Couples seek therapy for a variety of reasons: they’re fighting too much, not having sex enough, or there’s been an affair. Yet the most common reason couples come to therapy, what we call the “presenting issue,” is to save their marriage.
A Google search of “how to save your marriage” returns 830,000,000 results. There’s no shortage of well-intentioned advice out there. But here’s the problem. If you’re asking yourself how to save your marriage, then you’re probably asking the wrong question. You should be asking whether or not it should be saved.
That’s because not every relationship should be salvaged—especially if there’s been violence or threats of violence—and the purpose of couples therapy isn’t to keep couples together at all costs. Rather, it’s to hold up a mirror to your relationship and empower you to make that decision on your own.
We know from research by Dr. John Gottman that couples wait an average of six years before seeking help for marital problems, and by that point, the damage may be irreversible. It’s also entirely possible that a couple isn’t a good fit. “Some people are fundamentally mismatched, and they can’t benefit from therapy,” Gottman said in a 2005 interview with The New York Times.
Whether or not your marriage should be saved isn’t always an easy question to answer, especially if you and your partner see things differently. Couples generally fall within three categories.
- Both partners want to save the marriage.
- Only one partner wants to save the marriage.
- Neither partner wants to save the marriage.
Let’s take a closer look at each scenario and discuss possible outcomes.
When both partners want to save the marriage
This is the ideal scenario. Most of our clients come to therapy to work on their marriage openly and willingly, knowing they’re taking action to create lasting, positive change. The process of couples therapy at NCCT always begins with an assessment. We’ll start by asking each of you questions about the history of your relationship. We call this the “oral history interview.”
The oral history interview reveals how you view your past, which says a lot about your future. In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples who talk about their past in a positive way are in the “positive perspective” and the couples who talk about their past in a negative way are in the “negative perspective.” 94% of the time, couples in the positive perspective are likely to have a happy future.
We look for the presence of the Four Horsemen, which are the four communication patterns identified by Gottman that predict the end of a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. If they’re present in your relationship, we’ll help you to identify them and offer alternatives.
Finally, we’ll help you to process arguments that haven’t been resolved, which we call “regrettable incidents.” When couples get stuck, there’s often a “dream within conflict” hidden beneath the surface. We’ll help you to reveal the dream within conflict and discuss it openly, leading to greater understanding.
Only 19% of couples seek help, and of those that do, couples therapy has an 85% success rate. In other words, the majority of couples who attend couples therapy turn things around, with resources and tools to help them maintain it for years to come.
When only one partner wants to save the marriage
If you want to work things out but your partner doesn’t, know that you’re not alone. Also know that your partner’s hesitance is likely more a reflection of their own fears then it is of their feelings about your relationship. In fact, the best thing you can do is to avoid taking their reluctance personally.
It’s important to understand the difference between ambivalence and reluctance. If your partner is ambivalent about couples therapy, first try to understand the degree of ambivalence or reluctance your partner is communicating to you. You can help ease this by sharing with them some materials from the therapist before the session. Resources such as a link to a website, a book, or even a pre-arranged phone call, during which they can speak openly with the therapist and ask questions, can all be helpful.
There is the possibility that you could be facing another, more challenging, scenario. Your partner may be flat-out refusing to work on your marriage or relationship. While this situation is not uncommon, it is more challenging to navigate. Even if your partner does not come in for therapy, there are things you can do individually that can result in changes and improvements. At NCCT, we offer couples treatment even to individuals, teaching you the same skills that we teach couples.
If you don’t want to work things out but your partner does, we’d encourage you to still give couples therapy a chance. Once you meet the therapist and get a taste of the benefits that couples therapy offers, you may be more invested in the process.
When neither partner wants to save the marriage
If you and your spouse have mutually agreed to split up, we recommend discernment counseling as the best next step. Don’t get us wrong. We’re not pro-divorce. The end of any relationship is devastating and complicated, especially when there’s children involved. But sometimes it’s the healthiest way forward.
There’s value in going to couples therapy even if you’re both leaning towards leaving the relationship because oftentimes the patterns and behaviors that have taken your relationship down will follow you into your other relationships. So it’s critical for you to leave no stone unturned. You can use couples therapy to gain insight and practice new skills even if it’s to end a relationship with grace and compassion.
Staying long-term in a relationship that does not meet our needs and neglects our core values is masochistic. But prematurely jumping ship is equally destructive. There is a space between commitments and endings, and it’s fraught with unknowables. We can get trapped in limbo, feeling incurably uncertain on how to proceed. We can become steeped in self-righteous indignation, unable to discern our unique role in the deterioration of our partner’s trust.
Hanging out in this landscape is critical. Too often, we’re inclined to sever relationships because we cannot tolerate the pain, uncertainty and loneliness inherent in relational crisis. We avoid doing the hard work of addressing our dysfunctional behaviors that contribute to our love’s demise. Such rashness is often an outgrowth of our insecure attachment issues and virtually guarantees we’ll replicate our share of the dysfunction in our next partnership.
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