Spouses asking that question usually deserve a “yes” answer. The question suggests that, while the marriage might have serious problems, the spouses are still hopeful and motivated. It is when spouses reach the point of not really caring anymore for one another or not caring whether the marriage ends. When this happens, they do not even ask the question. They have reached the stage of apathy, often filled with loathing for one another. Yes, then it is usually too late.
There is a reality that must be faced in order to save a marriage. There is no way to save a marriage if the spouses simply continue to do the same things that they have been doing that do not work. Therefore, one of the biggest hurdles to saving a marriage is when spouses continue to focus on the past and not on the future. There are two reasons for this hurdle:
- Spouses cannot do anything about the past. They can only control the future. This challenges spouses to let go of their mistakes, resentments, hurts and the disappointments. This sounds easy, but is very difficult for most people. It is not something that can be talked through. An example. Ken plays tennis, and the weakest part of his game was his serve. He went to take a lesson from a professional. After watching Ken serve, the coach said that Ken was doing everything wrong. He did not go into detail, but simply said, “Let’s start over,” and began to teach Ken to serve a different and better way. And, it worked! In a troubled marriage, the best way to improve things is to start over and let go of the past.
- The perspectives that spouses have regarding what went wrong are almost always very mistaken. This is particularly true when the marriage is in serious trouble, More specifically, their perspectives about each other are usually excessively and unfairly negative, and worse yet, not very accurate. This issue is the focus of the remainder of this blog.
To start over, spouses must first ask some challenging questions and focus on the future. We present three of them below:
- Does the marriage have problems that have no solutions? The most common problem occurs when one or both spouses have not given up some of the benefits of being single. Some are obvious, like chasing other romantic relationships but some are subtler. Managing money and debt and working towards shared financial goals is a bit more common and problematic. Making independent decisions about how to raise children, what kind of time to spend with friends versus with a spouse and family, difficulties with the extended families of the spouses, and the like. What type of physical relationship to have with one another is another potential problem. There are these and other decisions which can only be successful if spouses accept that they both provide input and make choices that work for both of them.
- Does the marriage have all of the necessary and basic ingredients for a successful marriage? Our book, The Road to Marital Success: Seven Skills for Making Marriage Work, has a list of nine essential ingredients, all of which are introduced and discussed in the book. We cannot cover all of those here, but can emphasize one of the most important: honesty (see the blog, What’s Wrong with Lying (if you can get away with it). In so many ways and for so many reasons, spouses must be able to rely on information that they get from their spouse. Some of this is obvious, like “What did you and your friends do last night?” Some are less obvious, like “Are you worried about how much you are drinking?” Our nine essential ingredients are like the foundation of a building. If not there, the building cannot stand for long.
- Is there a clear understanding of the skills needed for a successful marriage? Here it is important to understand the challenge of a marriage. Spouses come to marriage with differences. Those can involve skills, lifestyle issues, how to parent, how much and what type of physical love to have, how to make and spend money, how much time to spend together as a couple, rather than with friends and activities. The list goes on and on. Those differences show up in disagreements between spouses. When important disagreements do not get resolved successfully, they begin to escalate into conflicts and disputes. This is when the trouble begins. Spouses begin to build a view of one another that is increasingly negative. Arguments are no longer about the disagreement. Instead, they become more and more criticical of one another, sometimes leading to very hurtful denigration.
The core of the marital problems is not related to the perspective each spouse has about the other, but is the unresolved fairly normal disagreements between them. Our evidence-based research finds that resolving disagreements, whether or not they are highly emotional, requires certain skills. That is the focus of our book (cited above), including lessons and drills on how to learn and use those skills.
The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this blog, “Can my marriage be saved?” is, most of the time, “Yes.” However, it takes a mindset very different from what the spouses likely have by the time they ask the question. The focus is on leaving the past behind and focusing on the future. This means having a realistic understanding if there are problems with no solutions, committing to the essential ingredients in a successful marriage and on learning disagreement resolution skills.
Our book gives step-by-step approaches to the fundamentals of saving a marriage. However, this requires a particular attitude necessary for success. Most people think saving, or even improving a marriage, “takes work,” or “takes a lot of hard work”. Not true!
Our book points out that a successful marriage should be fun, much if not most of the time. Research tells us that it takes about five positive experiences in a marriage to balance one negative experience. The practical implication is that a marriage should be fun about five times or more when compared to tackling emotionally charged disagreements. Realizing this, you should be able to manage the more stressful tasks of dealing with marital differences and disagreements, at least improving the marriage.
The approach (in our book) for improving a marriage starts day one with more fun. For example, our exercises and drills for learning skills are meant to be fun. If fact, we often say in the book, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” This does not mean there is no work involved, because there is. However, it should be comparable to “working” at improving with golf, tennis or playing a musical instrument. It should be fun, and will be when you succeed. So, please try.
When souses asks, “Can our marriage be saved,” many couples have two important ingredients to success going for them already: hope and love. If true for you, this makes the pursuit worthwhile and likely more successful.
Other blogs on our website, marriageanddivorce.org, are also likely to be helpful in your endeavor to save your marriage. Please enjoy them, which are available at no charge.
 Everyone remembers the famous Einstein definition of insanity. i.e., doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.