How to Save Your Marriage: 8 Steps

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How to save your marriage in 8 easy steps

Are you worried about your marriage? Dr. Anna Fekete, Ph.D., is here to help you save it. A clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City, Fekete is also the supervisor of psychiatric rehabilitation therapy at Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai West Hospitals. At her Manhattan office, she’s encountered endless variations on the same challenge: couples who can’t get along anymore. A former classical musician, her unique blend of artistic and scientific training along with a life lived internationally and more than 20 years in the field mean her insights are born out of practical experience. Read on for tips for laying a healthy relationship foundation, common causes and solutions to marital strain, healthy communication tools and when to seek professional help.

STEP 1: How to save your marriage

Build a strong foundation

First and foremost, says Fekete, think of your relationship like owning a home. If you're a homeowner, every time you have an issue, you fix it right away. You don’t wait for the whole house to fall down before you start making repairs. You need to treat your marriage the same way. Every time a small problem arises, repair it immediately before it turns into a bigger issue. Don’t just watch TV, she says, and assume that leaky foundation will fix itself. Perform regular maintenance and checkups to make sure all aspects of your relationship are leak-free, strong and ready for what may come.

STEP 2: How to save your marriage

Understand common issues

  • Losing your rose-colored glasses. Sometimes the initial phase of love blinds us to who the other person really is. It can be hard to adjust when those rose-colored glasses come off.
  • Lives that grow apart. As you age and grow in your marriage, you and your spouse change. If you don’t pay attention and make an effort to keep your lives running parallel, the relationship can become strained. You essentially just grow apart. This issue is especially true in a busy city such as New York where people are so career-focused.
  • Personal growth in one person but not the other. Fekete often sees strain when one half of the couple has worked to grow emotionally, spiritually or socially and the other has not.
  • Stress. Enough said.
  • Not having enough time. Busy careers, raising children, social commitments and personal hobbies can take up a lot of time, and relationships often get the short shrift. But maintaining a healthy marriage requires just that — spending time together, relaxing and doing activities that you both enjoy.
  • Lack of stimulation. Relationships can fizzle when one or the other partner becomes bored. Find ways to spend time together that are interesting to both people.
  • Lack of physical intimacy. Has it been years? Sex is an important way to connect with one another and has been proven to reduce stress.
  • Lack of emotional intimacy. In successful marriages, both people share feelings and support one another during times of stress. Emotional intimacy helps you grow together and deepens your connection to one another.
  • False expectations. Sometimes people believe — often unconsciously — that the relationship doesn’t need work to be okay. Fakete likens this assumption to people assuming that summer will bring the sun. Unfortunately, just because you’re in love doesn’t mean you get to just kick back and stop making an effort.
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STEP 3: How to save your marriage

Find solutions to stressors

To battle boredom, go out together, have friends over or make an effort to meet new ones, share new experiences and activities. Fekete suggests activities where you DO instead of consume. For instance, instead of watching movies together, cook together. Co-parent a dog together. Travel together. These shared experience will create a deeper bond.

To overcome a lack of intimacy, make an effort to look into your spouse’s eyes. Do it multiple times each day. Touch your partner when he or she is nearby. Show her that you see her. Even better, says Fekete, consciously make eye contact when you’re doing a shared activity such as cooking together. Rebuild your bond.

To address a lack of time, sit down with your spouse and both of your calendars. Schedule time for each other when you both are free. Even if it’s only once a week, you will know that time is just for you. Each day brings us more time and many decisions to make, says Fekete. Successful couple decide to choose each other. If you find it impossible to adjust your life schedules to spend time together, says Fekete, that’s important information about the reality of the relationship.

STEP 4: How to save your marriage

Avoid damaging communication

Communication is the brick and mortar of a solid relationship. It’s also your most important tool for letting your partner know what’s going on with you and how you can learn how your partner feels. And it’s what you use to address problems. Kindness is key, especially when discussing tender topics. Watch out for these marriage-hurting methods of communicating:

  • Spite. Don’t say things to deliberately hurt or offend your partner.
  • Shaming. Don’t purposefully make your partner feel bad for actions or words.
  • Criticism. Don’t judge your partner’s behaviors.
  • Blame. Don’t immediately look for who’s at fault.
  • Labeling. Don’t tell your partner what they feel or why they behave as they do. For example, Fakete advises not to say, "You don’t care about me. All you want to do is work and party with your friends because you’re a jerk." Instead she suggests that you say, “I feel left alone when you come home late. I want you to kiss me more often. I want you to know this is not enough for me.”

STEP 5: How to save your marriage

Use positive communication

It important to acknowledge your spouse’s communication style, says Fekete. Speak to each other in a way that you both understand. A simple rule is to conscientiously have five positive interactions to balance out every one negative one — or try to have only positive communications. Here are a few examples of positive communications:

  • Say "please" and “thank you” on a regular basis. These both seem so simple that they are easy to overlook, but they go a long way in making life together pleasant and respectful.
  • Give your partner a nice compliment.
  • Tell your partner when they look good. Be specific. "You look great in that blue shirt; it really makes your eyes look pretty."
  • Tell your partner that it feels good when they stroke your hair — or let them know when any other behavior makes you feel good.
  • Give positive feedback with gratitude and love. "You worked hard to get the kids ready this morning. Thanks for doing such a great job."
  • Acknowledge (lovingly) the contributions you see your spouse making to the relationship.

These kinds of communications don’t need to be awkward. Practice makes it easier to notice when your partner is being terrific and let them know in a genuine way.

STEP 6: How to save your marriage

Prevent unnecessary fight

Some conflict is normal in any relationship, but ceaseless fighting is no fun for anyone. Try these simple strategies to help cool down crazy moments before they escalate out of control:

  • Pay attention to how you package your messages, questions, complaints and needs. This is Fighting Prevention 101.
  • When you’re upset, pause and ask yourself what is actually happening. Not what you think is happening. You can prevent a battle just by asking your partner what happened before assuming you know his or her motivations. For example, maybe she never called back because her battery died not because she didn’t care if you got picked up at the train station.
  • Regularly monitor what is objectively happening in relation to your mental and emotional responses. How do you interpret what your partner does? If you always assume the worst, practice having an open mind and pausing before jumping to conclusions.
  • Don’t assume or label your partner: You can’t actually read minds, and your partner is the only person who really knows how he feels.

When you’re aware and conscious of your emotional reactions, explains Fekete, you’re in control of them instead of being ruled by them. If you’re upset, you can say, "I’m angry," to your spouse, but you don’t have to act out or be passive aggressive. This allows more room for real communication. This way, Fakete says, you can discover if there is a problem and find the space to start talking about it.

STEP 7: How to save your marriage

What to do if you can't stop fighting

In peaceful, loving moments, make a little contract with each other of what will happen when you get into your next fight. Create simple signs or communications you can give each other in the heat of the moment that won’t be misunderstood and that will allow for timeouts. This type of plan can help diffuse tense situations, giving each of you space and time to talk when the situation is less heated.

For example, before shouting begins, one person goes into the bedroom and closes the door while the other walks around the block to keep the peace. Or stop in the moment and agree to talk about your issue the next day. It can be uncomfortable, Fakete says, but you can learn together how to pause.

STEP 8: How to save your marriage

Get professional help

Sometimes couples go through such times of difficulty that the best solution is to get help from an impartial professional. Here are some signs that this may be what you need:

  • Increased conflict
  • Emotions losing their depth
  • Unfaithfulness
  • Intensifying of boredom
  • Miscommunication
  • Lack of sex
  • Attempts/plans to resolve things haven’t been maintained or it always turns to fighting and nothing gets solved
  • Increased anger
  • Unvoiced tension is piling up

If you decide to seek professional help for your marriage, Fekete urges you not to start with a lawyer. A lawyer’s role is not to bring couples together but to protect one person in the relationship. On that note, she says friends often act as "lawyers" for their friend in the relationship by trying to help their friend “win.” Fakete warns that if one person “wins” in a relationship fight, the relationship overall loses. Talk more to your partner about your concerns than to your friends.

Love is not always enough, Fakete says. Even deep, true love can’t always sustain itself if people grow apart or stop getting along. Take time to invest in your relationship and put in the work. Like a solid house, it will keep you safe and secure if you maintain it.

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