Find out if your marriage can be saved and if it can, how to save it.
By Susan Heitler — Last updated on Jul 25, 2023
Photo: PeopleImages.com – Yuri A / Shutterstock
As a specialist in marriage rescue, I’m here to help you learn how to save your marriage.
You can tell your marriage probably needs saving if you’ve been feeling angry about what has been happening or hopeless about your ability to change the situation. The good news is feelings like anger and hopelessness can offer you important clues and a fresh point of view.
Negative emotions can give you insight to help clarify what you want in your relationship. These negative emotions will guide you to a better marriage.
First, if you find yourself putting in all the effort to save your marriage, realize this is not a good indicator of your partner’s commitment to your relationship.
However, there are certain initial actions one spouse can take to save the relationship. Think about how you react in emotionally charged situations with your partner. What can you do to react with more empathy, love, and understanding?
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Taking the first step to save a marriage when you are the only one willing to start is a huge weight to carry, so be sure to pay attention to this factor until you’re not the only one willing to do the work.
How do I know if my marriage is worth saving?
A great sign a failing marriage is worth saving is when both partners are willing and able to do whatever it takes.
Many couples struggle over whether their relationship is salvageable or not because of the fear of facing a divorce and the remorse over a failed marriage.
However, a marriage is worth saving if your relationship is not toxic, if trust can be rebuilt, you still share the same values, and have the utmost respect for one another.
When you first fell in love, it felt like you were glued together permanently, but maintaining a marriage goes much deeper than being in love, because love alone cannot fix a relationship. Though love combined with being willing and able to put in the relationship work will fix it.
With a divorce rate between 40-50 percent, it’s clear not every marriage can be saved. But most marriages can, it comes down to the reasons you want to fix your relationship in the first place.
Are you having trouble communicating? Does your spouse’s family come between you? Is your partner quick to criticize? These are all examples of situations that, more or less, can be worked through together.
However, there are some complex situations, like a partner with an addiction, a partner who cheated and broke trust, or a partner with mental illness. In these situations, outside counseling and support will be needed.
The state of your marriage matters. If a marriage is toxic, or physically or emotionally abusive, pay attention: this was never a relationship that could be saved. In fact, experiencing abuse or toxic behavior in your relationship should point you towards the exit door.
Toxic or abusive relationships aren’t just bad, they are harmful — to you, to your children, and to your future.
As for whether or not a bad marriage can be saved, first, ask yourself why you think your marriage is bad. Is it because you and your partner fight often? Do you have resentment towards your spouse? Do you hate some of your partner’s bad behaviors?
While none of those necessarily point to a “bad” marriage, they are certainly components of relationship problems a couples can work through.
How to Save Your Marriage
How do you save a marriage when you feel hopeless?
1. Make a list of all the issues you argue or feel hopeless about.
Anger does not mean it’s time to fight. Hopelessness does not mean you should give up on saving your marriage and get divorced. Anger and hopelessness do indicate there’s a problem, a bump on your marriage path.
So, begin by asking yourself, “What do I feel angry or hopeless about?”
Write out a list of all the issues you have been arguing about or giving up on. Include the issues your spouse has as well as the ones that irritate and frustrate you.
2. Shift the focus back to yourself.
Notice when you feel angry how your focus will tend to be on your spouse, on what they do that frustrates you. This second step requires a shift in focus, a shift from focusing outward on your spouse to focusing inward on your own concerns and desires.
Circle back to your list and ask yourself, “With regard to this issue, what do I want?” or, “What is my concern?”
Be sure you aren’t writing what you want your spouse to do. If you have been writing “I want them to…” you have yet to shift your focus. List only phrases that start with, “I want to…”
For example, “I want them to stop being so messy and to clean up after themselves” focuses on your spouse. Whereas, “I want to find a way to make the spaces I spend time in, like the kitchen and our living room, to be more neat and orderly” focuses on yourself.
Attempts to change your partner only invite defensiveness. That strategy will get you nowhere.
Instead, use your energy to figure out what you want and what you might do differently to get it, becoming “self-centered” in the best possible sense. When spouses look at what they might do differently to get what they want, they make progress toward saving the relationship.
You can also use visualizing techniques to help you implement these first two steps. Visualizing enables you, by closing your eyes, to see more deeply into your thoughts and understandings.
This video illustrates first how to use visualizing to identify situations that create anger or hopelessness (such as, depression). Visualizing can help you to clarify how you might find better ways to get what you want without changing the other person.
3. Cut out the negativity.
The negative muck you give each other is totally unhelpful.
Negative comments to each other taint a positive relationship. So, no more criticism, complaints, blame, accusations, anger, sarcasm, digs or snide remarks. No more raised voices or angry escalations either. Stay in the calm zone.
Exit an argument early and often if either of you starts to get heated so when you re-engage you only talk calmly and cooperatively.
Marriage researcher John Gottman has found marriages generally survive if the ratio of good to bad interactions is five positive for every one negative.
Do you want to survive, or do you want to thrive? If thriving is your goal, aim for a ratio of a million to one and that means do not sling mud.
4. Express your concerns constructively and make decisions cooperatively.
A simple way to stay constructive in sensitive conversations is to use one of the following sentence starters:
“My concern is…”
“I would like to…”
Understanding each other’s concerns is essential for the two of you to begin doing what I call the win-win waltz.
The goal of the win-win waltz is to reach solutions that please you both. No more aiming to get your way. Aim instead for both of you to feel comfortable with your plan of action.
To do the win-win waltz, notice your differences, which probably will become evident because you are beginning to argue or feel hopeless. Express your underlying concerns. Ask about and list your partner’s concerns. Have empathy for your spouse.
Then, create a plan of action responsive to all the concerns.
5. Eliminate the three ‘As’ that ruin marriages.
Affairs, addictions, and excessive anger — you don’t have to read advice from relationship experts to know these are relationship deal-breakers. They are out-of-bounds in a healthy marriage.
If you are indulging in one of these self-defeating and relationship-destroying habits, get the habit out of your life. If your spouse is the one with the problem, trying to learn how to save the marriage may be a mistake.
Either build a new kind of marriage where these do not occur, or end the marriage.
6. Radically increase the positive energy you share with your partner.
Smile more; hug more; have more sex; be more appreciative; spend more time dwelling on the things you like about each other; help each other more; praise each other more; laugh more; agree more; do more fun things together, start paying more attention to one another.
The best things in life really are free. The more positives you give, the more you’ll get.
7. Go back to the basics.
Study the skills required for a successful marriage.
Would you expect to drive a car without first taking driver’s ed? Find books and marriage education courses to learn the communication and conflict resolution skills for marriage partnerships.
You’ll find your anger and hopelessness fade and help you transform your marriage into a loving success.
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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a marriage counselor, author, speaker and innovator who specializes in teaching couples the skills they need to enjoy a strong, long-lasting and loving partnership.