8 Ways to Save Your Marriage
Dr. Marty Tashman – Marriage Counselor
This post will give 8 ways (strategies) to help you work on saving your marriage or relationship.
These strategies are:
(click any item in the list to jump directly to the full description of the strategy)
- Understand rather than argue.
- Stay calm and aware.
- Four steps to effectively restarting a discussion after there has been a “time out”.
- Two steps to responding well to the other person’s reopening of the discussion.
- Learn how not to win an argument, but have a discussion.
- A “Do” and a “Don’t” to help you to have a win-win situation.
- Two destructive behaviors: steamrolling and stonewalling, and what to do about them.
- Go for help even if your partner won’t or isn’t ready.
At the end of this post I will give you a way to rate yourself in terms of how well you are able to use these approaches.
I’d like you to meet Risa and Ted (my imaginary clients), and you are a “fly on the wall” during our therapy sessions. Risa and Ted have two children – a boy and a girl, ages 6 and 9 respectively. Risa is 39, and works part time as a bookkeeper. Ted is 42, and is a software engineer who has recently changed jobs. They live in a two bedroom home.
Risa wants to put a new addition on the house, or move. She is feeling cramped in their home, and is concerned about the children getting older and needing their own space. Ted is worried about the expense. Having just changed jobs, he is not feeling secure. Also, he is concerned about the effort it will take for the new addition, or to move. He wants to focus his energy toward getting a handle on his new position.
Risa and Ted have grown distant from each other. Risa has put her attention toward the two children, and Ted is concentrating on his job, so he can support the family. Neither of them feel supported by the other. They don’t feel understood, and are exhausted by the demands that are being placed on them.
The conversation during our session revolves around what to do, or not do, about their living situation. Ted and Risa take turns making their case about what the family should do, and they eagerly wait for my decision to tell them what to do.
1. Understand rather than argue.
The goal of conversations about difficult issues is to understand where the other person is coming from, rather than argue and prove your point.
I ask Risa and Ted to see if they can understand each other’s point. The couple struggle stating the other person’s point of view. Once they’ve done that, I ask them to tell the other what they can agree with. Each does so, but are a bit withholding with their enthusiasm and very anxious to say “but” to restate their point of view. They then turn to me to see who I think has done the better job, and who I will agree with.
They are still having a hard time getting it; they think the answer lies with me telling them “who is right”. They will really get it when they realize it’s not about who is right, but about finding a way to have a solution that takes each person’s perspective into account.
I ask them to look at each other, and listen to the tone of voice and the level of enthusiasm each has for the other’s position. The next step is to say the other person’s point of view without adding a “but” to the conversation. Using the word “but” takes away the genuineness of their understanding of each other.
The idea here is to really see the other person’s point of view, and to make a positive emotional connection with each other. To move from “making their case”, to creative problem solving where both can feel OK about what they decide to do.
2. Stay calm and aware.
When couples are upset, nothing gets settled. The more aware that couples are of their emotional state, the more they can do to help themselves be in the best state of mind to handle sensitive situations effectively.
When Risa and Ted begin to talk about whether or not they are moving, tempers quickly flair up, and the discussion gets heated. In therapy, as I see that happening, I stop the dialog. I ask them how they are both feeling. Both are so involved in the discussion it takes them a minute to change gears.
After reflecting for a few seconds, Ted says “I’m getting frustrated.” Risa says “We are just talking. This is just how we used to talk when I was growing up.”
I respond to them that it seems like this issue is getting very heated. They both agree. I go on to say that when discussions turn into arguments, they just get worse, and nothing gets accomplished.
The strategy is that each person is mindful of their emotional temperature. When a person becomes aware that they are getting too hot, their only job at that point is calming themselves down. If someone is too upset, and calming down is not possible, it’s important to stop and call a “time out”, and not continue until both people are in a better place emotionally.
If people come from an upset place, they lose respect for the other’s concerns, and things just get worse. An angry exchange turns from a discussion into an argument.
The task in therapy is to teach couples to identify when things are turning angry, and how to stop the action before the argument becomes larger than the issue being discussed.
What’s the point of Risa and Ted moving into a new house if they don’t like each other? This couple needs to learn that it is not about winning – it is about finding a finding a solution that is comfortable for both of them.
3. Four steps to effectively restarting a discussion after there has been a “time out”.
Every couple reaches a point of frustration when talking about difficult subjects. Too often issues get swept under the rug rather than dealt with effectively. Below is a step by step guide to what can be done to reopen a discussion in a constructive way:
- Make sure you are in a calm place and not tired or rushed.
- See if you can start the conversation by acknowledging something the other person said, when you last spoke, as having validity. For example, Ted says to Risa “We really could use some more space.”
- See if you can come up with something different. Ted could say “Maybe we can set up a budget, and figure out a plan to save some money, and I can feel a little more secure in my job.”
- Give the other person a chance to respond.
4. Two steps to responding well to the other person’s reopening of the discussion.
Below are two steps to reacting well when your partner is the first to extend the olive branch:
- Be positive about your partner’s response. Risa says “I really appreciate that you’ve been thinking about how cramped we all are in the house.”
- Come up with your own new addition to the discussion. Risa says “I know we shouldn’t rush into anything, so could we look just to see what’s out there, so we know how much money we will need to move?”
We didn’t resolve the issue of moving for Risa and Ted. More importantly, we opened up a dialog so there could be a win-win – where Risa could get a feeling that her concern was being taken seriously, and Ted wouldn’t feel badly about moving before he felt a little more secure.
5. Learn how not to win an argument, but have a discussion.
It’s more important to connect with your partner than to win any argument.
Yes, I said don’t try to win an argument. If you win, that means that your partner will lose. The way to save your relationship or marriage is to figure out a solution that will make both of you feel cared about; that each person believes that what is important to them has been built in to the resolution of the problem.
The place to start: spend time figuring out what is important to your partner, and why it is important. For example:
– What is important to Risa is to have enough space for the family.
– What is important to Ted is to be financially secure.
6. A “Do” and a “Don’t” to help you to have a win-win situation.
The best model to have when there are disagreements is one where both people end up feeling cared about regardless of the outcome of the issue.
Realize that at some point your priorities overlap. For example, with Risa and Ted: both want what is best for the family.
See your partner as the enemy or trying to hurt you. Realize that what is really going on is that there are a different set of priorities. Risa and Ted love each other, but one is more focused toward the families’ actual living needs (Risa) and one is more concerned about having the finances to support those needs. Both are important and necessary to have a happy family.
To learn more about negotiation and win-win models in a relationship, you can look at my book: Negotiation for Couples: From Conflict to Connection.
7. Two destructive behaviors: steamrolling and stonewalling, and what to do about them.
When couples try to talk with each other, and end up arguing, it’s often because they use two specific bad communication strategies, that end up in disaster – they either steamroll over their partner, or “clam up” and stonewall the other person.
The Steamroller: when a person steamrolls the conversation, they dominate the “discussion”; they talk over, are loud, and talk too much.
The Stonewaller: when someone stonewalls, they retreat into silence. They may also leave the room, or their home.
It is important to identify these behaviors, and then to learn how to modify these behaviors so that the couple can learn to develop positive lines of communication to both solve problems, and connect in a loving way.
When dealing with the steamroller and the stonewaller, the therapist:
needs to help the steamroller:
- to realize how destructive to good communication being a steamroller can be.
- to become aware of their pattern.
- to be patient.
- to listen more and talk less.
needs to help the stonewaller:
- to realize how destructive to good communication being a stonewaller can be.
- to earn the trust of the stonewaller.
- to help the stonewaller become aware of their pattern.
- to support the stonewaller, and help them figure out what they want to say and then to help them to say it to their partner.
8. Go for help even if your partner won’t or isn’t ready.
The biggest mistake many people make when they want to save their relationship is waiting for the other person to come for therapy. Sure, it is helpful to have both people involved, but if one person is not ready, not doing anything will greatly increase the chance of the relationship ending, and ending badly.
As this does not apply to Risa and Ted, I’m going to introduce you to Selma and Richard.
Selma and Richard have been married for 6 years. They are both 36 years old and they have 2 children. Selma has just told Richard she wants to leave. Selma has said she is sick and tired of Richard never being home, always working late, and not helping around the house. Richard has called me, and wants to know how to convince Selma to stay in the relationship, and how to convince her to come to see me for therapy.
During our phone conversation, I help Richard recognize that Selma probably sees him as trying to talk her into both coming for therapy, and staying in the relationship. I am so pleased to see that Richard is able to understand that the best way to get Selma to want to stay, is not by telling her what to do, but to have her feel he understands her. He will be most convincing when he learns how to be more attentive to her needs, without overdoing it and hovering over her.
Together Richard and I work on him having a better balance between spending so much time at work, and hovering over her. We will take each of the areas his wife is concerned about, and figure out how best to work on them. At the same time, we will figure out what he would like from her as well.
When people are at the brink of their relationship ending, they are desperate to come for counseling, and more desperate for their partner to come with them. This is understandable, as they really want their partner to change their mind about ending the relationship. They figure that if they come to counseling, that it will encourage the person to stay, and work things out. Though their thought is an understandable one, it is probably not correct.
Over the many years of helping couples stay together, I have helped relationships to be saved by helping one person really understand their partner and figuring what to do win over the “unhappy partner”. Once one partner understands the other person, they are in a better position to make the changes necessary to save the relationship.
A good counselor can help a person improve their communication skills and teach them how to become more connected to their partner.
If you really want to save your relationship, it is important that you get the tools and support necessary to give you the best chance to turn things around. I have made a video which will help you understand that the more tools you have, the better your chances to repair the relationship.
Self Rating Scale
Below are the eight strategies I have discussed in the article. Pick the one that feels the most comfortable for you and rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 4 how well you have used that strategy. Put the date next to the rating and then try another one and date that one as well.
|Understand rather than argue.||_____|
|Stay calm and aware.||_____|
|Four steps to effectively restarting a discussion after there has been a “time out”.||_____|
|Two steps to responding well to the other person’s reopening of the discussion.||_____|
|Learn how not to win an argument, but have a discussion.||_____|
|A “Do” and a “Don’t” to help you to have a win-win situation.||_____|
|Two destructive behaviors: steamrolling and stonewalling, and what to do about them.||_____|