to do, Angela was able to reduce her stress and be more realistic. She didn’t expect any one of her efforts to “solve” all their problems. As long as she could see progress toward that goal (restoring intimacy), she was able to be more hopeful. Angela told me that just being able to do something was very helpful.
Angela’s partner resisted, as expected
Angela told me that her husband reacted exactly as we had predicted. He was hostile and attempted to shut down her communication. Knowing how to respond to his predictable behavior really helped her not to escalate their problems. And it also helped her to gradually make the talking more productive. It helped her and her husband to be on the same side. It was only a matter of a couple of weeks before they had a long heart to heart talk.
Angela did the work
Although I taught Angela the skills, she really did the work. She praised and encouraged her husband at first just for talking with her, even though she had to work hard at not complaining. She often needed reassurance that she was on the right track, which I was happy to provide. It was the first time in her life that she had done such marriage work and I was proud of her. Together, we worked on increasing communication, and then on increasing respect. We worked on making win-win outcomes. Thanks to her persistence, Angela and her husband learned to work together and to really talk. She really did save the marriage for both of them.
What about you?
You can improve your marriage
I wish everyone could just love their partner and feel secure. But, when that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t need to be the end of their marriage. And it doesn’t have to be the end of closeness, either. Rather, it is the time to start re-creating what was lost, and to get back what both you and your spouse want–a loving and close marriage. I sincerely hope that you can do what is necessary to have that for yourself. And, if you want my help, I will be happy to help you, too.