A broken marriage can be very difficult to deal with, and if left unaddressed, it will only get worse.
So what do you do when your marriage is in trouble, but counseling is not an option? We asked relationship experts to share their insights.
Erica Cramer, LCSW
Dating and Relationship Expert | Clinical Social Work/Therapist, Cobb Psychotherapy NYC
Marriages “break” for many different reasons. From not putting any effort into the relationship to having a sordid affair.
When a relationship is broken, both people have to want to fix it for the repair to be successful. This will require each party to be willing to invest the time and energy necessary to resolve the situation.
In order to effectively address problems outside of a therapist’s office, each person needs to be humble and willing to own up to their mistakes. They must be willing to listen and truly understand what their partner is saying. They must also be committed to growth and change.
If you are more of a Do-It-Yourself person and would like to avoid marital counseling at all costs, here are 5-steps to help repair the damage and salvage your broken marriage:
Write each other a letter
Writing it out before talking it out can help you flesh out your thoughts—calmly and organized—and gives you both a safe space to see opinions and issues from the other’s perspective.
Letter writing also forces you to think before you speak.
When you don’t have a mediator, it’s important that you’re fighting fair. Writing it out allows people to re-read lines and ensure the points they’re trying to get across are easy to understand, avoid accusatory statements, and they’re communicating in a manner their partner can receive the information.
It also eliminates loud voices and defensiveness and gives both of you the time to process your own thoughts. Sometimes writing it all down is just as simple as needing a “thought dump.” Purging these built-up issues and feelings.
Once you get it all out, you might decide some points are small and symptomatic of bigger issues and not even worth mentioning. You may read what’s been plaguing the relationship from your own perspective and understand that you might need a professional, or it may not be worth salvaging to you.
You may just need to get it all out there and decide that it was more cathartic to you than necessary to share with them, and it might alleviate the issue right at its pain point. Plus, writing doesn’t involve any loud voices, and most people edit any accusatory statements.
Ask a mutual friend to mediate
Maybe you have tried to talk, and it always ends in a screaming match. Get a person you both trust and respect to mediate a productive conversation between the two of you. This person should know both of you well and not be biased in one way or another.
Set parameters around the conversation prior to having it.
If you’re taking this step, remember that you are taking measures to avoid counseling, and you can’t kill the messenger. You need to be prepared and mindful not to hold a grudge against the mediator; you brought them in after all.
They are trying their best to help you, and if they say or do something you do not like, they aren’t a professional and are certainly not at fault. They have your best interest at heart and are trying to help you both repair the marriage.
Be respectful of their time and sacrifice by remaining open to listening to your partner, truly hearing what they have to say, and avoiding interruption or raising your voice. When the conversation gets loud or out of control, the mediator’s responsibility is to call you out. Don’t take offense.
Stop, listen and reset. If you are not able to abide by these guidelines, it may be time to consider a professional mediator.
Take a break together
It’s hard not to be happy on vacation. Sometimes, you have to get back into the bubble to remember what you love about one another and get a taste of “when things are good.” It makes it easier to open up the lines of communication, take down walls, and want to work it out.
Whether it’s hitting the slopes in Aspen or relaxing on a beach in The Bahamas, traveling can be a good way to start to repair a broken marriage.
Travelling enables you to work as a team and showcase strengths in your partner that may be hidden in everyday life. But you don’t have to break the bank. Even a staycation at a hotel that you love or leaving the stress of domestic chores, work, and kids for a few days and changing your scenery can really work wonders.
It also gives you more time and energy to work on your relationship and allows you to relax and focus on reconnecting.
Imagine life without your partner
In any marriage, there are many times when you cannot stand your partner. It’s normal to feel this way, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. The difference between healthy annoyance and toxicity is the root of these frustrations and the solution.
- Is your partner just not helpful around the house?
- Are they super messy or sometimes controlling?
- Maybe they ask innumerable questions when you’re clearly busy?
- Perhaps they never want to choose what’s for dinner but then say you always pick what you want?
That’s annoying, and there’s a difference between being annoyed and living without someone.
Think of the good things they bring to your life and the relationship, and consider living without them in your life. Imagine what it would be like to wake up alone. Not have an automatic plus one for events. Raise children alone. Shoulder all of the expenses.
These are important logistical concerns to consider before deeming a marriage broken and not putting in the effort to fix it. You also need to be able to identify what’s beyond an annoyance and moves into unhealthy territory. This is covered deeper in my last and final tip.
Pick your battles
We all have negotiables and non-negotiables. Don’t die on the soapbox over something small. A counselor will learn you as a couple and individuals and help you both define your issues, how to communicate them, how to improve them, and what’s more and less important to you both.
If you’re doing it on your own, you need to be prepared to have some pretty serious conversations with yourself about what you can live with and other things that you cannot live without. Be clear on what falls into which category in your marriage.
If your marriage is broken because of things that are unimportant, try to keep them in perspective. No one is perfect, not your partner and not you. It is important to make allowances for people and to be able to accept people’s limitations if they do not negatively affect you (they may just be annoying or inconvenient).
Related: How to Fix a Broken Relationship
If the broken things are important to you, that is another story and needs to be properly addressed. Suppose your partner argues with your family, isolates you from friends, or makes poor financial decisions. In that case, these are major issues to consider, and you have to think about whether they can be repaired, the conversations it will take to get there, and what that looks like without a professional.
I’ve seen marriages with a seemingly unbreakable bond encounter the smallest issues, and the couple throws in the towel and walks away. I’ve seen marriages that seem as fragile as a Fabergé egg smash into a million little pieces and, with work, bounce back stronger than ever.
At the end of the day, as long as both partners are on the same page, every broken marriage has a chance.
The way to repair things varies from couple to couple. There isn’t a fix-all solution that will work for everyone, and it’s important to try different things and not become aggravated in the process. You were once happy, you were once in love, you were once a functioning team, and that means there’s a great chance, with some work, you can return to being one.
Ultimately, if you’re both willing to fight for the relationship and doing it yourself hasn’t worked, be open to meeting a professional.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly
Clinical Psychologist | Speaker | Author, “Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly“
Although marriage therapy can help couples address their issues in a highly supportive way, some partners prefer a do-it-yourself approach. If divorce is on the horizon, it’s important to take the marital issues seriously before they get worse.
If both spouses are relatively high functioning, partners who are truly committed can make a great deal of headway by tuning into and addressing marital issues with honesty and compassion.
That said, if one or both partners are highly combative, tend to shut down, or generally have low emotional intelligence, the self-help route can be tremendously challenging; in such cases, a blend of counseling and self-help work can offer the best results.
Couples who are invested in making their marriage thrive can take the following steps to address marital issues:
Make an “appointment” at least once a week to work on relationship issues
Weekends are generally best as work stress is lower, and energy is more available. Use these appointments to address marital issues, work on healthy communication, and tune in to each other. If children are in the picture, arrange for childcare to allow focused time together.
Take a course on healthy communication
Start your first “appointment” by taking a course on healthy communication. Whether partners watch a free online video or purchase a book on communication, learning healthy communication is the first “must.”
Use a self-help relationship book
Use a self-help relationship book as your guide. Find relevant chapters to read to each other to increase self-awareness and relationship connection.
Clear out current baggage first
Then work backwards to address any unresolved issues. Take your time to avoid overwhelm or emotional distress.
Focus on resolving ongoing issues
Focus on resolving ongoing issues without blame and judgment. Use a win-win approach to create lasting solutions.
Create a “fun time” each week
Create a “fun time” each week when marital issues are not addressed to create fun, restorative time as a couple.
Practice giving gratitude to each other daily
The more you focus on what is going right in the marriage, the more your brain will become hardwired to notice how much you love and appreciate your partner.
Susan Silver, MBA, MA, LCPC
Gottman Institute-Trained Couples Specialist | Psychotherapist, Wellington Counseling Group
Five ways to stay in love:
- Show some sort of appreciation every single day.
- Recognize your partner for big and little things.
- Praise your partner for being a good parent or for cleaning up the kitchen.
- Demonstrate some form of physical touch every single day.
- Respond to your partner’s bids for communication and/or affection every day. There are hundreds of opportunities a day where you can affirm your partner if you are paying attention.
- For example, if your partner tells you something, you can respond in a way that shows you are interested, bored, or annoyed that they interrupted you. To respond positively to a bid for affection might be something as simple as smiling at your partner who touches you on the shoulder as you both pass through the kitchen.
- Have fun daily (together and separately).
- Recognize your friendship. Remember how you became friends and what characteristics you recognized in each other.
- Couples who are friends have a much better chance of faring well.
Simple exercises couples can do to keep communication alive:
Exercise 1: Warm morning exercise
Every morning, tell your partner “good morning,” and chat a bit before launching into who needs to drive the kids to school or running out the door to your exercise class. Spend a few minutes talking about what you expect out of your day and when might be a good time to check in with each other.
During COVID, many couples are working from home together, and while they are together all the time, it may not be quality time. Taking a moment to check in with each other so you know what your partner’s day looks like and if they might have time for a quick lunch or check-in is key.
Exercise 2: Something other than you
Talk to your partner about something that doesn’t have to do with them. One partner acts as a listener, and the other the speaker. But, there are rules.
The listener must be supportive and ask good questions of the speaker. They must also be non-judgmental. So let’s say your partner is telling a story about how their boss admonished them for being late to work. A good listener might say something like, “oh yes, I can see how that would be upsetting,” rather than jumping in with a comment like, “well, you are often late.”
We don’t always need a fixer. Many people just want to be really heard.
As a last resort, the listener can ask something like, “Is there any way I can help or something I can suggest?”
Exercise 3: Just give me 20 minutes
Spend 20 minutes talking to each other each day, without distractions. Sure, it can be 15 but make sure this time is dedicated to your partner. The TV should be off, and phones should be put away.
Relationship Coach, Synergy Coaching
What do you do when you know your marriage is in trouble, but counseling is not an option? Many couples face this problem for a variety of reasons.
For some, they don’t have access to counseling because they lack time, money, or childcare. For others, one of them feels strongly against bringing anyone else into the discussion.
Sometimes couples believe that counseling could hurt their careers, status, or credibility. Other times, couples don’t have access to a well-trained therapist.
Whatever the reason, there are options:
Identify the areas that are not working well
With your spouse, identify the areas that are not working well. Talk about the problems in neutral terms. For example, it is better to talk about how we struggle to solve problems rather than, “You always shut down and avoid hard conversations.”
Related: How to Solve Relationship Problems Without Breaking Up?
Identify the areas where your relationship is working well
Try to make this list as long and detailed as possible. These strengths will give you motivation and inspiration when you feel defeated or lose momentum.
Decide on a plan that will address each of the identified trouble areas
Together, decide on a plan that will address each of the identified trouble areas. There are many ways to solve any given problem in a marriage—you are looking for a solution that you both can live with. Be creative in looking for solutions.
- Read a well-respected relationship book together.
- My best recommendation is “The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work” by John Gottman, which addresses many common marriage problems.
- Complete a relationship course together.
- Go on a weekend marriage retreat.
- Meet with a mentor couple.
- Go on a weekly date.
- Learn a new skill together.
- Practice new ways of acting towards one another (i.e., being more appreciative, kinder, or calmer).
Develop a way to evaluate your progress
Most couples need to meet regularly to discuss how things are going so they know if things are getting better or not.
Once you realize that your marriage is in trouble, most people want to fix the problem right away. It is important to remember that change takes time and consistency. The solutions will take dedication and patience to integrate into your relationship in a meaningful and lasting way. You need to focus on changes that you can continue doing for the rest of your relationship.
And, if that doesn’t work, you can always find a well-trained couples therapist. Often, they can shorten the path to long-lasting, sustainable change.
Patricia Love (CPC)
Confidence and Empowerment Coach for Sales Women | Author, “Seen and (un) Heard“
If anyone says marriage is easy, they are flat out lying to you. All marriages have ups and downs, but it’s in that downtime that you might think, “I need a counselor.”
The first thing you need to know is you’re not alone in this; everybody has marriage issues at some point or another—it’s how you choose to work through them.
Yes, you can pay for a counselor once a week for however long, but if both are in it to win it, you can sit down with your spouse and start acknowledging your positives and negatives. You know that conversation you had before you got married when things flowed easily, and you would do anything for the other person?
Well, you can get back to that; it’s just whether or not you both choose to.
The first and most important thing you should do is go out to a quiet place where you can chat, someplace that is comfortable and neutral for both of you—this is where you both sit down and decide whether you want to work on this together. It does take two! But if both parties say “yes,” then you are halfway there.
Here are a few thoughts on how to fix a broken marriage:
Decide together to not make digs at each other
Decide together to not make digs at each other, come up with a safe word (make it a funny word that you might even laugh at) that if you feel your spouse is beginning to dig you or get defensive, you can say the safe word because sometimes we don’t even realize you’re doing it.
Start by saying “I feel” statements
Instead of saying “you should,” start off by saying, “I feel.” When you do this, you’re just letting the other person know how it makes you feel instead of playing the blame game.
Each person should write out their wants and needs
Each person should write out their wants and needs and then make an effort to work through them one at a time to see if it is something that you can compromise on.
Saving a broken marriage is all about communication. Most of the time, the marriage isn’t irreparably broken; it’s just in a growth spurt because you’re both growing and changing. However, you want to make sure you grow together and not apart.
It’s all about choosing to be together, and if you make that decision, you will choose to work on it together.
Therapist | Co-Host, “Why Does My Partner…” Podcast
Lean into the feelings and be concerned about what they are experiencing
We all often think we know best. And this is one of the most common reasons couples fight. Our realities are subjective. And relationally speaking, you want to cultivate space within your relationship for your differences.
The relational answer to who’s right and who’s wrong is “who cares.” This is because the relational answer is, “I care about you trusting the resiliency of this relationship more than I care about which one of us is right.”
So if your partner comes to you with an issue, rather than battle over the details, lean into the feelings and be concerned about what they are experiencing in the relationship between you rather than with arguing the details of what happened.
Risk direct requests
Going after what you want is important if you want a relationship that works for both of you. Many people hope their partner will guess their needs and wants, communicate through complaints, or think, “If you loved me, you’d know what I want without me having to ask.”
When we don’t speak up for our needs, we do a disservice to ourselves and our partners.
Not only do we get less of what we want, but we also leave them in the dark and feeling like they are failing. A solution to this common difficulty is to risk the vulnerability of saying what you want out loud.
The first step is to get clear with yourself about what is a request and what is a demand.
- A demand is something you have to have, or the relationship doesn’t work.
- A request is something you really want or are hoping for.
If your partner isn’t up for it, you can collaborate for something that works for both of you or move through the feelings that are going to come up when you receive that message. That’s a tough one, and it’s worth it.
Rebecca Wong, LCSWR, DARTT
Therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Connectfulness Counseling | Co-Host, “Why Does My Partner…” Podcast
Shift from a “me” focus to a “we” focus
We all fall into slumps where we’re focused on ourselves rather than our relationships. Sometimes we’re simply overworked and busy, or we might be secretly mad and holding some form of resentment.
When we focus on ourselves rather than our relationships, we can get lost in being “me/I focused.”
The work of moving into greater relational health is not about leaving your needs behind; rather, it’s about shifting towards a “we/us focus.” This shift towards “us consciousness” is about knowing that how you’re doing, how I’m doing, and how we are together—it’s all of equal importance.
We sometimes refer to this as “relationship mindfulness.” You can reach this relational mindfulness by asking yourself to pause and remember love before you respond or bring up something hard.
Remind yourself that it’s OK for you and your partner to be different. To have a different agenda, to have different wants and needs—and that in and of itself is not inherently threatening.
Notice when you do take in something your partner says or does that threatens you. Are your boundaries really porous, and you let everything in? Or are you really rigid and walled off and find it hard to connect to others?
When you get curious about how you are showing up in the relationship, you can come out of the blame that we get in when we get defensive and see that you have a part in the dance you guys are stuck in too. Seeing your steps in the dance that’s got you stuck gives you the power to shift your response.
Relationships are a bit like a bicycle; when you change the direction and speed of one wheel, the other one shifts too.
Juliane Taylor Shore, LPC S, LMFT S, SEP
Therapist, Clear is Kind | Co-Host, “Why Does My Partner…” Podcast
Invite yourself into openness to negotiate and communicate that you care about your spouse
Sometimes our partners ask us for things that aren’t a fit for us. There’s a way to say no that is provocative, and there’s a way to say no that invites partnership. Try saying no, and…
Here’s how to think about it: My partner really wants something; I care about them and want to find a way to help them feel good, but what they’re asking for doesn’t work for me. I want to partner with them to solve this dilemma together.
Get curious about what needs and wants your partner is trying to meet. Invite yourself into openness to negotiate and communicate that you care about your spouse. It might go like this:
“No, that doesn’t feel good to me, and I can tell this is super important to you. Tell me more about what your hopes are. I want us to figure this out together.”
Executive Coach and Couples Coach
Consider couples coaching
For many couples, the idea of couples counseling or therapy is aversive. These approaches are often seen as “last-ditch” efforts before meeting with attorneys. Additionally, for many individuals, the decision to end the relationship has already been made, even if not verbalized, and meeting with a counselor is a formality to say all attempts were made to save the marriage.
A different option to strengthen a marriage is couples coaching. Unlike martial therapy, which often spends significant time focusing on past issues to correct the present situation, couples coaching starts with where the couple is now and how to utilize the strengths of the relationship to improve the present and the future.
Instead of believing they have to reinvent themselves, coaching acknowledges that there are already existing behaviors, skills, thoughts, and feelings that can be the foundation for the improvement of the marriage.
Couples coaching works by providing a space for the couple to establish clear goals and then determining concrete strategies to achieve those goals.
Coaching provides the opportunity for the couple to be the experts in the relationship, determining what works for them rather than strategies sometimes found in therapy that are generalized for the majority of couples. Couples coaching truly becomes an individuated experience specific to the couple.
Medical Reviewer & Addiction Advocate, OK Rehab
Fixing a broken marriage without therapy is challenging, but it’s possible if both parties are willing to work on the relationship. Here are some tips for restoring your marriage:
Schedule regular time together
Your marriage does not deteriorate overnight. The majority of the time, broken marriages are the result of unhealthy problem-solving. For example, if you were arguing with your partner all the time, you may have decided to spend less time together, which only worsens relationship issues.
The best way to solve this is to schedule regular time together so that you can get to know each other again and grow together rather than apart.
Write each other letters
It isn’t always easy to communicate about deep issues face-to-face, so I often recommend that my patients write letters to each other.
You could address how your partner has hurt you, how you have hurt them, and how you would like your relationship to change for the better. Swap letters and take the time to read each other’s thoroughly, trying not to take it too personally.
After reading the letters, it may be easier to start a conversation about your marriage.
Don’t be scared of conflict
Every marriage involves conflict, so don’t naively think that you will never argue once you solve your relationship issues. As long as the conflict is healthy and neither member of the couple is being bullied, there is no reason that arguments should prevent you from growing closer.
However, it is important to practice self-control when arguing so that the conflict remains productive. Try setting a timer for a minute and expressing all your thoughts to your partner, then immediately set the timer for another minute and allow your partner to talk.
This helps both you and your partner to get your points across without being interrupted.
Rio and Micca Watkins
Relationship Strategists, Powermate | Matchmakers | Transformational Speakers
Counselling has become a common practice among couples before they tie the knot. It’s almost like a reassurance that they’ve checked one more thing off the list to their journey down the aisle. But what happens after you’ve said “I do,” and it’s just the two of you.
In a study done by comparecamp, 42% of married couples got divorced in 2020 (that is down from 50% in the 1980s). The same study also shows that 58% of Americans believe that divorce is much better than staying together in an unhappy marriage.
But how can you actually work on staying together and giving your union your all? By being O.P.E.N.
Here are four ways that vulnerability can help to fix a broken marriage without counseling:
- O– Offer a safe space for your spouse to communicate without judgment. The more they feel like they can be themselves, the more they will be able to share their views on your marriage.
- P– Participate in the conversation by also offering your perspective on the marriage without pointing the finger at your spouse.
- E– Earn the trust of your partner back by offering possible solutions to save your marriage.
- N– Normalize a new routine by adding vulnerability nights to your marriage. These are just like date nights, but they are specifically designed for you to both share your perspectives on the state of your marriage.
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