Is My Marriage Salvageable?

Anonymous Writes: How far gone can a marriage be and still recover? My wife and I seem to have accepted that we’re better roommates than spouses. For a variety of reasons we no longer share a bedroom. We don’t fight much but there certainly isn’t much passion anymore. I think we stay together because of the kids but I don’t consider us much of a role model for a healthy relationship. As far as I know we’ve both stayed faithful but I don’t think either of us is happy with the current situation. I’m not sure if our current relationship is sustainable or if should even be sustained. I don’t think either of us is sure where to start putting this thing back together.

Emily Says: Thank you for your question. I think it’s a topic many people can relate to. Before I respond, could you please tell me whether you and your wife have tried counseling before? And if it’s something you’d be willing to try now?

Emily Says:  I haven’t heard back from you, so I’ll give my best answer based on the information I have.  To start, I have seen marriages recover from the brink of collapse.  As long as there is still some love or friendship or compelling reason to work it out (like wanting to keep your family together for the kids), your marriage still has a pulse.  Here are some ideas on how to rebuild it:

Passion often wanes because partners stop investing in one-on-one time together.  Family time is not a substitute for one-on-one time.  If you and your wife want to reconnect, start by spending time alone together, at least once a week.  If it’s hard to know what to talk about, pick a shared activity like seeing a movie, so you’ll have something to talk about afterward.

Next, add in regular time to talk about sore spots.  Its important that you only bring up one difficult subject at a time, to avoid overwhelming each other.  For example, your sore spot might be, “I really miss connecting with you physically.”  Go ahead and bring that up, but don’t add, “And I think you’re lazy” or “And I hate your mother.”  Stick to “I really miss connecting with you physically.”  It helps if you can bracket this criticism with a compliment on either side; for example, “I’ve enjoyed spending more time with you, but I really miss connecting with you physically.  I’m still attracted to you, and I would love to connect with you in that way again.”  A teacher I worked with called this making a “Compliment Sandwich.”

I’ll write more soon!

Emily Adds: I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to finish my response.  Here are a few more ideas:

I strongly recommend reading “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…and How to Make Yours Last” by John Gottman, PhD.  (I’ve also heard that Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” is excellent, but I haven’t read it yet).  John Gottman is a research psychologist from the University of Washington, and his work is amazing.  He takes a scientific approach to understanding and improving relationships.  One of his findings is that healthy couples have ten times as many positive interactions as negative ones.  Positive interactions include little things, like saying “Thank you” or “I’m happy to see you.”  If a 10 to 1 ration feels impossible, start by balancing every negative interaction with one positive statement.

Another Gottman insight is that couples must learn to complain to each other without letting their complaints turn into criticism.  Complaints are specific, like “I’m tired of doing all the laundry.”  Criticism, in contrast, goes beyond identifying a specific problem and turns into a personal attack, like “You’re such a pig!”  People generally shut down when they feel like they’re being criticized and attacked.  Criticism creates emotional distance and shutdown, and it rarely inspires change.  If you can learn to raise problems in a constructive way (complaint) instead of a destructive way (criticism), your relationship will begin to improve.

A final Gottman principle to implement is this: learn to put arguments on hold before they get out of control.  This counters the conventional wisdom to “never go to bed angry.”  Gottman believes it’s better to go to bed angry than to let an argument devolve into a full-on fight.  When people are intensely angry, they say things they don’t mean and often regret.  If you feel yourself losing control, try telling your wife you’re overwhelmed and need to continue the conversation later.  I recommend setting up a time to complete the conversation, preferably within 24 hours.  Also, remember that if your wife is the one telling you she needs time to calm down, give it to her.  Trying to force someone to engage with you when they’re telling you they need space is not a good strategy.

There are two more books I recommend for couples.  The first is “Please Understand Me II” by David Keirsey.  Keirsey gives in-depth explanations of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types.  I find that the friction between couples often stems from a lack of understanding of personality differences.  For example, most men are “Thinking” types, and most women are “Feeling” types.  This means that men tend to be forthright and blunt, and women tend to be sensitive and polite.  If partners are aware of these stylistic differences, they are less likely to misinterpret each other’s behavior.

I also like “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.  Here’s a quick synopsis: Chapman believes that all people have a primary way they like to receive love, and they tend to give out that type of love in an attempt to have it returned to them.  The five love languages are physical touch, gift giving, words of affirmation, quality time, and acts of service.  It’s common for partners to speak different languages, and for love messages to get lost in translation.  If you and your partner can educate yourself about your love languages, you can improve your ability to meet each other’s needs.  (One quick disclaimer about the “Five Love Languages” book: Chapman is a Christian author, and the book contains Bible verses.  I think the concept of love languages is helpful, however, regardless of your religious beliefs).

Finally, I do hope you and your wife will consider beginning some couple’s counseling.  I’ve given you my best self-help ideas, but it’s invaluable to have a good therapist guide you forward.  It’s best if you can go to a counselor who’s been recommended to you by someone you trust.  One of my mentors told me that therapists range from the ridiculous to the sublime, and I really want you to find a good one.

Thank you again for your question.  Best of luck.

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