Save Your Marriage and Keep It Strong

Some years back, I had the honor of working with a particular couple who brought in a relationship in serious distress.  The course of their therapy seemed, at one time or another, to touch on most things that come up in the course of two people trying to build a life together.  The partners worked very, very hard in therapy, and eventually built a relationship that strengthened them both and became a source of comfort and safety rather than the source of pain and confusion it had been in the beginning.
They asked me at the end if I would make a list of the important points that had come up in treatment, so that they could be sure to remember all the lessons that had helped so much.  Being moved by the intensity of their effort and commitment, I did, and the list that follows was born. 

This list is certainly not a complete accounting of what it takes to keep every relationship healthy.  It represents the changes that most commonly result from relational counseling, and is comprised of strategies which are good basic ideas for almost anyone.   The information below is presented in no particular order, as any of these ideas may be the most important for you, depending on the day.  If you are looking for ways to strengthen your relationship and are not sure what to do, consider this a good start...
1. Provide a Healthy Foundation for the Relationship
Take the best care of yourself that you can, so you can be a healthier, more interesting, and more effective partner.  This means quality nutrition, regular physical activity, consistent stress management, and maintaining some individual interests.
Maintain and nurture social connections outside the relationship.  It is too much to ask to expect your partner to be your sole source of emotional sustenance.  Outside connections allow for fresh energy and ideas in the relationship, keeping it more vibrant and interesting for both partners.  

Focus on always being the highest-quality partner that you are capable of being; what you are capable of will vary from day to day -- your job is to give the best you have, however much or little it is, regardless of whether your partner does the same.  This will eliminate waiting for each other to go first and the general one-down-manship that so contaminates many relationships.  Even if your relationship must end, you will feel better if you know you made your best effort and conducted yourself with dignity throughout.  

2. Strengthen/Protect the Connection Whenever You Can
Always let your partner know when you notice and appreciate something about who they are or something they've done.  It is common for longer-term partners to begin skipping this important part of relationship maintenance, leaving each other feeling unappreciated and unseen.  Everyone likes to feel special, particularly in the eyes of the one they love.  This never changes.
Make regular time to be together; this is the space in which the relationship can exist, and too many couples let it fall off the priority-list, to their detriment.  Depriving your relationship of this necessary nurturing will inevitably lead to its deterioration, and potentially to its failure.  Don't make the mistake of assuming that your relationship is immune to this effect.  It's not.
Create regular opportunities for meaningful conversation and shared activities of interest.  This is what you did during your courtship when the relationship was so wonderful.  It worked then; it still works now.  Many couples overlook this obvious strategy for strengthening their connection and increasing intimacy.  When was the last time you made a good memory together?
Remember that your partner has allowed you to be close, where they are vulnerable.  Your partner is trusting you to use that closeness in loving, rather than attacking, ways.  Never violate this trust.
Be fully "with" your partner in as many of your interactions as possible.  Have some real eye contact and intentional affection every day. 
Remember that the only way you can connect with your partner is through your perception of them, and that perceptions can easily be inaccurate.  Always check the accuracy of your perceptions before you react.  Ask questions, check facts, etc.
Remember the relationship will stay the healthiest if it is a partnership, not a dictatorship.  Work consciously at being a team -- especially in parenting.
Beware of very slow, incremental loss of quality in the relationship.  This happens quite easily when partners have many other demands to handle.  It is a common mistake to assume that the relationship will be okay on cruise control for a while -- it won't.  Partners should discuss loss of quality as soon as it reaches the awareness of either one, and make specific, purposeful changes to restore the relationship to full health.
Think about the relationship's well-being and what you can do to enhance it, every day.  A client once asked me, after they'd done this for a while and it was working really well, "How long do we have to do this?"  The answer was, and is, "For the rest of your lives."
Make sure that at least for a moment in each day, you do something to show your partner that they are loved.
3. General Maintenance Strategies
Speak up early if something is bothering you that is part of any existing or potentially damaging pattern; do this gently and with respect.  Annoyances of the one-shot or extremely rare variety, or that do not damage the integrity of the relationship, can often be let go.  In other words, choose your battles.
If your partner brings a concern to your attention, try to receive it with interest and curiosity rather than defensiveness.  Whether your partner's perception is accurate or not, they feel the way they feel and that's important.  Working through such issues strengthens the connection between you.
Regardless of what feelings you may experience, what you decide to do to express them or act on them is always your responsibility.  Nobody can "make" you do anything.  If you do something harmful, insensitive, inappropriate, etc., take ownership of it ASAP:  Apologize (be specific) and make any necessary amends.
When in doubt, err on the conservative side.  This means your default strategies are to always give your partner the benefit of the doubt up front, and to always seek actions and solutions that preserve or strengthen the relationship.  If you later find it was a mistake to do this, at least you made the mistake with the lower level of damage; mistakes that damage the partner or the relationship are always much more costly.  (Hint: You should always evaluate your words and actions based on how they will affect the quality and strength of the relationship.)
Go with the lowest common denominator.  For example, if one partner wants to make love and the other doesn't, wait until you're both ready.  Never proceed with any decision (sexual or otherwise) that gratifies one partner at the cost of neglecting or violating the other.

Maintain a shared understanding of financial status and decisions.  This improves the quality of partnering, and also means that should one partner become incapacitated, the other will be able to keep the household system intact.
Monitor the number of external demands (jobs, kids' activities, social activities, projects, etc.) that you and your partner are juggling.  Reduce them as necessary to maintain sanity and connectedness at home.
Seek counseling or other help as soon as you realize your relationship is suffering and that you are unable to repair it.  Most couples wait far too long, accumulating additional years of damage to work around; many couples simply wait too long and show up in a therapist's office after they've already passed the point of no return.  If you've been in trouble for a number of weeks, you probably haven't yet exhausted all your options for managing it at home; if you can measure your time of difficulty in months, it's probably time to seek help.  If you can measure it in years, you're running late but can make the best of it by not delaying another day.

4. Communication Strategies
Respect and caring are the foundation of every successful relationship.  There is no subject you will ever need to discuss that can't be discussed in a respectful and caring way.  If you have an issue to bring up that you can't discuss in that manner, then get help in figuring it out before you speak.  Otherwise, you will do unnecessary damage to the relationship.  Disrespectful and uncaring actions can leave scars that never fully disappear over time -- work very, very hard at preventing them in the first place.
Blaming, judging, and attacking will never solve any problem you have.  These are very efficient strategies for relational destruction.  
Try wording your concerns from a positive direction rather than a negative one.  For example, "I miss you when we don't get to have dinner together," rather than "You work too much.  You should be here more."
When sharing a concern, let your partner know what you want, not just what bothers you; make requests rather than complaints.  For example, "It would mean a lot to me if you would say hi and give me a hug when I come home," rather than, "You always ignore me."
Use "I" messages rather than "you" messages.  An "I" message just lets someone know what you're thinking or feeling, whereas a "you" message usually comes across as blaming and makes the listener feel defensive.  For example, "I'm frustrated because you said you would be here on time, and you weren't," rather than, "You're always late," or "You don't keep your promises."
Maintain an open and accepting attitude toward what your partner has to say.  Even if you don't agree with it, it will give you more insight about where they're coming from, and will convey your respect and interest.  This will position you for much more effective negotiating and problem-solving.
5. Conflict Management and Problem Solving
When you have a conflict:
  1. Work hard at fully understanding each other's needs first.  This is NOT a contest, which implies a winner and a loser.  This is a team effort at dealing with a problem; the needs of both partners are essential in finding a quality solution.
  2. Assume there is a solution that can keep the health of the relationship fully intact (where you both feel respected, cared about, valued).
  3. Don't stop looking for solutions until you find at least one that takes care of both of you.
  4. Revisit the solution, if necessary, to assure that you're both satisfied with how it's working out.
Take extra care and attention in managing yourself and choosing your words/actions during stressful times, because this is when damaging mistakes and backsliding are most likely to occur. 
If you begin to feel like it will be difficult for you to control yourself during a conflict, let your partner know you need to take a break so that you can reorganize and stay constructive.  Never interfere with your partner's need to take a temporary break for this purpose.  Make sure you do come back to the issue at hand in a timely manner.
Consider a 1-10 scale of your interaction, where 1 is totally calm and composed, and 10 represents a truly ugly meltdown.  Since IQ falls as emotional escalation occurs, make sure you disengage if either partner gets to a 3.  Otherwise, you are likely to lapse into damaging patterns of attack and defense which will never solve any problem, and which will create more wounding in the relationship than you already have.
A Final Thought...
The strategies offered here will help in any relationship in which both partners are acting in good faith, with good intentions.  If you find yourself locked in a hurtful, baffling downward spiral despite your best efforts, it is definitely time to seek out a therapist.  These strategies can backfire in relationships that have an emotional power imbalance in which one partner is willing to repeatedly act in ways that are hurtful to the other, especially if done with little remorse or subsequent repair effort.  How to Tell When Your Relationship is Out of Balance will help you determine whether this applies to your situation.
Copyright © 2006, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.

Related articles:

A Healthy Relationship Begins With a Healthy You

How to Tell When Your Relationship is Out of Balance 

How to Turn Arguments into Healthy Discussions


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