Marriage is easy when your relationship is good. Sure, you argue sometimes, but problems are easier to solve when you feel like you're in it together. But what about when your relationship is struggling? Overcoming the challenges every couple faces can feel nearly impossible when there's a canyon between you.
I know, because I've been there.
When my husband and I were in a bad space, I felt like all the advice I got was useless. "Talk it out"? Every conversation we had turned into a fight. "Don't go to bed angry"? Then we'd never sleep. When you're that unhappy, the only thing that feels right is to escape. But you can't. Not if you want to try to save your marriage.
As hard as it seems, it is possible do the tough work of coming back together, even when you're drowning in bad feelings. For my husband and me, it took going to marriage therapy and committing to trying everything the therapist suggested before we gave up. And we're so glad we did.
"I do" means really doing it.Unsplash.com
Here are six things we learned about how to save a marriage that worked for us in the end:
1. Stop believing in unconditional love
When you become comfortable in marriage, it's easy to take out bad feelings on your spouse. After all, you can't snap at or pick a fight with your boss or a family member, but your spouse is right there waiting when you get home. And that person, unlike your boss or mother-in-law, has committed to loving you forever --- no matter what.
But the notion of committing to unconditional love is a myth. If you treat your spouse badly, if you take out your bad day on them or spend all your time venting (and none of your time building your partner up), they are eventually going to stop loving you. I remember telling our marriage therapist that it seemed like the problem in our relationship was that we didn't have unconditional love. He smiled and said, "Of course you don't! Unconditional love is for our kids, not our spouses."
It was a revelation. I wasn't always going to love him and he wasn't always going to love me. That piece of paper bonding us by law wasn't some sort of guarantee, it was just a commitment we made to keep trying, even when things got tough. So, stop expecting unconditional love when you're being mean, unfair or cruel. Instead, work together to build a strong love that can weather powerful storms.
2. Think before you speak
If this seems obvious, that's because it is. You learned it in kindergarten, and you already know how to do it. You probably do it all day long. When we're out in the world, we tend to be careful with our words. We actively try not to be hurtful and often consider how to make people feel good with what we say. But when we're at home, especially when a relationship is in crisis, we just let it rip. Often it's out of laziness, but it may also stem from a sense of entitlement. Sort of like, "This is my spouse who knows me and loves me, and I shouldn't have to be so careful."
But entitlement and laziness are like poison to your marriage's happiness, and as I said up above, your spouse isn't obligated to love you unconditionally. You need to be careful and thoughtful with your partner --- especially when your marriage is in trouble. This doesn't mean you walk on eggshells or hide your feelings. It just means thinking through the best way to say what you need to say and keeping unnecessarily hurtful thoughts to yourself.
3. Create an imaginary "pause" button that either of you can use during a fight
Our therapist taught us that nothing good happens when your blood pressure is on the rise. So, how do you know when you're too mad to talk? You can feel it. Your heart races, your face gets hot, you may clench your fists or pace aimlessly. Everyone is different, but those signs often mean it's time to walk away.
Don't get me wrong, walking away is going to be hard. And it can be hard to be the one left in the room when the other person takes a break. That's why you use your pause button. The trick here is to establish your pause button before your next fight, so that nobody feels abandoned. Plan to say something like, "I feel like I'm getting really angry, so I'm going to hit the pause button. Let's check back in an hour." The pause button is neutral. It doesn't mean you're leaving the relationship, or even the conversation. The pause button doesn't place blame, it just means that you know you won't be productive and you want to wait until you feel better.
If you have abandonment issues, you might feel an urge to chase after your spouse when they've hit the pause button, but you need to be strong and respectful. As long as you know when they're coming back, you can reassure yourself that you will be heard when tempers have settled a bit. Your partner didn't pause the fight because of a lack of love --- they paused it because they love you too much to have a non-productive conversation.
4. Let go of resentments
The quickest way to kill a relationship is by refusing to let things go. I know this because I have a tendency to do it myself, as does my husband, and it almost ended our marriage. So, how do you let go of resentments? It's not like there's a magic wand you can wave and the bad feelings all just go away.
I assume it's different for everyone, but for me, letting go is only possible when I figure out why I'm holding on instead of moving forward. Generally, it's either because I don't want to be wrong (or have him think I'm wrong) or because I feel safer when I'm angry. As if holding on to a past hurt is going to protect me from being vulnerable.
For example, one time I got a flat tire on a canyon road in the rain. I had two of my little kids in car seats and couldn't do anything, as the shoulder was too narrow to try to change the tire myself. I called my husband, hoping he would come get the kids or at least keep us company while we waited for AAA. He didn't, even when it took an hour for assistance to show up. I was steaming mad and profoundly hurt. I felt abandoned.
Years later, I was still bringing up that example up during fights. I thought I had moved on, but I really hadn't. Instead, I held on to that memory as "proof" that I couldn't trust my husband --- or even proof that he didn't love me. The resentment had a purpose: To keep me safe, to keep me from asking him for help, and even to keep myself from expecting him to truly love me. All of this was so that I wouldn't be hurt or surprised again if he didn't show up for me. Once I unpacked all of that, I was able to make the conscious choice to let it go. Or at least to try to let it go. Growth doesn't happen overnight, but you have to start somewhere.
5. Invest in your marriage like you invest your money
A strong marriage happens when both partners contribute to the happiness of your relationship. And just like saving for your future, it can't happen unless you choose to make contributions. Dr. Gottman, a couples therapist and relationship expert, set out to discover why some marriages are happy and some are not. What he found is a total game-changer when it comes to long-term happiness.
Turns out, there is a "winning" ratio for good vs. bad experiences in relationships. People who reported the greatest happiness had five good interactions for every bad one with their spouse. Good interactions might be things like a hug, a snuggle on the couch, a kind word, a gift, or an expression of gratitude. A bad interaction might be something like a fight, a snappish retort, or a short-tempered phone conversation.
Once you know this "magic" ratio, you can do your part to contribute to the good interactions in your relationship. Say something nice, grab your spouse's hand and smile, do whatever little things you know your partner likes. If you don't know what tiny things would make your partner smile, ask! Sure, it's hard to take that first step when you're angry or in a bad space, but give it a try. It feels pretty good.
6. Stop hanging out with people who undermine your relationship
It has been shown that relationship unhappiness increases when the people around you are unhappy in their relationships. As the New York Post reports, "According to a study conducted across three U.S. universities, you're 75 percent more likely to get divorced if at least one member of your close friendship circle ends their marriage." Yikes! That doesn't mean you ditch your best friend when she's going through a divorce, but if she's the "misery loves company" type, this is a good time to have a heart-to-heart with her and establish some boundaries.
When my husband and I decided not to get divorced, I took stock of my friendships and decided to leave behind the ones that actively undermined my marriage. It may sound heartless, but I knew that in the end I would do anything to keep my family together. Now I have deep, rewarding friendships with people who love my husband and who understand that our marriage and family come first. Not only is my marriage happier, my friendships are happier and more rewarding.
Don't get me wrong, saving your marriage is never easy, and you can't do it alone. Your partner has to be willing to do the hard work and make some serious changes, too. But regardless of whether you're working on your marriage together or on your own, it'll be worth it in the end to know that you gave it everything you could.
Commit to being a couple. Unsplash.com
Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose writing has appeared on sites like Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Babble,YourTango, and Bright Magazine. Follow Joanna Schroeder on Twitter @iproposethis [https://twitter.com/iproposethis]