When you start to realize that things aren’t going well in your marriage, what should you do?
These experts share their insights on how to save a broken marriage.
Licensed Psychologist | Marriage Counselor | Clinical Director, Heart to Heart Counseling Center |
Author, Partner Betrayal Trauma
We are living in a culture that is “me” focused, making it hard to have a whole “we” marriages.
Although marriages are supposed to be innately organic, they do have a structure. In my 30 years’ experience, I have found that looking at the marriage structure helps to start a plan for healing.
Let’s begin with dating
If a couple is not dating regularly their marriage will start to tear. Marriage should be a lifetime of dating, at least two times a month.
Having couples as friends is also a sign of a healthy marriage
I recommend monthly get together with other couples. Spiritually have a meditation or prayer ritual daily. Just today I had a couple pray for their first time. It was beautiful to see them open up to each other in this way. I recommend this daily. Sharing feelings at least two times a day keeps the friendship alive.
Take time to heal from the trauma
Also, you need to be able to heal from any addictions or traumas either have experienced emotionally including betrayal traumas in the relationship.
My book Partner Betrayal Trauma addresses the validity of pain our spouse can bring into the spouse’s life by irresponsible choices. These pains will have to be addressed as you are healing the brokenness in marriage.
Sex is really important to understand each other’s sexual expression and to manage the frequency and expectations are important. The sexual breaking can happen and really can create pain if not addressed.
Lastly is money. Manage money for today and plan for tomorrow.
If a couple needs help in any of these structures, get help from your spiritual community or find a therapist. If you do the work, marriage can provide a life filled with love. That is my hope for all.
Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist | Couples Counselor | Owner, Baltimore Therapy Group
Believe it or not, the average length of time between detecting a problem in marriage and contacting a couple’s therapist is six years. That’s just too long to wait considering that the riskiest time for divorce is the first 7 years of marriage.
My biggest piece of advice then is to get help early
Seeking out couples counseling is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of investment in your relationship and an opportunity to learn more about your partner’s ideal ways of communicating. Plus, research suggests that some forms of couples counseling are incredibly effective.
Couples should look for counselors who have been trained in an empirically supported approach like Emotion-Focused Therapy or the Gottman Approach. These approaches boast success rates of 70-75%.
Seeking the support of a professional is especially important couples can actually get further locked into the negative cycle when they try to solve problems on their own.
David Godot, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Psych Lab Psychology Center
A marriage is a creative project where two people collaborate on making a life together. Like any partnership, there can sometimes be differences in creative vision. Emotions run high, and communication breaks down.
Over time, you forget that you’re working on something — it just becomes your life. And then you start comparing it against all your expectations. You judge your ongoing life as though it were a finished product.
The solution is to wake up to the fact that your marriage is intentional
It is an active process — something you are doing. And in order for it to work, you have to be working on it together as a team.
That means your communication has to be top-notch: inquisitive, empathetic, collaborative. Any time you approach your partner in a blaming, shaming, or demanding way, you undermine the project.
Each partner needs to practice recognizing their own emotions, communicating them clearly, and setting them aside long enough to really listen to the other’s experience.
Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D.
Clinical/Community Psychologist and Psychoanalyst | Co-Author, Irrelationship
After working for the last two-plus decades as a couples therapist in New York City, what I have seen is that there is only one way to fix a broken marriage:
Each person must take responsibility for her and/or his part of the breaking and contribute as equally as possible to its repair
I encourage people who come to me in marriages described by them as “broken” to work toward finding ways to take ownership of their part of the problem—as well as to use this information and experience to contribute to the solution.
I ask people to work together to imagine their relationship as a whole. I then ask them to choose a current, ongoing, and salient problem, issue, or conflict and work together to claim and then divide their ownership of this problem—“My part in it.”
This is especially the case for problems that have become patterns and include things that seem irreparable, for instance, infidelity. I ask them to imagine the division of responsibility for this issue at or around 50% each.
And I realize and acknowledge that this is a big ask for, say, someone who has been cheated on. But still, I ask them to imagine that division and then I ask them each to step back that ownership to 40% each—leaving a space of 20% ownership of what then begins to look like the problem, only now, because both people were willing to look for and then share their part in it now can look like our problem rather than simply something that one of us did to the other.
My colleagues and I call this process the 40-20-40, and we know that it goes against most of the impulses people bring in to protect themselves from further harm when things seem—and especially when they actually are—broken.
But I also see time and time again that it allows for the ruptures that occur in relationships to become opportunities for repair. And when consciously thought-out, conjointly developed and owned incidents of repair are utilized to fix what’s been damaged, not only can people in relationships fix what’s been broken, they can use this process to create and sustain deeper empathy, understanding, and intimacy with each other going forward.
Chief Investigator | CEO, North American Investigations
As a private investigator for over 25 years, I have conducted thousands of domestic investigations that involved infidelity amongst other serious issues.
I am not a therapist, I am a detective, but I have learned how to counsel my clients who were in broken marriages, dealing with these terrible situations.
As their investigations progressed and trust was built, they shared many intimate details of their marriage issues, sometimes because they felt embarrassed to tell a friend or family member, felt alone or they just needed to vent. I deal with diverse people from different social and economic backgrounds but the same theme kept repeating itself over and over again.
Emphasize on great communication
These marriages were broken before bad things occurred and most likely would have been avoided if one major component was not missing in their relationship: GREAT – not good – but great communication.
Most people believe they are good communicators but they need to be great communicators. Generally, couples get into bad situations because they do not understand or recognize the other’s feelings as it was either not properly communicated or not properly heard, which leads to many wrong assumptions.
In an investigation, I cannot make assumptions, I need the facts. This holds true in relationships, assumptions lead to misinformation which usually leads to hurt feelings resulting in more problems in the relationship.
When I am working a case, I say to myself: “When in doubt, check it out”. For instance, If I was not clear with what a witness stated, I made sure to go over it again until I was clear so there were no misunderstandings. Make sure you are clear and the other side has a clear understanding of what you wanted to convey to them and vice versa.
Ask questions, if one side leaves bewildered then it was a fail. Do not fail, be diligent. Do not let them off the hook easily if you feel they do not truly understand you and if you do not understand what is being said to you, stay until you do.
I have solved countless cases because I made an effort to be an excellent listener, not letting any little pertinent fact or piece of information get past me. I never interrupt and make sure whoever is speaking has the opportunity to get out everything they want to say.
Once I know they are finished, I ask questions related to anything they have said to go over it again to be clear. Both sides need clarity. This advice has worked for my clients’ relationships. Again, we need to learn not only to be good but great communicators as well as great listeners.
My experience and ability to be a solid listener make me think about a series of “marriage busters” that facilitate breaking up a marriage, looking for a partner outside the marriage or coexisting in a lifeless marriage.
The most common “marriage busters”:
- Ineffective communication
- Not really listening or hearing your spouse
- Not identifying signals something is “off”
- Wrong assumptions
- Sexual discontent
- Focusing only on work
- Neglecting family time and quality time with your significant other, such as “date nights”
- Emotional distance
- Small disagreements that eventually build-up
These issues, if properly dealt with early on, can avoid an unhappy and ultimately broken marriage. Most people believe when the marriage is broken it cannot be repaired and divorce is the only way out: this is false.
In my experience when a couple decides to really, and I do not mean to go through the motions, but truly dedicate themselves to fixing a broken marriage, it can be done.
I have firsthand experience with so many couples that even though it took a negative event to make them ultimately face their issues, once they learned the most important ability which was lacking (again, proper way of communicating which is 90% of the battle), they were on the road to mending, healing and preventing future avoidable issues.
So many of my clients who thought divorce was inevitable but decided to listen to my advice ended up with stronger, healthier, more communicative and happier relationships.
International Motivational Speaker | Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Fixing a broken marriage isn’t easy. Depending on what caused the marriage to be broken, the work of fixing it can be quite challenging.
In my experience, the most difficult marriages to try and fix are those that have experienced a betrayal. Trust has been violated. Trust is one of the cornerstones of marriage and once it is broken, it is the hardest to fix.
With that said, fixing a broken marriage tends to follow these sequential steps.
Request for forgiveness
This step requires the guilty party to admit the wrong they have done and the pain it has brought within the relationship. Having done that, they need to request forgiveness without trying to guilt or coerce the injured party in the process.
The injured party will have to forgive with the understanding that they don’t have to rush the process of reconciliation. Both parties need to understand this.
They also need to understand that remembering and having moments of deja vu doesn’t mean forgiveness wasn’t granted. Time is their best friend.
Walk in forgiveness
The guilty person is responsible for doing everything possible to demonstrate remorse. They need to be patient with their spouse and as often as possible, acknowledge their wrong, and reiterate how sorry they are.
Patience is the key factor. The injured spouse needs to remind him or herself that even though they remember what happened and feelings arise here and there, that they have forgiven that person. The key is not to bring up the incident over and over again.
Get professional outside help
This really should be the first step. But some people are not pro outside help. They think they can work it out together. There are a number of reasons they hold to this belief.
However, having a third party – professional counselor – listen and reflect back to them what they’re hearing is very helpful. It’s one more way to also set up some measures of accountability.
These four steps will get the relationship back on the path for healing and restoration. Again, time and patience will be their best friends.
Related: How to Get over Infidelity Pain
Couple and Family Therapist | Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Broken marriages have many causes and can be approached in many ways. The one I’d like to speak about is Discernment Counseling.
When one spouse has all but given up on the marriage, has one leg out the door, and the other partner still has hope and motivation to repair the relationship, traditional couples therapy is usually not productive.
In the couples counseling field, we call these mixed agenda couples. They lack a common goal for their relationship. Without a common goal, not much happens in therapy. An already distressed couple can leave therapy feeling even more hopeless. ‘We tried and it didn’t help so we really must be hopeless.’
The first step in fixing a broken relationship is identifying both motivation and obstacles to working on the relationship
What is in the way of working on the relationship and what is the motivation for each person to try? These questions can be answered at the surface level or with deep and often painful self-reflection.
Self-reflection requires vulnerability but also gives couples the space to face the situation honestly. I work with couples in a relatively new and highly effective framework called Discernment Counseling. By providing the safety and structure of the DC process, I guide couples to look at how have they gotten to a place where their marriage feels broken and divorce is on the table, and what it would take to repair the relationship.
In order to begin to fix a broken marriage, each partner has to be able to identify his/her own contribution to the problems and obstacles to moving forward. Each individual must be honest about their personal commitment to change and their willingness to be vulnerable and do the work.
As each person reflects on what his or her own work would need to be in order to have a fulfilling relationship, couples often begin to see a path to healing a broken marriage.
The blame game has to end
This path to fixing a broken marriage is a process of self-reflection and vulnerability, not defensiveness or waiting for the other to accept responsibility and change.
One question I ask each person to think about and share with their partner is, ‘Regardless of whether you decide to stay together or split up, what would you personally have to work on in order to have a successful relationship in the future? What would you bring to the table no matter who you were with? What are you willing to commit to working on in order to save your marriage? What is motivating you to want to do this work and what obstacles are in the way?’
If couples are able to truly engage in answering those questions and are motivated to repair, even a marriage that feels hopeless may have a way back.
Unlike other types of therapy, DC isn’t open-ended, the commitment is one to five sessions. The outcome of these sessions is a clear decision about direction, not about whether or not the relationship can be mended. That remains to be seen.
What couples like about this approach is that it takes the pressure off. We move from, ‘let’s see if we can fix this marriage’ to ‘let’s explore how we got to this painful place’ and ‘what we would each have to do if we want to try to stay together and be happy’.
These couples are not committing to working on it just yet. Sometimes the fear of failure is so high couples can’t even begin to face trying to make changes. This process takes that pressure off. It approaches fixing a broken relationship from a different angle.
Relationship Coach | Transformational Life Coach, Get What You Want
There are many reasons why marriage becomes broken. When it does get to that point, it’s hard to imagine it ever getting better. But there is hope.
Whatever the reason, if both parties are willing to fight for it, it can be healed. There are some steps that can be taken to make this a possibility:
I often hear things like, “He’s never said sorry”, or “She doesn’t seem sorry”. Showing remorse is a huge step to change, not only in yourself but in your partner. It’s validating and shows that you care.
Blame is a destructive thing. Owning your part in whatever the situation is the first step to mending anything that is broken. Until you can realize that you have a part in creating your relationship, good and bad, nothing can get better.
This is a big one. Integrity is everything. If this has been compromised in the past, it will be harder to gain back. When moving forward, make sure you are 100% integral in every situation.
There shouldn’t be anything that you can’t share with your partner. Any solid foundation is based on integrity.
You cannot place a timeline on someone’s heart. How fast they heal is solely in their control. You can only do your part, and give them space to do theirs.
Agreements vs Expectations
If you have expectations, you will always be disappointed. Having expectations that your partner will change or do or be something different, will have you frustrated. Make agreements.
Communicate what each other’s needs are going forward, make agreements that work for both of you, and then be your word (integrity). If an agreement gets broken, gently remind the other that there was an agreement. Both sides have their parts in keeping up with what they decided.
Remember, you have the power to create anything you want in your relationships. How you are being in the relationship, often determines the outcome.
Look inward. How are you being that would have your partner react in the way he/she does? How can you have caused in the matter? What is your part?
Addiction Therapist | Relationship Expert
A broken marriage will definitely not be fixed by only hoping for the best. It requires work. People who embark on marriage have not gone into the contract with the manual of how it really is.
The reality is that love has its stages and you have to survive each one of the cycles – if you want to get to real happiness and love.
To fix what is causing you pain means to look at it in the light of day and deal with the issues head-on. This takes communication, patience and time. Never walk away until you are complete trying everything there is to try. Because then you will never regret your decision.
Go into therapy ASAP
Dare to sit with each other face-to-face and talk about what is really going on.
Communicate honestly and with 100% authenticity
Do not hold anything back. Decide to live in your truth no matter the consequences.
Love yourself more than the marriage
Follow your heart, be kind to yourself and respect yourself. Never give your power away to anyone, even your partner in marriage. Stay true to yourself and start from that grounding point.
Rob Magill, MA, ICAADC, CCPG, DOT-SAP, LPC
Founder, Magill Counseling Associates
There are three things needed to fix a broken marriage:
Commitment to the relationship
If both people in the relationship are willing to make fixing the relationship a priority, the relationship is fixable. Even an affair can be worked through if both people are willing to do the work.
This may be the hardest of the three things, too. The work to fix the relationship is often difficult and uncomfortable, but there are also many benefits for people who choose to be committed to each other.
Open, honest communication
Nothing in a relationship can change if both people aren’t openly and honestly talking about what needs to change.
John Gottman references the Four Horsemen – Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling – as four aspects of communication that will destroy any relationship.
These are also really easy to do in an argument. Everyone in a relationship needs to be careful to avoid these four behaviors when talking about problems in a relationship.
Willingness to change and willingness to forgive
A relationship can only change when the people in the relationship change. For a relationship to move forward, both people need to honestly look at what they are doing to negatively impact the relationship and be proactive to stop those behaviors.
In line with this, forgiveness – letting go of the emotional hurt and pain, and not feeling a need to be vindicated – is also necessary for the relationship to move forward.
Sure, there are going to be consequences, and it will take time for trust to be rebuilt, but no amount of effort will work if one or both people are not willing to forgive their partner.
Licensed Professional Counselor | Owner, Elevate Counseling + Wellness
Practice active listening
Are you guilty of only hearing your partner during your interactions? When he or she is talking, are you brainstorming your next rebuttal?
First of all, you’re not alone. Many of us struggle to listen. However, if this is the case, you’re missing a pivotal piece of effective communication and a chance to connect meaningfully with your partner.
In times of conflict, remaining emotionally present is crucial. You need to be able to fully listen to your partner’s needs, feelings, and desires. Therein lies the beautiful art of active listening.
Active listening entails the conscious effort of slowing down and truly listening to your partner. You need to remove any distractions and turn off the technology. You need to be able to surrender your full attention.
Aim to lean into your partner- even if you feel upset. Ideally, you want to listen without expectations or judgment. You want to listen with the intention of better understanding your partner.
Active listening doesn’t require that you agree with your partner’s opinion. It just means that you’re respecting their perspective and promoting a safe opportunity for him or her to express it.
Hopefully, your partner can do the same for you. If so, you’ve just opened the door to better understanding and the chance to feel closer.
Life Coach | Founder, Make the Uncomfortable Comfortable
Just because you have a broken marriage, doesn’t mean you are alone. Every marriage has its flaws and hardships to overcome.
My first 4 years of marriage were very difficult, and at times I felt like we couldn’t make it. I didn’t know how to communicate with my husband, so whenever I was upset, I would just shut down. This is not something that will help your relationship.
One of the first things to do if you feel like your marriage is falling apart is going to a counselor or therapist
I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have a third person who is not in the relationship or biased of any kind, listening. In order to fix a broken marriage, you need to figure out what needs mending.
Identify and acknowledge love languages
How are you showing your spouse you love them? Are you giving them gifts because that’s what you like to receive? Show them love in their language, and it will reciprocate to you. And if you aren’t feeling loved, tell them. They might have no idea you feel this way.
Let yourself be vulnerable
Communicate openly and effectively. Do not criticize the way your spouse does things, but communicate what you do and do not like.
Both of you need to be open to discuss the importance of your marriage. If you aren’t willing to be vulnerable and seek help, there is a good chance your marriage will not succeed.
Life Coach | Founder, Stacey Greene Coaching
Fixing a broken marriage is a wide subject. Was there infidelity? Was there the loss of a child and one parent is not grieving in the same way? Was there a financial downturn that is stressing the couple out? Perhaps the kids are all grown and the two of you are looking at each other like complete strangers.
In any and all cases, it will all come down to communication
The ways in which we communicate might have to go through a complete overhaul. Yelling does not work. Passive-aggressive behavior does not work. Hashing over the same old material does not work.
One wonderful exercise I love to do with couples is to have them recreate a photo album from their dating years. They are asked to write letters to their younger selves as well as write letters to their spouses as if they were younger.
When they come back to the next coaching call, it is amazing to see that they had oftentimes had just forgotten why they fell in love until they review where they started.
From there we can get to the meat of the issues that are currently plaguing their relationship. We find the places where they are strong and work off of those places to fix the brokenness they are experiencing.
Master Life Coach | Spiritual Teacher | Best-Selling Author
You can fix your broken marriage quickly if you stop holding your spouse accountable for agreements they never made.
Your spouse was raised by a different family with completely different rules, philosophies and expectations. Your rules and expectations aren’t better or worse than theirs.
Take the time to write out all of the rules and expectations they are breaking and have a discussion. You will discover that your spouse never agreed to your expectations. You will also discover that the source of your conflict is your opinion that they should operate the way you want them to.
Be honest with yourself
Everything that you resist about your spouse is actually something you are unwilling to admit about yourself. You have no idea who your spouse is.
You only have your interpretations. In other words, you are seeing yourself in your spouse. It’s a very tough thing to admit but it is the only way you will fix your broken marriage.
Admit that your spouse is doing the best they can according to the way they were raised
Your spouse sees the world differently than you do. Your perspective is not more valid or less valid. It’s just different.
You have both been growing since you got married. You aren’t the same people who said, “I do”. It’s time to get back to asking questions about their perspectives on almost every important topic.a
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics
Like any relationship, a marriage requires your needs being met, but it also means that you should be meeting the other person’s needs.
A fundamental aspect of a healthy relationship is communication and being open and honest with your spouse about what you need is important.
Once you both know where the other feel a lack in the relationship, you’re better armed to make your own personal changes to help fulfill those needs. It takes work from both sides, but there’s no reason why it can’t happen if you’re both fully invested in fixing the marriage.
Life can often get in the way of the work required to put into your relationship, which allows your marriage to fall to the wayside.
In an attempt to fix your marriage, make it your number one priority and remove distractions. Whether that’s reintroducing date night, eating breakfast together, or just making sure that you put your partner first, decide on how you’re going to remove the distractions on the road to fixing your marriage.