What should you do if your marriage is in distress? A lot.
If you do what you have always done in your marriage, you will get what you currently have. You have to change it up. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. And sometimes it’s just downright awkward and uncomfortable. But, often, it is both necessary and effective. Most couples don’t know where to start in their fight.
1) Spend time together. This should be a no-brainer. If you want to save your marriage you should prioritize spending time together, right? I can’t tell you how many couples come to marriage counseling in hopes of saving their marriage, yet spend little to no time together. Or, the only time they can recall spending in the same room is to tend to their children or household chores.
Yes it may feel awkward. Yes it may feel uncomfortable. Especially if you have gone months or years without spending quality one-on-one time together. If you don’t know where to start, start with these things:
- Find a mutually enjoyed (even on a minor level) TV show.
- Plan a mutually enjoyed (even on a minor level) activity, such as hiking, taking the dog for a walk, going to a local museum, seeing a play, volunteering together, or going to a concert.
- Find a mutually enjoyed (even on a minor level) podcast, movie or book. Debrief your thoughts about it.
- Do something routine. Ensure that you do something at the same time every single day. For now. For the next 90 days. It can be eating breakfast at the island at the same time. It can be reading the headlines of the morning paper and talking about it. It can be coming home at 6 and sharing a favorite drink together as you briefly chat about your day. Pick something mundane and routine and do it every single day.
2) Talk. Again, this should be a no-brainer. However, I can’t tell you how many couples come to marriage counseling who rarely talk. Or, the only types of conversations they have are related to raising their children or figuring out schedules.
Let me address the biggest reason struggling couples do not talk: it makes matters worse. They are caught in such a negative cycle that every time they try to tackle their problems, things escalate and they feel worse and more disconnected. If this is you, then read on to step #3. To be honest, things will likely not get better without it.
3) Counseling. I think the easiest way to understand the role counseling can play in your deteriorating marriage is to think about weight loss. If you joined the millions of aspiring dieters and made a New Years goal to lose a few pounds, you probably had to change a few things up. Maybe you are waking up earlier in the morning to exercise. Maybe you are eating differently on a daily basis. Maybe you are reading up on diet and nutrition so you can better understand how to implement a healthy lifestyle. Here’s what you probably aren’t doing. You probably aren’t saying “I want to lose 10 pounds” and then doing EVERYTHING the same except going to the gym twice a month. This is how many couples do couples counseling. They do EVERYTHING else the same that they have done for the last many years of their disconnecting marriage, except now, they are coming to therapy twice a month. While I do not want to minimize anyone’s efforts to come to therapy (this is often a HUGE step for many) it’s just not going to be enough on its own.
4) Read together. Pick a marriage/relationship book or workbook and read it together. Chat together at least once a week about what you learned, what stood out to you, what you related to. Here is a list of books we love:
- Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson
- Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
- An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples (Workbook) by Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jennifer Fitzgerald
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D.
- The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Pick one and read it together. Talk about it once or twice a week.
5) Up the ante. I use this phrase a lot in therapy when a couple is on the verge of collapse. It is probably time to up the ante. Put more into it. A lot more. What does this mean? This can mean a lot of things (look at #1-3) and then some. Here are some specific ways to up the ante to ensure you are doing what it takes to fight:
- Go to a couples workshop, some ideas are Hold me Tight Workshops, and Gottman Workshops.
- Participate in Couples Intensive Therapy. Often couples therapists will offer 2-5 day intensives. You can reach out to couples therapists in your community for referrals.
- Schedule weekly couples sessions for the next 6 months.
- Supplement your couples sessions with individual therapy. Ask your couples therapist for a referral. Ask your couples therapist for ideas on things to work on in individual therapy that may help your marriage.
I recently changed up my exercise routine. With two young kids, I have found the easiest, most time-effective way to sneak in an exercise is to run – right out my door and through my neighborhood. This winter, the weather in Charlotte has been horrid. It has rained almost every day since September. I don’t run in rain, especially cold rain. So, I joined a gym class. Do you know what I noticed? In doing something different, something that I haven’t done in a long time, I feel uncomfortable most of the class. My body aches as muscles I haven’t used in years remind me loudly of their lack of use. And as my heart pounds, my thoughts are on repeat…this sucks. This feels bad. I don’t like this. I am so tired. But I persist, because I know I’m working towards something. I persist because I remind myself that growth and change is not comfortable. In fact, growth and change can feel really uncomfortable, even painful.
- 5 ways to fight for your marriage are 1) Spend time together; 2) Talk; 3) Commit to counseling; 4) Read a relationship related book together; 5) Up the ante – go to a workshop, couples intensive or commit to weekly couples therapy sessions.
- It can be uncomfortable, awkward and downright unpleasant, as is anything you do that helps you grow.