I know what you’re thinking...
Why as a divorce mediator are you writing about how to save a marriage relationship? Isn’t it your job to help couples end their marriage with a no-fault divorce?
Honestly, I was thinking the same thing…
Yes, my job is to help couples divorce peacefully and it isn't my role to provide marriage therapy and help a husband and wife find a way to save the marriage. But divorce mediation is only appropriate when both spouses are on the same page.
If one of you wants to end your marriage but the other wants to know how to save a marriage on the brink of divorce, there’s not much I can do.
Why am I Writing About How to Save Your Marriage?
I got to thinking about the people who call our offices and then disappear. Or book an initial meeting with us and never become clients.
Where did they go?
If they wanted to save the marriage and didn’t want a divorce, why did they call us or meet with us in the first place? I think it’s pretty clear from our website what we do, isn’t it?
And then it hit me...
They didn’t think there was any other problem-solving strategy or anything they could do to save their failing marriage and avoid divorce. Calling and meeting with us became their option of last resort.
But they were really struggling with that decision and were still in love with their husband or wife.
So I wanted to do something to help, however small.
And that’s how the idea of an expert roundup on how to save a marriage came to be.
How to Save Your Marriage – The Experts Weigh-In
Since my professional training and expertise is in helping couples peacefully and respectfully separate and/or end their marriage, I needed some input from those who know best how to save a marriage on the brink of divorce.
So I assembled a list of expert North American marriage counselors, couples therapists, social workers and other related mental health professionals (to whom I am extremely grateful for their generosity of both time and spirit) and posed the following question:
“If you could offer couples only one piece of advice, tip or guidance on how to save a marriage from divorce, what would it be?”
I asked them to try and keep their replies concise. So each reply could be easily digested (and hopefully acted upon) by you and your spouse.
What follows is a list of the best and most heartfelt pieces of advice I’ve ever read on how to fix a broken marriage and right the ship in difficult times.
I hope you find it helpful.
Dennis Paget, Head to Soul Counselling
One piece of advice I believe on how to save your marriage is to seek help early instead of waiting for contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling to become entrenched in the relationship.
Maybe before marriage, ensure you’ve made a good choice in a partner and do pre-marriage counseling work to get the marriage off to a good start and obtain excellent tools to get over the bumps easier.
In the early stages of a relationship if issues come up, don’t sweep them under the carpet, get to couples therapy.
Look at marriage no different than acquiring education and a skill set for employment. It takes work, daily work for harmony, joy and peace.
Adrienne Levy, LMFT, Healthy Lives, Healthy Relationships, Carlsbad, CA
Love and trust are vital components to the foundation of a solid marriage that endures. But love and trust alone are not enough.
When times get tough, and life being what it is, having skills to listen effectively (to yourself and your spouse), manage intense negative emotions well, and communicate in non-blaming or defensive ways, are the tools to navigate life's tougher challenges.
A good therapist can help you assess, and build on, your current strengths and teach, or fine tune, skills you might need for saving your unhappy marriage and making your relationship what you want it to be.
Can You Tell Me How to Save My Marriage?
Lisa Bissett, M.Ed./Ed.S., Lakewood Ranch Family Counseling, Bradenton, FL
My answer is this: according to Dr. John Gottman, roughly 70% of relationship problems are, by nature, perpetual and unresolvable (e.g., she wants kids but he is infertile). Solve the 30% of marital problems that can be fixed.
For the rest, get help learning how to identify your non-negotiables (e.g., children are a must) as well as your areas of flexibility (e.g., we could adopt).
If roughly 20 sessions of Emotionally Focused Therapy can't help a married couple resolve their hurts and get past their differences, then utilize counseling services in order to make the transition [from married to divorced] as smooth and as healthy as possible.
Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW, The Couples Experts, Scottsdale, AZ
Get advice from a qualified couples therapist who can help you address relationship injuries and help you begin the process of repairing your bond.
Be willing to do the work you need to do on yourself and with your partner to connect on a deeper, more vulnerable and more authentic level than ever before.
Create the great relationship that you desire with the person you love most in the world.
Dr. Tony Fiore, Split or Not Counseling, Newport Beach & Long Beach, CA
Prioritize your marriage such that you both put energy and time into it.
A marriage is like a plant. It won’t survive without proper sunshine and watering. You can’t just put it in a corner and expect it to thrive on its own under clouds, nor can you expect it to survive with acid rain.
Put some energy and effort into the relationship, just as you did when you were dating. Even spending just 10 minutes a day together making an emotional connection will often help when it comes to saving a marriage.
This means no television, video games or children during daily connection quality time. “Connecting” may involve simply talking and sharing, taking a walk together, or doing something together you both enjoy. Just being nice to each other often produces surprising results.
Donald Goodman, LCSW, Goodman Therapy, Valencia, CA
I know it is cliché, but marriage is like competing in a marathon.
It is a very long journey so you have to pace yourself. I commonly say you have to jog the marathon and walk the water stations, but keep it moving steadily towards the finish line. Don't be surprised how quickly you can feel disconnected even in a healthy relationship and sometimes it will be right after you believed things were the best they ever were.
I compare marriage to a marathon because doing well requires hard work every day. So don't expect things to get better immediately if you and your significant other have not invested the time into the relationship.
So in a nutshell, be prepared to work on your relationship daily.
How Do I Save My Marriage from Divorce?
Irene Schreiner, LMFT, Solid Foundations Therapy, Downer's Grove, IL
If I’m only able to give one piece of advice it would be to start treating your marriage like a living breathing entity that you are responsible for keeping alive. That may sound weird but we often fail to think about what we can do for our marriage.
We get stuck focusing on the the things that our partner didn’t do for us. We then use that as a justification for us not do good things for our partner. This creates a cycle of hurt and resentment.
If you instead focus on “feeding” your marriage, regardless of what your partner did or didn’t do, it will grow and thrive.
David Klow, LMFT, Skylight Counseling Center, Chicago & Evanston, IL
Slow down! That would be my advice to a couple who is on the brink of divorce or separation. So many couples rush towards a break-up or divorce rather than taking the time to work through their issues and see what might be possible to fix marriage problems and save the relationship.
To borrow from a sports metaphor, couples feel better when they “leave it all on the field” before they split. In other words, they are better prepared for life after divorce if they first try everything possible to make the marriage work.
Yet most couples will not even do half of what is possible to save their marriage. People will often think that they have tried everything, but usually they are not even close to the many ways to save a marriage from divorce.
It is often from a lack of imagination, or from feeling discouraged, that couples fall short of finding new possibilities for a life together. Yet I try to offer hope that there are many ways to save the relationship which they might not have even considered.
Couples counseling offers an opportunity to find these new possibilities and create hope for renewal in a marriage.
Can My Marriage be Saved?
Dalise Gada, Somatic Therapy, Sacramento, CA
I think the most important thing to ask and explore is if each of [you] have ever been really married.
Really. Fully committed. Fully in.
If not, why not? Can't know if you really want a divorce unless you know in your heart you've been really married.
Part two is about what your partner came in to your life to teach you or help you learn about yourself.
Do they know what that is? If not, then [individuals] would benefit by figuring it out and looking deeply at themselves.
They can get divorced, but my experience is they're simply going to attract the same issue with a different face unless they see their part.
Dr. Barbara Baumgardner, BarbaraBaumgardner.com
Stop talking about divorce. Instead, put all your resources into saving your marriage.
Get both your heart and your head in the frame of mind that says you are still fully invested in having a wonderful long-term relationship with your spouse.
Once upon a time, you thought that your husband (or wife) was a wonderful partner for you. Rediscover the reasons you thought that was true.
Then think about how long it has taken to get into this difficult spot and recognize that there is no quick fix for something that has taken so long to build.
Find the best marriage counselor you can possibly afford. Meet with the therapist regularly and do the assigned work in between sessions. Life can be good and wonderful together!
Nate Meeds, Pivot Pointe Counseling Center, Vancouver, WA
My advice (I can't take full credit for) actually comes from a Harvard Business Review Article titled “Making Relationships Work” which offers the following:
Honor your wife's dreams. Men have a tendency to bulldoze their agenda in relationships which results in the wife feeling unheard and unknown. By honoring her dreams it demonstrates the value that she has and that she brings to the relationship.
Too many husbands couldn't even answer the question of what their wife's dreams are, but are more than happy to insist on their own dreams. Addressing this issue may feel like giving up power within the relationship, but I would argue that it is only power that has been gained...
Note from Joe: this quote can apply to both men and women. As a mediator, I've got to be neutral!
Mark Sichel, LCSW, Mark Sichel Therapy, New York, NY
A marriage can be saved when two people stop thinking about themselves and their feelings and instead focus on the relationship.
He + She + WE.
When partners focus on the WE, they are doing so because their overriding concern transcends each of them in favor of the relationship.
So end the battle of right and wrong and you'll be able to count on right actions creating all the right feelings to make a marriage work. Stopping the fight is what truly empowers us and creates a win.
The WE wins when neither partner plays the blame game and when being close is more important than being right.
Think of it this way: the WE is the home team, and when the WE wins, each member of the team benefits.
Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT, www.dragnesoh.com, Glendale, CA
Many couples experience relational pain mostly because they are lacking ample knowledge about each other. Irrespective of the number of years they’ve been married or lived together...
There’s nothing more painful than not feeling heard, understood, or validated in an intimate relationship with someone we love and care about. Sometimes, familiarity begets apathy.
The best antidote to growing callousness is to rekindle curiosity about each other. Surprisingly, many couples have not taken the time to get to know each other more deeply via proactively consistent efforts. More often than not, conflict emerges from not knowing completely which invariably leads to misunderstanding.
As [couples and a marriage therapist] work together, [they] are jointly unraveling this shocking mystery. If and when couples are willing to invest necessary time and patience in allowing this process to unfold, a new possibility can transpire.
What was once construed as irreconcilable differences could be turned into a transformative opportunity to learn and reconnect at a whole different level of empathy and understanding.
This learning process alone can be truly eye-opening for many couples and can be instrumental in how to save a bad marriage by inviting them to a new chapter of their relationship.
Marc Sadoff MSW, BCD, Real Hope, Los Angeles, CA
It is defensiveness that broadcasts a lack of power. When each person is trying to get the other understand their point of view, the arguing rarely ceases.
Seek first to understand others before seeking understanding for yourself.
So, you be the first to hit these 3 points BEFORE you ask the other to listen to your explanations or reasons and point of view.
The Power Response sounds like this:
- Own what you said or did first. (ie. Yes, I was shouting… )
- Acknowledge the other’s thoughts or feelings. ( i.e. It makes sense you’d think or feel... )
- Make amends and say what you’re going to do about it. (ie. I’m sorry. I’ll be mindful of that.)
Karen Focht, MA, LMFT, Focht Family Practice, Chicago, IL
A relationship is made up of a system that requires change from both partners. When each person is solely focused on what is needed from the other, it is hard to break a problematic sequence.
Rather than holding a primary focus on what is lacking from your partner, work towards looking within yourself towards positive change and growth. That leads to a healthy marriage!
Justin Tobin, LCSW, Tobin Counseling Chicago
You both have to be honest with yourselves.
First, take an honest appraisal of what you can offer to the marriage as well as what you are asking from your partner. If you want to make this work, there must be a commitment to doing the work.
This includes re-learning the meaning of trust. It is not enough to point your finger at your partner and exclaim, “Why don’t you trust me?”
Ask yourself the question how much you trust your partner. Usually, you both want the same thing.
Allow yourself to trust them more and you will feel them trusting you more. There will be – and should be – ups and downs to get to a healthier relationship.
So, don’t stop working on your relationship simply because the work gets to be too hard. Bottom line, each partner needs to keep working on themselves and that leads to a happy marriage.
If you trust that you both are doing this, saving your marriage can succeed.
Can One Person Save a Marriage?
Peggy Hinders, LPC, NBCC, www.mmhcounseling.com
One of the biggest changes I suggest is to have more goals for yourself then you do for your spouse. Amazing how that works…
In fact, it's changes made by just one of the spouses that brings about marital change. Of course it depends on the issues, but even with infidelity couples, I've seen this work.
Again, my advice to the one who wants to save the troubled marriage is to work on self and get back to the essence of who they are with no expectations of their spouse.
At the very least, the person going at it alone can choose to address their personal issues and grow as a result. Those positive changes can often begin to challenge the mate’s perspective and create hope for saving the marriage.
Kelly Montgomery, LMFT, Healing Happens Therapy, Oakland, CA
If I only had one piece of guidance to offer you if you're looking for ways to save your marriage it would be to ask yourself: "How am I responsible?" It takes two for things to work and for things to get stuck in repetitive unhealthy patterns.
Often times, couples will blame each other or sense a stalemate or block [with] no way to move forward. If each spouse takes the time to recognize, name, and put action towards their part in the cycle, it can’t help but change the way things are unfolding.
This often takes a professional help to see through the triggers and emotions, but once labeled, it’s a whole lot easier to see how things went wrong and therefore how to fix it.
We typically aren't capable of figuring it out ourselves seeing as we are in the middle of it, so calling a therapist is a great idea to see whether your marriage is salvageable. I right away look for both parties willing to take some responsibility.
Tatiana Sean M.Ed. C.C.C.
Sometimes one person or even both partners feel there is no hope and feel counseling is a waste of time, especially if one spouse refuses to attend.
I strongly recommend counseling but not with the view of “fixing” the other person. They should approach it with the idea to learn about themselves and see their marriage as an experience contributing to their growth…We need to learn to be happy with ourselves (which takes a lifetime) and not expect others to make us happy.
Often when people fall in love, they show their best qualities and decide to marry based on these. People should also see the flaws of each other and more importantly accept them.
I think fear is a major source of how people react especially with those they are most intimate with and marriage is one the of most intimate experience bringing out our most vulnerable selves.
I also think we give up easily as we live in a disposable society where things are constantly replaced. We learn in our family of origin how to be in relationships and often we take these patterns into other relationships including marriage.
Farah Hussain Baig, LCSW, Inner Voice Psychotherapy & Consultation, Chicago, IL
Transparency and accountability are paramount to maintaining or “saving” a marriage. Both involve trust and self-reflection, qualities which often require us to check our pride at the door.
In order to maintain trust in a strong marriage, each partner needs to not only be honest, but transparent. Couples will at times claim “honesty” even with the omission of details, thoughts, and feelings, potentially damaging the marital bond.
Transparency, on the other hand, requires a couple to share openly and honestly on multiple levels, allowing for vulnerability with the hope of creating a deeper sense of intimacy. This type of intimacy will not only help maintain a healthy relationship but also repair one as well.
True intimacy involves self-reflection and transparency, both of which play a role in accountability. Self-reflection occurs when each partner can honestly, without pride, examine their thoughts and behaviors and take ownership for their intentions and possible “wrong-doing.” If one or both members of a couple are incapable of doing this, a marriage cannot move forward in a healthy way.
Silent discontent breeds resentment, distance, and marital discord. Be proactive in maintaining the health of your marriage, it will be worth the time and effort every time.
Denise Ambre, LCSW, Ambre Associates, Glenview, IL
I think that the one piece of advice I would give to a couple working toward saving a marriage is to start paying attention to the TONE with which they say things to each other.
Someone can say all the right words, but if their tone is condescending or flippant or disrespectful in some way, the words won't mean a thing.
I have noticed in my work that the couples who stay together have good communication. They speak to each other in a gentle and respectful tone of voice. They say "please" and "thank you" to each other and genuinely appreciate what the other brings to the relationship.
Dr. Rae Mazzei, Evolutions Behavioral Health, Schaumberg, IL
By the time couples are contemplating divorce, they may be experiencing failed communication, including frequent arguments or avoidance of each other. However, many partners are still hopeful that they can save their marriage.
As a couple’s therapist, my one piece of advice is to keep communication open. In particular, be willing to validate your partner’s experience, listen, compromise, and attempt to foster empathy with your partner.
Think about when the relationship was thriving and how you both communicated best. Try to avoid language filled with contempt, hurtful, defensive and argumentative comments.
Changing communication styles is not easy - however, if you are both willing to commit to your relationship, it’s not only essential, but possible to save your marriage.
Dr. Corinne Scholtz, LMFT, The Center of Connected Living, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
My advice to couples who are considering a divorce is to realize that a series of small decisions over a long period of time led to the disconnect, and that new small positive decisions can lead to better communication and a greater sense of connectedness.
Small positive decisions taken on a daily basis include refraining from criticizing your spouse, and instead, letting your spouse know one thing you appreciate about them.
Critiquing, judging, comparing your spouse leads to a breakdown in trust and an increase in defensiveness.
Practice mindfulness and 'catch' the negative thoughts before they leave your mouth!
Angela Pallan, Relationship Counsellor, surreydeltafamilycounselling.ca
We can all agree that marriage is full of fun and amazing times together, yet it most definitely has its challenges as well.
A piece of advice I would give clients on how to save a marriage on the brink of divorce is to make sure they communicate the best they can. Effective communication is key to a healthy relationship.
However, if the couple reaches a point in their lives where they feel they just can’t move forward, my advice is to reach out to a martial therapist. I know a lot of couple’s use counselling as a last resort, but if both individuals are genuinely willing to make it work, then counselling can help.
Through counselling, the therapist can assist couples to recognize some of their differences or gridlocked conflicts, as they move from being stuck in a situation with continuous arguments into a more healthier and effective manner of communicating with one another.
Couples may have better results of communicating in the presence of a counsellor who can direct the individuals to move forward from the same conversation and help come up with some reasonable compromises/ solutions.
Through marital or couple therapy, the counsellor can help the couple increase effective communication skills, assist in looking at each other’s perspective, discuss what makes a relationship work and what a healthy relationship looks like, help identify specific problems and dynamics of the relationship, understand gridlocked conflicts, and help establish interventions and strategies that will help strengthen conflict management skills.
Is There a Way for How to Save My Marriage after an Infidelity?
Karleen Nevery, MTC, CPA, Kitsilano Fairview Life Counselling
Often families are ripped apart when an affair is discovered, even when the extramarital relationship was insignificant and short lived. Children grow up believing one of their parents is unworthy or bad because their parent’s divorce is blamed on adultery.
What if it was the combination of action and reaction that led to the divorce and the family missed the opportunity for growth and forgiveness? Perhaps the wound infidelity inflicted could have been healed if the betrayed partner had been more curious about their partner and the dynamic they co-created before the partner strayed.
It may be beneficial to enter counseling to learn what emotional need the partner was trying to meet in such a harmful way.
I would propose we avoid words such as “cheating” from conversations about infidelity. It can result in the stigmatization of a human being without trying to understand them more deeply.
If your world has been rocked by your partner’s infidelity, this is very difficult time for you. You may need to take time to gain more understanding before moving into a divorce process that could unravel your family life.
Take a pause and be open to deepening your commitment in the face of this shocking realization.
Kristy Higgins, MTC, RCS, Therapeutic Life Counselling
Contemplating separation and divorce can be an extremely confusing time. It can be tempting to blame your spouse for the unhappiness, hurt, resentments and loneliness you feel inside.
Racing thoughts of whether to leave or stay, focusing on all the parts of the relationship you are dissatisfied with can create an intense fight or flight reaction…Your mind may start to race with thoughts of something being wrong with your relationship, your partner or yourself, creating confusion and distress.
What if I told you these are the signals of transformation and change? An opportunity to enhance closeness, connection and intimacy between you and your spouse?
Knowing whether or not you are in the fight or flight response is essential in determining when to make a decision or not.
I often recommend consulting with a professional relationship expert to gain insight and understanding around the issue triggering your reaction.
Taking time to fully understand this will bring the clarity you desire and provide the answers you seek, so any decision made is from a calm, clear state leaving the dignity of you, your partner and your family intact.
How Can I Save My Marriage?
Cheryl Dillon, CPC, ELI-MP, Equitable Mediation Co-Founder
In today's stressful modern world, we have a lot on our plates.
Demands from work, financial pressures, and even friends and family can drain us of our energy until we have nothing left to give to ourselves, let alone others.
It's not uncommon when we feel drained of our energy to not be at our personal best. And when we're not at our best, without realizing it, we may be taking our anger and frustrations about our own life out on others, including our spouse.
The best advice I could give to someone trying to save a marriage or fix a relationship problem is to notice what patterns of negative events in their outside world trigger negative events in their "inside world."
Pay attention to the circumstances that precipitate any fights you have with your spouse. You may start to notice the same little things triggering you each and every time.
If you can become aware of those triggers, you can begin to manage and hopefully work to eliminate them, either on your own or with the help of a good therapist or coach, which will lead to an improved attitude and sense of self.
And ultimately, a new level of closeness in your marriage.
Lyndsey Frasier, MA, LMFT, CST, Relational Connections, Minneapolis, MN
Relational patterns often lead to unhappy marriages. I encourage you to become aware of these cycles.
When you are aware, you can change your relationships. A simple pattern that is common is getting defensive when your partner is critical. It is an automatic response you give without much thought. In marriages there are many of these automatic responses, where both partners are responsible.
It is not the individuals in the couple that are the marital problem but instead how you both relate. If you are not aware of these patterns you continue to engage in behavior that lead to frustrations.
I encourage you to become aware of these cycles. When you are become aware you can than implement a slightly different response.
When you choose to implement something different, you will find that your partner also responds differently, as you have broken the automatic cycle.
When you do something different, you can then both start to make changes that lead to a satisfying relationship and a happy married life.
Can a Marriage be Saved?
Claudia Rosen, LCSW, Claudia Rosen Psychotherapy, Evanston, IL
One piece of advice for how to save a failing marriage would be to understand that in moments of love we see ourselves as perfectly suited for each other, and when we are questioning our marriage we notice all our differences.
The challenge of a good marriage is to learn how to honor and respect those differences to find your constant connection in spite of the differences that you have as individuals.
A successful marriage has enormous respect in it and that respect is for individuality – the individuality of each spouse’s feelings, thoughts and experiences.
John Taylor, Registered Psychotherapist/Clinical Counsellor, Izumi Therapy
Learn to repair. Repairing is a re-connective act needed after any disconnect or fight, big or small... Take turns going through the following steps, avoiding blaming, criticism, and defensiveness. Repair only works if both partners go through each step:
- List your feelings during the disagreeable incident. Don’t tell each other why you felt that way, as that becomes blame.
- Describe your reality. As objectively as possible, describe what went on for you. For the person listening, don’t try to correct the sequence of events. Listen to understand (not to respond). You will have a chance to describe your reality when you switch places.
- Describe your triggers: Rewind your memory to describe a time prior to your marriage when you felt this way. A trigger is what set you up for anger and overreacting. You are just getting more information to yourself and your partner about your emotional system.
- Take Responsibility: Both partners need to take responsibility for the fight or disconnect. It is saying “This is what I did to make that fight worse.” This step can include an apology if one is needed.
- Positive Plan: Describe what you could do differently the next time you are in a similar situation, in a positive way, so that the relationship is affirmed, needs are met, and the fight is avoided.
Susan Armitage, M.Div., RMFT, CAMS, Rock of Peace Counselling
Gaining skills at making up is crucial to lasting happiness.
I see couples who fight like two dogs after one bone, and couples who distance because of wrong priorities. I see couples who bear the interference of in-laws, the pain of addictions, or the betrayal of an affair.
The couples who have the greatest chance of surviving are the ones who can rapidly repair their relationship by knowing how to reconnect emotionally despite the challenges.
Fighting for connection solidifies relationships whereas the opposite allows them to fade away.
Edward Riddick, Celebrate Marriage
You married your love. The excitement of your relationship has worn off. You’ve encountered perpetual challenges and struggles which you’ve worked hard to overcome.
You are stuck in the "crazy cycle" and have almost given up hope…
Your yearning for a loving connection is possible. Your relationship can be repaired if… you are both ‘in’, [you both] seek help from a marriage counselor you trust who is solution and emotion focused, and [you both] attend a marriage conference together.
So There You Have It! Expert Advice on How to Save a Marriage
If you found even one piece of advice shared by our experts helpful, I'm really glad.
And I hope what you've gathered from this article is that saving your marriage from divorce takes a lot of work, requires time and commitment from both spouses, and it won't happen overnight.
But it is possible!
Other Useful Resources: