What Makes Marriages Get Better

What Makes Marriages Get Better

Divorce specialist Roberta Morrison

Roberta Morrison

You and your partner are no longer close to each other. You don’t feel that there’s any love, understanding or quality communication between you. You think that your marriage is a disaster and it will inevitably come to a divorce. It seems like there is nothing you can do to save it. Is it really this dramatic? Or are there ways to save the marriage and make it even better than it was before the crisis? In this article, we are going to look at things that can make families get better, even after they’ve come to the edge of break-up.

You have to be ready to make a lot of changes in your marriage, your behaviour and in your attitude. Patience and lots of desire to improve your marriage are needed. Some things will make perfect sense, some will seem quite unusual to do, but these are the top tips from the best experts that will help you save your marriage. Worth trying? Definitely!

Communication

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? However, many people tend to underestimate the importance of good quality communication for a good marriage. The experience of happy couples proves, though, that open and deep conversations can solve or even prevent many issues in marriage. So, what do you need to talk about?

The answer is sweet and simple - anything that you think deserves attention. Your working day, things that you need to do at home, the kids’ school issues and schedules - everything that is related to everyday life should be discussed first. As far as household duties are concerned, it’s even more important to have a talk about them. Many marriage counselors report that their clients often have troubles because they can’t decide who is responsible for what. Let your partner know what you are willing and able to do, what you would like them to do and what you could hire someone for. This way you will reduce the number of conflicts over small, insignificant matters.

It’s not enough to talk solely about the everyday routine, important though it is. Make sure you know your partner’s goals, dreams, hopes, and fears, what they are thinking about and how they see the future, and of course, about their feelings. Try to build a vision together and find a place for each other in the future you are moving towards.

A conversation is a convenient moment not only to tell your partner about your needs, but also to give them a chance to share. And when you hear a request, do your best to fulfill it as soon as you can. This will show your partner that they are important to you and motivate them to do the same for you. It’s also a great idea to ask your partner what else they need to feel happier and loved.

How should you communicate to improve the relationship? It’s very important to be respectful and kind to your spouse. Use ‘I messages’ - say more ‘I’ than ‘you’ when talking about your feelings and needs. For example, ‘I feel lonely without you’ instead of ‘you spend all your time with your friends, and you never think about me’. Make your family a place where anyone can express their thoughts, needs, emotions and feelings and be heard. Remember, no one has the superpower of reading minds. Thus, we are given language to communicate with each other. This is the only way to get through to your partner and the sooner you start, the better.

Negotiating, Not Fighting

But what if communication is constant torture? One of the most peculiar things about pre-divorce couples is that they always fight. No matter what they are doing or what is going on around them, they constantly argue with each other. It seems that the only time they stop is when they are sleeping! (Often separately, when someone moves to the living room couch).

It would be silly to say ‘Just stop fighting with each other!’. Chances are people do have a reason for arguing - they have resentment and complaints that have accumulated throughout the years they’ve been together. Moreover, arguing is actually a good thing. No arguments at all is, in itself, a sign of an upcoming divorce. So, if cutting out the bickering doesn’t work, try a different approach: treat your arguments not as battles but as negotiations where both sides are interested in finding a solution that fits each party.

The very first rule of a fair fight is avoiding ‘absolute’ words like ‘always’ and ‘never’. It’s an easy thing to say ‘You are always so rude with me’ or ‘You never listen when I ask you to do things’ when you are angry. Reality is not like this, however. If you notice that you’ve started acting irrationally or saying things you don’t really mean, stop for a second, inhale, exhale, and take your words back before it’s too late. If the breathing didn’t work, ask your spouse to take a break in the conversation. Though remember that it’s important to come back to the topic once you calm down.

In addition, you can establish a rule like this with your spouse: if one of you says something offensive, you have a chance to take it back within some time (10 minutes, for example) before the other one gets offended. You also can use a code word to let each other know that a line has been crossed. It might be ‘take it back’ or ‘that’s too far’, or even ‘armadillo’ (this one will reduce the tension as well). The point is to remember that you are not enemies fighting each other; you are partners fighting together against some problem.

To have these healthy arguments, you need to know the golden rule: criticize behaviors, not personality. No one likes to be told that something is wrong with them. And when you say something like ‘You are so lazy’ or ‘How could you be so stupid?’ the only reaction you will get is defensiveness and aggression. Your words should not be aimed at who they are, but to their actions. Moreover, you should let your partner know what exactly you don’t like about their behavior and why: ‘When you don’t return my calls I get worried, and that’s why it makes me angry. Could you please at least send me a text when you are too busy to call?’ Requests like this will not be viewed as attacks, because they do not allocate blame, but rather share your feelings in a reasonable manner.

When giving your spouse feedback, be ready to accept similar feedback from them. We are all humans, and we all make mistakes from time to time. You have to not only be able to admit when you are wrong, but also work on changing your behavior. It’s a very tempting position to place sole blame on your partner for all the issues in your marriage. But remember, it takes two to build a relationship. And if there is something wrong, the responsibility is always shared. So when you receive criticism from your partner, don’t take a defensive stance, and don’t deny what they are saying; accept it and try to change your behavior to make your partner feel more comfortable.

Following these rules of a safe and healthy argument, you will definitely make your marriage better by reducing the number of conflicts and applying new communication skills. But, there is the flip side that also must be considered - praising your partner when warranted.

Gratitude as a Habit

You didn’t fall in love with a ‘stupid jerk who never does the dishes after dinner’, did you? And she wasn’t ‘a crazy bossy woman controlling every step of yours’, was she? When the relationship was in its early days, you tended to notice all the good things about your partner and were grateful for what they did for you. So what has changed? ‘Because we’ve been together for too long and I am tired of him/her’ isn’t a valid answer.

You need to reestablish your habit of gratitude. This may sound a bit unnatural at first, especially if the only things you’ve said about each other lately are just harsh words and criticism. When you argue all the time, you have no resources left with which to show your love. Thus, you have to bring positive energy back into your marriage to change the situation.

We often think that if we give someone too much praise for what they do, the person will relax and stop doing it. Or that they will lose their desire to improve without our precious criticism. But in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Psychological studies prove that positive motivation and good words are better tools for development than calling out what people do wrong. Relationship expert and licensed psychotherapist Christina Steinorth-Powell says that not hearing words of appreciation makes partners feel resentment and leads to problems in marriage. This doesn’t mean that you have to be silly and overly excited about every little step your spouse takes. Instead, you should pay attention to what they do instead of what they don’t do for you. A study done at the University of Washington reports that you need to keep the ratio of good and bad things you notice at 5:1 or better. If it drops, you increase your chances of divorce, which is definitely not your goal now.

So start small: tell your wife that the breakfast was excellent, thank your husband for taking out the trash. Even though these deeds seem simple and routine, they do create comfort and shape the environment you live in. And if your spouse makes your life better and easier in some way, why not tell them about it? Gradually expand your gratitude to all the areas of your life. You’ll see how a grumpy and suspicious expression on your partner’s face will change into a smiley one.

If it’s way too difficult for you to express gratitude to your spouse, try to “tune” your thinking to it first. Give yourself a few minutes every day to think about all the investments your husband/wife has made and continues to make in your marriage. What are the things you appreciate most? What would be impossible for you to do without them? Train your brain to notice what your partner is doing for you, and you should see your family start to recover from the current crisis.

What you could also do here is remember the early days of your relationship and bring up the past, not in a negative but a positive way. You will definitely get a better reaction from your partner if you say something like ‘I remember how well you planned our dates when we were just starting out together. That restaurant we went to for our second date was lovely!’ instead of ‘Why don’t we ever go out together anymore?’. Remembering why you fell in love with the person in the first place will be a good vaccine for divorce. Especially if the reason you’re thinking about it is that you can’t find enough reasons why you are with this person. Give yourself some time to think about why you chose your husband or wife. And don’t forget to share your thoughts with them.

The Time Investment

Marriage is one of the most long-term projects one can have in their life (ideally - a life-long project). Like any other venture, it demands investments of all kinds. But one of the most important is time. Make sure you give enough of it to your family, especially now that you are trying to save your marriage. “The marriage is number one… Make it first. Make it top” says Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., co-author of Making Marriage Simple. Every other area of your life will improve when your relationship with your spouse gets better.

So, set aside some time every day that belongs only to you and your spouse. It can be 30 minutes every evening before going to bed where you discuss the day’s news. It can be also a conversation over morning coffee about your plans for the day. The main point is that at this moment your attention and thoughts should be devoted to your spouse.

Following that, try to have at least one day or at least an evening a week that will belong only to the two of you. Go to a dancing class, get a room in a fancy hotel, go camping in the nearest forest. The choice is up to you. The point is to switch off from all the troubles of life and share some quality time with the person you (hopefully) still love.

Finding some hobbies and interests in common will also improve your relationship. According to Shelly Gable, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, excitement and thrilling activities are a way to reinforce the feelings in marriage. You can learn new languages together, discover new cooking recipes, attend weekly drawing classes – the list goes on. But remember that the hobby should excite both of you equally.

While you’re looking for some hobbies you’ll share, don’t forget to be kind and respectful towards the interests your partner has on their own. Listen, support and show that you care, even if it’s something they can talk about for hours. This is one more way to invest your time and energy in the most important relationship in your life. After all, you would prefer it if your partner showed interest in your hobbies, wouldn’t you?

Physical Closeness

Here is a robust indicator of a marriage crisis - people stop having physical interaction with each other. And we are not just talking about sexual intimacy, but also touching each other, kissing, holding hands and all the other adorable signs of affection. Getting it all back to your relationship is a very effective way to repair the marriage.

In a way, it’s all about hormones. Physical contact makes your body release dopamine and oxytocin, which are responsible for the feelings of happiness and attachment to your partner. And the coolest thing is that they are released even if you didn’t feel like hugging and kissing at first but when you actually start, you want more. Your body reacts automatically, and then you get the positive emotions that these hormones bring. In this way, physical contact with your spouse creates stronger connection and intimacy. So, try to sit closer to each other on the couch, hug and cuddle in your bed, give your spouse a touch on the cheek or occasionally stroke their shoulder - this will all make you feel closer.

And naturally, when there are hugs and kisses, there might be something more in the offing. Many people report that their sex life is one of the most important aspects of the marriage, so you should try not to neglect this side of your relationship. But, don’t force neither your partner, nor yourself to have great marathons. Clinical sexologist and marriage therapist Kat Van Kirk advocates for "removing the expectation of having long, technical lovemaking sessions." The point is that you should both relax and not try too hard. Instead, give your spouse all of you. Even if the process doesn’t last long. Focus on the quality, not the quantity or duration. Create a safe and trusting relationship between you, especially in bed.

Keeping Your Marriage Private

This privacy should apply on many levels: from being faithful to perceiving what is going on in your family confidentially. It is even more important to save a marriage from external destruction factors when there are enough internal ones as it stands.

It goes without saying that infidelity destroys marriages. Having an affair may seem like a solution. A new person will come into your life and will make you happy. But this strategy won’t work. You need to get rid of the thought that the grass is greener on the other side. There will be always a common denominator among the relationships with your spouse, your colleague or a smiling fitness coach at the gym. And that denominator is you. Remember, if you want to change your life, the first thing you should change is yourself. Thus trying to replace your spouse with someone else instead of solving your own issues won’t help. It will only cause pain and remorse in the long run.

As the family unit is probably one of the most intimate things in life, there are no other people that should be involved in the issues of your marriage. The only exception is a family counselor. No one knows what’s best for you and your family. Only you and your partner do. Meanwhile, a mistake many couples on the edge of divorce make is that they often start discussing their marital issues with everybody around them: parents, friends, colleagues and so on. Telling others about your issues will not solve the problem; this is quite obvious. And it will actually create one more problem: your partner’s ego will be hurt and instead of concentrating on a solution and negotiating, they will come up with ways to repair their self-esteem and reputation. So no matter how tempted you are to call your bestie and complain about what he/she did wrong again, try to talk to your partner and find a solution together.

In addition, this is probably not the first crisis you’ve had in your relationship. And if you are reading this article now, you probably dealt with the previous ones in some way. So you are generally able to forgive and forget about things that cause you problems. Other people may not forget what your husband did wrong 5 years ago and may not forgive him for it. Think about this when you feel like telling somebody about the problems in your marriage.

Maintaining privacy also means that you should avoid arguing with your spouse in front of other people. Your spouse committed to being with you at moments like this, but they don’t have to go through the humiliation of being yelled at by you in front of other people. If you want to have a constructive argument, wait till you are alone with your partner and discuss everything you need to with them.

Both you and your partner should be confident that your family system contains trust and is a safe place to express emotions. So make sure you do everything you can to protect this privacy in your marriage. And if you want to tell the rest of the world about your partner, why not choose a positive thing to tell. This would remind you why you are together and could be one more way to compliment your spouse.

Alright, you seem to have tried everything but your marriage still isn’t improving. Does this mean you should give up? There is one more asset you should turn to before making the final decision. And this is seeking help from a professional.

Family Counseling

Many people see going to a family therapist or a professional counselor as a defeat; as an admission that they have failed in their marriage. When in fact it’s the opposite - seeking help as soon as you see the first signs of a problem is a way not just to save your family, but also to make it happier and stronger than before.

Statistics show that, on average, couples start family therapy during the sixth year of marriage. But waiting for too long could cost you your marriage - are you willing to pay this price? So have the courage to admit that you can’t deal with it on your own. And that this is OK. You don’t try to treat your teeth on your own, do you? Same thing here!

Depending on what causes you the most trouble, you can choose between a family therapist, communication specialist, a sexologist or just start with a counselor who will refer you to other specialists as he or she sees fit. A professional can give you insights about what is really going on, help understand root causes of your problems and find solutions that you may have never thought of on your own.

In some cases, it’s not only the couple that needs therapy; one of the partners may also need individual help. If you feel that there are issues from your past that are hindering you from building a healthy relationship, you can deal with them using professional help before they destroy your marriage. Working on yourself is the best way to improve your marital relationship. Trying to change your partner won’t work and will bring you only frustration and anger. Working on becoming a better partner yourself will give you the best chance of improving the situation. So don’t worry if you feel like asking for help with your own issues and letting your partner figure out theirs.

Improving your marriage in a moment of crisis, where you are already thinking about divorce, is a difficult task. It will take time and effort from both you and your partner. But you should at least try. If you are determined enough, the result could be remarkable and you might stay together for many more years to come.

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