How to Save a Marriage: 5 StepsThe most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. ~Theodore Hesburgh
In the past month I found out that three marriages of close friends are in trouble.
When I heard about the first one, a husband who recently left his marriage, I cried. It seemed worse than death. With death there is love. With separation or divorce, there is often anger, despair and fear.
I found out about the next one, a marriage in trouble for the second time (that I know of), and I felt sad. They had tried to improve a trouble spot, but it seems they fell backwards again. Why aren’t they holding on for dear life? I asked myself.
By the time I heard about the third one, however, I felt resignation. Or at least I didn’t feel as shocked. I suppose when you hear about something repeatedly, it no longer surprises you.
But these are all close friends. Until then, I took for granted that their marriages were working just fine. Of all my close friends and family, I know of only three divorces. I thought we all knew what it took to make our relationships work.
One of my friends felt frustrated by the lack of sex in his marriage. When it became serious enough, something was said (he couldn’t ignore it forever) and his wife responded, but eventually they settled back into coexistence.
Another friend didn’t like her husband’s grumpiness. He would snap at his wife or kids when he had a bad day. She would check in with her husband at the end of the work day. If he was grumpy, she would get the kids busy when he came home, make sure dinner was ready, or suggest exercise for him after work. She learned what it took to coexist with this moodiness. But I can’t imagine it did any good for their sex life.
In each case, it seems they tried. But they seemed to also try to make things work by ignoring what was wrong. Perhaps they each tried to open that door of conflict, and the results didn’t work for them. Maybe the pattern they’d fallen into was just too easy to return to.
This time, these crises seemed to travel so quickly. I started to wonder, are we all going through some sort of midlife crisis? No. I think it is more basic than that. I believe we sometimes take our relationships for granted until it is too late. Then, when we sense trouble, we give up rather than try to deal with the conflict.
I think we all fear the unknown. Once the door is opened to conflict or dissatisfaction, there is no telling if the space on the other side of that door is full of sunshine and roses, or if it is a cavern of unhappiness, impossible to climb out of.
I know I don’t want my own relationship to fail. If I think about it, I realize I might be afraid of the failure and the potential of never ending sadness, and I don’t want to go there. In my experience, I haven’t seen happiness come out of a failed marriage.
Marriage & Relationship Takes Work
All relationships take work if they are to survive the trials of life. And even good marriages have two personalities. Sometimes they clash, and it is up to both partners to figure out what makes them happy and what they can live with.
After I heard about our friends’ crises, I talked to my husband about things I wanted to change in our relationship. Perhaps the news triggered my own “midlife crisis,” but I think the real reason I wanted to talk was because I realized that seeing my friends’ relationships begin to crumble caused me to examine what was happening for me.
We’ve had ups and downs before. For example, after a few years raising two children, it was tough to remember the easy-going joy of our relationship pre-kids. We decided to make time for dating and discover each other again.
Whether it is a marriage or a serious relationship, it is a commitment, and like any commitment, it takes work.
I know I’ve taken parts of my own relationship for granted. It is easy to assume someone will always be there for you, but when you stop trying to thrive within a relationship, it suffers.
Relationships are complicated. Marriages are long term. They take work and commitment, like we promise in our marriage vows or understand in any long-term partnership.
Relationships are similar to careers or marathons, you can’t begin a job or take your first step at the starting line and expect to be successful to the end if you don’t give it some focus and hard work.
Why should a relationship be any different?
How to Save a Marriage in 5 Steps
Long-term relationships take work, like any other aspect of life. The work can be fun (like teasing to lighten a mood, or date-nights to reconnect), and it can be risky (like facing a fear or confronting a problem). But like career or health efforts, relationship efforts are immensely rewarding.
Just what does it take to thrive? Based on my own relationship and those around me, I have some ideas. This list isn’t inclusive. You may have other ideas that the rest of us can learn from, but here is a start.
Don’t keep it to yourself or assume your partner knows what’s troubling you. If you are bothered about something IN the relationship, focus on your feelings and what you want to see happen, not on what they are doing wrong. If the problem is outside the relationship, trust your partner to help you through your distress.
2. Create Loving Rituals
Kiss hello and goodbye each morning and evening. Make your spouse your priority for 30 seconds when you get home from work. Do you have children begging for your attention? If they are older than two they will absorb and learn from the love passing between their parents for that half-minute before they get your exclusive attention.
3. See a Counselor
Are there bigger issues in the relationship or do you have some unresolved issues from the past that affects your current relationships? See someone who can help you objectively sort through them all. If you feel yourself hesitating, remember that there is a big section in each bookstore devoted to “self-help.” You are not alone in looking for solutions to your issues.
4. Date Nights
Make a date with your partner. You may see them every day, but if “seeing them” counts as chatting while opening mail, cleaning the dishes or putting kids to bed, you need to find time to talk without distraction. Go out regularly. Make a weekly or monthly commitment and add it to your calendar.
You don’t get in shape by reading about it. Making a commitment to exercise is what keeps your body healthy. Likewise, your relationships are healthier when you devote time to them.
5. Visible Reminders
Married? Hang your framed wedding photo. Do you remember your vows? Frame them too. Not married? Find wall art that resonates with you. I recently found one that says, “’I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am with you.’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Or find one that simply says, “love.” Like a sticky note, these help to remind you of your priorities in your relationship.
I feel very fortunate most of the time. Though both my husband and I can get caught up in career, raising our children or even in our own life frustrations, we are both committed to each other, and to making our marriage work and thrive. When it comes to the big picture of our life, we both want the same things.
Little frustrations can always be worked out if they are brought into the open. Sometimes it makes sense to ignore the minor things, like socks on the floor or toothpaste in the sink, but the health of a relationship is not minor. It needs as much focus as your physical health.
What excited you about your partner when you first met them? Do you still celebrate or acknowledge that part of them?
** Do you have ideas on how to make relationships thrive? What do you do to keep it healthy? Share your thoughts, stories and wisdom with us in the comment section.