Marriage is hard work, and with half of them (if not more) ending in divorce, it’s easy to feel helpless when things start to go downhill within your union. According to the research of Dr. John Gottman (a.k.a “the guy that can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy”) your marriage is headed for dissolution when the four horsemen of the apocalypse are present: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. But just because you may have one or all of these aspects showing up in your relationship, does this mean that you should just give up on your vows? Also, what do you do if there’s been a case of infidelity or if your marriage is sexless? It’s difficult to decide whether you should stay or when to throw in the towel, especially under extreme circumstances. So, how do you make a relationship last and can a marriage be truly saved?
“Marriage is hard. It takes conscious effort, time and attention to keep it alive, and even when it’s been the brunt of challenging cycles or recurring painful patterns, a couple can learn the skills to not only survive, but thrive,” Joree Rose, MA, LMFT, tells Scary Mommy.
Ahead, the expert answers to your most pressing marital questions.
“When couples come to us ‘in trouble’, they’ve generally been in a negative cycle of criticism and withdrawal for a long time,” Adam M. King, MA, CLC, who operates relationship counseling services with his wife, Karissa J. King, MA, LMFT, tells Scary Mommy. “One partner constantly criticizes while the other tries to defend his or her own actions. Eventually, this leads the defending partner to withdraw and isolate.”
How do I know when a marriage is toxic?
A marriage is toxic, says Adam, when one of the three A’s are present: addiction, adultery, or abuse. Even if the three A’s are present in a relationship, Adam says a marriage can definitely be turned around. “When we see addiction, adultery, or abuse, we always recommend individual counseling first. Once there are positive outcomes and healing takes place in individual counseling, that’s a sign that it’s time to work toward re-energizing the marriage in couples counseling.”
Can I save my marriage alone?
Yes, says Adam. Sometimes it takes someone taking the reins to make it right. That is, if your partner is willing to come onboard with you eventually. “It’s amazing how one person breaking the cycle can completely re-energize the marriage,” he says. “Sometimes it takes one partner making the decision to turn things around and their spouse responds by making the same decision.” If, however, your spouse decides to stay stuck in the rut, Adam says the marriage might still exist on paper, but it will not thrive.
How do I know when a marriage is worth saving?
“A marriage is worth saving when both partners have the awareness there is a problem without defensiveness or externalizing the blame and are willing to commit to doing the work towards repair,” says Rose. “This requires a growth mindset in believing that growth and change are possible.” Meaning if either partners don’t think that they or the other can actually change, then working on the marriage is futile.
According to Rose, if one of the partners takes the stance of “this is me, love me for me” or says, “this is just who I am, and who I’ve always been, so take it or leave it,” the likelihood of you working out is slim. “You could gain the best tools in the world, but if you both are not oriented with a growth mindset and believe that it’s possible to develop new healthier habits and patterns, learn to let go of anger and resentments, and be willing to repair compassionately with your partner, then you might be wasting your time, energy, effort, and money in therapy.”
Rose adds that a marriage is worth saving when each partner is able to look at their own contribution to the marital breakdown and understand that what arises in a marriage is a co-creation. Meaning conflict, anger, resentment, and any other form of disconnection is the responsibility of both partners, not just one. Which is why it’s up to both partners to own their part in rebuilding it too.
How can I save a marriage that’s on the brink of divorce?
Karissa tells Scary Mommy that when a marriage is in the weeds, she and Adam can’t emphasize enough the value of assertive communication and active listening. “Being able to ask for what you want or need respectfully is essential. When couples come to us on the brink of divorce, we often see passive-aggressive behaviors and lots of assumptions. Regardless of the reason(s) for the disconnect, these two skills (assertiveness and active listening) are the first two skills we teach. Once healthy communication is established, discussions about the kids, finances, sex, dating, work, habits, family of origin, or any other issue can be discussed more effectively.”
How do I save my marriage after infidelity?
Rose says it’s possible to save a marriage after cheating. In fact, she has seen couples who were able to create a “new” marriage with one another. “Their version 2.0, which if they are committed to it, could even end up being a better relationship than what they started with,” she says.
Rose cites renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel as a major disruptor in relation to how she does therapy with couples when there has been an affair.
“The old paradigms would put the betrayer at 100% the fault of the affair; the new paradigm shift sees that it’s a co-creation of factors that lead to the affair, and to move past the pain and transgression requires compassion for all parties involved,” Rose says. “When the couple is committed to the process of open-hearted listening, developing compassion for their partner along with self-compassion for their own pain, be curious about the conditions that were present that allowed the transgressions to arise in the first place, it is possible to work it through. And it takes work. But both have to be committed to the work.”
While Rose admits the “work” does require time, lots of patience and transparency to not only regain trust but to peel back the layers to seek understanding of what was lurking beneath the surface, “it’s in that space that the couple will likely discover where their path went astray and uncover the core of their pain. From that place of awareness the path to rebuilding connection can begin.”
How can I save a sexless marriage?
Sexless marriages are more common than most people realize. In fact, it’s been said that 15 to 20 percent of marriages in the U.S. are sexless. So does that mean you accept your celibate fate? What if you’re someone who craves sexual intimacy? If your partner doesn’t want to have sex, do you divorce them and the wedding bed?
“A couple’s sex life is a reflection of all the layers in their relationship both inside and outside the bedroom,” says Rose. “So if you are experiencing a sexless marriage, or a sex-life that is not pleasurable, connected or intimate, it’s an indicator to look at where in the marriage there is a breakdown of communication, connection, intimacy, vulnerability, and compassion.”
In other words, sex is never just about sex. Which is why you need to be aware of what is working, and not working in the relationship. For example, says Rose, it may be hard to be vulnerable and desire sex, when you don’t feel seen, heard or validated in the relationship. And in that case, it becomes easy to use sex as a tool to defend against mounting resentments.
“Once a couple can look with open-hearted compassion to the deeper layers beneath their dissatisfying or empty sex life, they then can build the safety for being able to even talk about the sex itself,” she says. “If they are able to move past the hidden layers, then they can be more curious about other potential issues affecting their sex life, such as whether they are still attracted to one another, how their health may be affecting their libido, or are they in a rut and just need to spice things up.”
In some cases, creating more sex in your marriage might mean scheduling sex like a much-needed appointment. It also means making the effort to increase desire, connection and foreplay throughout the day that may lead to more intimacy at night. This could include buying sex toys, role playing, or talking about fantasies. Anything that brings your relationship back to connection and curiosity as you both explore your desires and needs.
Does a separation work when it comes to saving a marriage?
According to Rose, it depends on the couple and the situation. “Each couple is different and separation could be beneficial if there are clear and defined boundaries as to what the separation means,” she says. “Is it a time to date others? Sleep with others? Just have space apart? Are they still both actively involved in co-parenting? What’s the financial arrangement when living apart. These are all areas that many couples don’t consider during separation, but definitely impact the end goal of what they are trying to achieve from the time apart.”
Karissa adds that it’s essential for couples to also specify the duration of the separation period. “Oftentimes, it can be helpful to separate for a determined amount of time in order to work toward individual growth – key word: determined. We’ve seen separation periods go bad and it almost always has to do with couples not setting a specified time to come back and re-evaluate. If someone doesn’t have the goal of growth and healing in mind and a time to be accountable for that growth and healing, they’ll often become distracted with work, bad advice, and ‘rebound heroes’ entering their life.”
Rose says that a separation can be successful when it’s used as a “a cooling off period to take a pause on the tension, or as a trial period apart so the couple can practice, or ‘try on’ how it feels to not live together. A separation can also be a trial in seeing how the finances could work in two homes.” And while she says she hasn’t seen separation as being a beneficial stepping stone to repair the marriage from her experience, with many of them leading to more divorces than reconciliations, “having some space to not be in the constant war zone (if the marriage has come to that) can serve a purpose, as when we are stressed, anxious, angry or overwhelmed it is hard to think straight and make clear decisions.”
However, Rose does say that by the time a couple has come to the point of considering separation, they are likely too far past the point of authentic reconciliation, as couples often wait way too long to start counseling.
Written by Brianne Hogan.