The Smallest Way to Save Your Marriage

Just divorced.This post is a Tuesday Tip. 

Related Post: Why “For Better or Worse” is a Fatal Vow

Even the most distressed marriages can be healed. I know. I’ve seen it happen in my office. But the healing always consists of one essential ingredient: intentionality. Specifically, the intentional creation of time and space for the marital relationship itself.

And the time and space do not have to be huge. This week, readers consistently pointed out that a cup of coffee here, a stroll in the mall there, a silent holding of hands in the midst of this crazy-hectic life can go a long way toward restoring your marriage. One reader even suggested small (but regular) donations to a “marriage insurance” fund can guarantee you have the resources to get away when you need to.

The idea of small but intentional space for your relationship is critical to marital therapy, as well. Marital therapy has several stages. In the first stage, couples attend one or more times a week, often in order to stabilize the crisis that brought them in. In the second stage, the therapy settles into productive, enriching weekly sessions that promote healing and growth. In the third stage, couples decrease the frequency of therapy sessions to every other week.

And I think this stage is actually the most predictive of successful marital healing, as the couple attempts to maintain the process of healing more independently from the therapist.

My instruction at this stage is always the same: use the therapy time-slot in the off weeks to create a new ritual of joining. For instance, if you are attending therapy every Wednesday at 5pm, then use the now vacated time slot every other week to be intentional about your marriage. Keep getting the babysitter every week, and on the Wednesdays you don’t come to therapy, go out to dinner. Face each other. Talk. Connect.

The couples who follow through with this are the ones most likely to save their marriages in the long-run.

But you don’t necessarily need to go to therapy to do this! You can begin this week, intentionally setting aside a regular time to prioritize your marriage, just like you would any other valuable commitment. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Pick a time that gives you the best shot at successful follow through. For instance, if one of you is a “night person,” don’t decide to do it at 5am.
  2. Choose a place separate from your normal routine. Maybe a restaurant or coffee shop. Maybe a walking route. Maybe a park bench. Just make it different. We tell kids not to study in bed because they’re used to sleeping there. Don’t try to connect in the kitchen; your used to working there.
  3. Start with an hour. Don’t feel like you need to make up for lost time all at once. Studies show most people can’t pay attention for more than an hour anyway.
  4. Don’t begin the hour by trying to solve problems or re-visiting on-going arguments. Make the first thirty minutes about re-connecting, providing support to each other, getting to know each other again.
  5. Try to spend the last 15-30 minutes discussing things that are harder to discuss. Make sure you go slowly, take turns speaking and paraphrasing.
  6. If step 5 seems impossible, go back to step 4. If you get stuck and can’t progress to step 5, call a therapist.

Your marriage is like a living organism, and it needs to be fed. And the food is your attention and intention. Don’t wait. Our marriages are starving, so feed them now!

Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • leighahudson

    Kelly,
    Great post about intentionality. As a fellow marriage therapist, I find this point to be extremely important for all couples, regardless of their journey. It’s so easy for all of us to lapse into complacency.
    Thank you for this timely reminder.
    Blessings,
    Leigh

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Hi Leigh, Thanks for your recent comments; it’s great to hear another therapist’s reactions and ideas! Please keep them coming, and blessings to you in your work, as well.

  • jlanewell

    Loved this post…and it really does work. My only comment might be if you listen to your spouse and you can hear they are overwhelmed then do something unexpected. If they say the laundry is like a ball and chain around their leg and they cant keep up…then show up in the laundry room and even if it is the towels and sheets try to help. Or if they are folding the laundry come along side and help put it away. If one of you cooks dinner then make it a habit that the other cleans up. Help share the responsibilities so neither has to carry the load by themselves.

    My last comment is listen if they say then have no time to even think because they are at home all day with the kids or they have been working 12 hours a day. Encourage them to call up their best friend and spend a day out and take care of the kids. Or if it is your husband that seems to have less energy due to working all the time encourage him to call a friend and go to sport bar and watch a game. It doesnt matter what you do it is that you recognize that your spouse needs to recharge their battery. As much as we love our spouses we need to also have some time to ourselves and our friends. Giving each other even time to remember who you are apart from your spouse or your kids helps you to reconnect to who you are apart from your spouse and children. I had the gift of a choice to be a stay at home mom or a working mom. Over the past 22 years I have done both. I will tell you staying at home and taking care of the kids full time is the hardest most rewarding job you will ever have. However it is very difficult because without encouragement and appreciation from you spouse you really do not see how successful you are at your job until your children are grown. That is why the spouse that stays home needs help as well as the spouse who is working so hard to put food on the table. If you can appreciate that both jobs are difficult and admire each other for what you are both doing to support your family, you will grow to partner in the journey of your marriage. Instead I think some couples spend their time thinking they have the harder job. Having done both jobs I would say they are equally hard. It means more if you have someone that appreciates what you bring to the table instead of them only finding fault and pointing out where you have come up short.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks for these thoughts! I often tell spouses who have clearly delineated roles (one in the house, and one out) that they will have to work extra hard to connect and overcome the differences in their daily experiences. These are great ideas for doing so. Thanks again!