Sam and Blake have been married for 12 years. Their blended marriage includes a child from a previous relationship for both of them, and two of their own. Both parents have shared custody of their child so scheduling anything can be very difficult depending on the reasonableness of the ex-partners. Between soccer practices, dance classes, and piano lessons, just finding time to come to counseling without the kids was a struggle.
But they did it because their marriage was falling apart. The fighting had escalated into threats of divorce; the kids were withdrawing for fear of another divorce; and the tension in the house was unbearable. As a result, Sam and Blake, both professionals, found tons of excuses to avoid home and remain at work longer. They were literally two ships that might pass in the night but definitely would avoid passing at all if they could.
Strangely enough, they agreed on all the major issues in life, including parenting. There were no addictions or infidelities. It was just that life had gotten in the way and by default both put their marriage at the bottom of their priority list. By making a few simple changes, their marriage improved drastically. Here’s what they did:
- Assume the best. The first and most important step in transforming a marriage is to assume the best about your spouse. Without this, all of the other components will fail. Instead of presuming the worst possible intention about what a person said or did, imagine they had good intentions and then go from there. Even if the intent was not good, a positive attitude can impact healthy change.
- Stop abusive behavior. Many couples are unaware that their behavior is abusive. There are seven forms of abuse: physical (blocking a door way, shoving), mental (gaslighting, twisting the truth), emotional (guilt-tripping, instilling fear), verbal (threats, name calling), financial (withholding money, sabotaging spouse’s job), sexual (coercing into having sex, withholding sex), and spiritual (using God as a weapon, dichotomous beliefs).
- Fight fair. The best way to fight fair is to have some ground rules. All contact sports have guidelines for good behavior and likewise, a marriage should too. Some examples include: setting a time limit on an argument, discussing it in a neutral territory (not the bedroom), only talking about one topic at a time, no abusive behavior, no personal attacks, and agree to agree/disagree/revisit a topic at the end.
- Be polite. This sounds so simple and obvious but it is rarely done in environments where a person is comfortable. Rather, polite behavior is often reserved for strangers or impressive people. Make a commitment to be polite to each other first, before others. This is a simple, yet powerful, tool to restart a marriage.
- Refuse to rehash. Some couples love to rehash old issues. Once a decision has been made on a topic, agree to no longer discuss it. Revisiting arguments tends to stir up new ones. If there has been no agreement, set a time to discuss the item only one more time alone. If there still is no agreement, go to a neutral party such as a trusted friend or counselor to help settle the dispute.
- Reserve one hour per week. Schedule one hour per week to spend time talking together, minus electronic devices, phones, and kids. This could be done at home, out to eat, or on a walk. The conversational rules are no talking about the kids, schedules, work, or other family members. Rather engage in a discussion about vacation plans, a mutually agreed upon household project, or a common interest in sports, politics, or the environment.
- Express gratitude. Depending on how much damage has been done to the marriage, saying “Thank you” might feel impossible. But a little gratitude goes a long way and can become contagious. Start with simple items once a day and watch how this can change a perspective. For the person receiving the gratitude, this could feed an otherwise starved ego and help to neutralize disputes.
- Forgive without being asked. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do. It is natural to want an apology after being wronged, especially by someone who is as close as a spouse. However, listing all of a person’s wrongs can be exhausting and do far more damage to the relationship. Smaller matters are often best forgiven even when they have not been addressed. The larger issues like abusive behavior require repentance and then forgiveness, but not forgetting.
- Compliment without expectation. A compliment that is genuine is given without any expectation of getting something in return. Whereas a compliment given in expectation of a return is manipulative. Praise, accolades, and expressions of approval are more valued, appreciated, and well-received when they are unadulterated.
- Gently touch. Not every touch should be sexual or a lead into sexual acts. Rather, the daily gentle touches of a hug, holding hands, pat on the back, hand on the upper arm or leg, and/or sitting close can be comforting. These touches are designed to show care and concern for another person in a more intimate fashion. This allows a couple to feel connected, loved, and desired.
Sam and Blake were able to repair their marriage and save their family unit by following these steps. While it might not be this easy for everyone, it is a good place to start.