What do you do when your marriage is trouble? If you’re like most people, you look for help. Yet, the last person most people would ever go to for marriage advice is a divorce lawyer.
That’s not surprising. Divorce lawyers are generally in the business of ending marriages, not saving them.
But desperate people do desperate things. At least, that’s the only reason I can think of for why so many people have come to me asking for advice about how to save their marriage.
Taking Marriage Advice From a Divorce Lawyer
The truth is, for someone who spends the better part of her working life trying to un-couple people, I am surprisingly happily married myself. True, I’ve only been with my husband for ten years, and married for eight. In the scope of a lifetime that’s a spit in the bucket.
But, it’s taught me a few things. So did being in a series of relationships in the years (okay, decades!) before I finally found my husband.
Some of my relationships lasted years. Others barely made it through a cup of coffee. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two.
I don’t pretend to be a marriage counselor. I can’t guarantee that following my marriage advice will magically transform your marriage from hell on earth into eternal bliss. All I can tell you is that, if your marriage is in trouble, and you don’t know what else to do, then doing what I suggest here is worth a shot. Plus, it works.
Besides, who has seen more troubled marriage than a divorce lawyer?
15 Marriage Tips to Keep You in Your Office and Out of Mine
1. Decide what you really want.
Have the courage to look deeply into your heart and soul. Do you really and truly want to save your marriage? Or, are you only trying to save your marriage because:
a) that’s what you’re “supposed” to do;
b) that’s what everyone else is telling you to do; or
c) you’ve made a commitment and don’t want to go back on your word (even though your gut is screaming: “Get out!”).
Be honest with yourself! If all (or most) of the reasons you want to save your marriage come from outside of you, while, inside, you really want a divorce, you are facing a serious uphill battle. Until you line up what you want inside with what you are doing outside, you are going to be fighting against yourself.
2. Decide whether your marriage is worth saving.
Yes, I know how that sounds. But, some marriages just shouldn’t be saved. They are either dangerous, have run their course, or should never have happened in the first place.
If your spouse is beating you – get out. If your marriage is toxic, ending the craziness is an act of mercy. Finally, if your spouse is actively abusing alcohol or drugs and won’t consider getting help, you need to consider whether you want to stay married to an addict.
As harsh as all of this may sound, the truth is that everyone has their limits. Thankfully, we live in a society where you don’t have to spend the rest of your life married and miserable. You have a choice. Make one.
3. Look for solutions, not scapegoats.
Blaming your spouse for all of your problems is not going to make him/her want to shower you with love. It’s also not going to solve your problems. It will probably just make them (and your marriage) worse.
Of course, blame has its upside. When I can convince myself that my spouse is the cause of whatever problem I have, I don’t have to dig into myself and admit that I may have had a hand in creating my own misery.
It’s far easier for me to get mad at my spouse for making us late for a dinner reservation because he couldn’t find his keys than it is for me to admit that if I hadn’t waited to get dressed until ten minutes before we had to leave, we wouldn’t have been late either.
4. Stop keeping score.
Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. If you’re keeping score, you’re going to lose. Actually, you’ve probably already lost. It really is that simple.
Marriages have a natural ebb and flow. Sometimes you will do more. Sometimes, your spouse will do more. If you feel like you are always doing more, and your spouse is taking advantage of you, have a conversation with your spouse about it. Work on finding a way to re-balance your relationship.
At the same time, understand that, sometimes things just get out of whack for a while. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix whatever your problems are. It does mean that you don’t keep a running tally in your head of everything your spouse “owes you” in the meantime.
5. Decide whether you would rather be right or happy.
If you need to “win” every argument, you will soon find yourself arguing alone. If you think that your way of doing things is the best (or only!) way of doing them, you will quickly end up doing everything yourself.
For those of us who tend to be perfectionists, taking this advice can be challenging. We’re so used to dictating how everything is “supposed” to be that we’ve forgotten that there are probably ten thousand other ways to do that same thing.
When my husband (who happens to be an engineer) wanted to know why it was so critical that the pots and pans get stacked with military precision in the cabinet, I answered without hesitation that the handles from the lids could scratch the metal in the pots. Immediately he smiled at me, “You made that up, didn’t you?” Yeah. I did.
6. Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Four types of marital interactions are so harmful that renowned marriage therapists Drs. John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute have named them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
If you find yourself doing any of these four things, stop now! That means, stop criticizing everything your spouse does. Ditch the eye-rolling. Try to listen to your spouse’s complaints, rather than arguing about why you are right all the time. Finally, stop giving your spouse the silent treatment! All of these things can do tremendous damage to your marriage.
If your spouse is treating you with criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling, look for an opportunity to talk to him or her about finding more effective ways to communicate with each other. Or, better yet, get yourselves to a marriage counselor so you can work on these issues with professional help.
7. Watch your mouth.
After you’ve been married for a while, it’s easy to fall into a less than loving pattern of speech with your spouse. Maybe you crack jokes at your spouse’s expense. Or you let sarcasm seep into your conversations. Or, you just become hyper-critical of everything your spouse says or does.
As much as we have the tendency to excuse the less than complimentary ways we talk to or about our spouse, the words we use matter. Wars have been waged and won, or lost, through the power of words.
If you want your marriage to flourish, think before you talk. Pay attention to what you say about your spouse – and how you say it! Make a vow to only talk to and about your spouse nicely. Ask your spouse to do the same. Sure, in the heat of an argument, you are both still likely to say hurtful things. But, if you have made a point of paying attention to your words before then, you are much less likely to blurt out things you will later regret.
6. Pay attention to your thoughts.
The “person” who influences you the most is the voice inside of your head. (Yes. That means you!) What stories are swirling around in your brain when you see your spouse? What are you telling yourself when your spouse does something you don’t like?
When you come home from work and find that the house is a disaster and dinner hasn’t even been started, does the voice inside of your head say: “Wow! This is weird! I wonder what’s going on?” Or, does it say: “Again?!!! Why am I the one who always has to do everything?!”
You can work on your marriage until the cows come home, but if you are constantly telling yourself that your spouse is a slob, a mess, selfish, arrogant, mean, or anything else that you absolutely despise, your marriage is not likely to improve very much.
9. Stop trying to change your spouse.
Your spouse is who s/he is, and that’s just the way it is. You can’t control your spouse. You can’t change your spouse.
Don’t like the way your spouse dresses? Get over it. Can’t stand the way your spouse drives? Either drive yourself, or close your eyes and shut your mouth. Instead of focusing on the things that your spouse does that you hate, trying focusing instead on yourself.
Why does whatever that your spouse is doing bother you so much? What could you do to change how you feel about whatever your spouse is doing? In other words, focus on how you can change your reaction, not on how your spouse can change his/her behavior.
10. Men: Don’t sleep walk through your marriage!
I know this is a bit of an over-generalization, but I have been completely shocked by the number of people (usually men) who have called me in a panic because their wives wanted a divorce. These men will freely admit that they haven’t been the best husbands. They will admit that they probably took their wives for granted, or didn’t pay attention to what their wives wanted. But, they really didn’t think their marriages were that bad!
Women need attention. Let me say that again. Women need attention! If you ignore your wife’s needs for a long enough period of time, do not be surprised if your wife leaves you! I don’t mean to be harsh, but, really, the best way to avoid facing a divorce you don’t want is to pay attention to the marriage that you have.
11. Women: Let your husband be a hero!
I fully understand how politically incorrect this statement is. As modern women we are taught that we can – and should – do whatever a man can do. We shouldn’t need a man to provide for us, or take care of us, or save us. But, while gender equality may work well in the workplace, it’s not necessarily the road to a happy marriage.
I’m not saying that women should stay home, barefoot and pregnant, while their husbands conquer the world. What I am saying is that men and women are different. You can either fight those differences, or work with them. Either way, they will still be there.
Men need to be important. They need to be appreciated. They need to be right. If you want your husband to do things for you, you need to LET him do things for you (even if he doesn’t do them “your” way!) You need to pay attention to what he does, and thank him for it. You need to let him take credit for things and feel like he is right sometimes, even when you know in your heart that what he said was your idea. In other words, you need to relax and let him be a man!
12. Learn your spouse’s love language.
We all know that good communication is one of the keys to a good marriage. But you can’t communicate well with someone unless you speak their language. (Trust me. I’ve tried.)
According to Dr. Gary Chapman, each one of us speaks in one of five love languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. The “love language” we speak is usually the one we expect our spouse to use when s/he speaks with us. The problem is, our spouse may not speak the same love language we do.
For example, we may speak the love language of receiving gifts. So, we shower our spouse with gifts trying to show our love. Then we’re confused when our spouse doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, our spouse speaks the language of physical touch. So no matter how many gifts we give our spouse, s/he doesn’t feel loved because we’re not hugging or kissing or making love enough.
13. Level up your game.
We all know that looks aren’t everything. But, they sure help!
I don’t care how long you’ve been married. If you want your spouse to pay attention to you, dress like you give a damn! Ditch the baggy sweatpants and the T-shirt you’ve been wearing since you were in high school. Take a shower, comb your hair, and put on some decent clothes (and if you are a woman, a little makeup).
Obviously, you don’t have to look like you’re going to the Oscars every day. But, putting a little TLC into your own appearance shows your spouse that you care – not only about yourself, but about your spouse, too! (By the way, guys, this applies to you, too!)
14. Get help! Soon!
If you had a brain tumor, would you try to do brain surgery on yourself! I doubt it. Why is it then, when your marriage has a serious problem, you think that you can fix it yourself without getting help?
So many people struggle alone with marital problems because they think they should be able to figure them out on their own. But, when you’re up to your eyeballs in muck, it helps to have someone who has a big stick, and knows what to do to pull you out!
Marriage counseling, marriage coaching, couples retreats, and couples programs are all designed to give you tools to help you work out your marriage issues and make your marriage better. While none of them comes with a guarantee, getting professional help as soon as your issues arise can often make the difference between having a marriage that recovers from a bad time, and one that ends up having a terminal illness.
15. Learn before you burn!
If you find yourself thinking that the grass looks greener outside of your marriage, make sure you understand the landscape before you jump into a divorce.
It’s easy to think that divorce is the perfect solution when your marriage is making you miserable. But divorce is huge. It will change everything from your finances to your children and everything in between. So, before you burn your bridges, make sure that you understand exactly what you will be facing if you decide to divorce.
Examine your finances. Can you afford to divorce? How will you support yourself after your divorce? Think about your kids. Is there anything going on in your kids’ lives right now that will make this a particularly bad time to get divorced? Educate yourself. Do you understand how divorce really works? Do you know what your options are? Sometimes, just seeing what will be involved if you get a divorce is enough to make you and your spouse give your marriage another try.
Can You Save Your Marriage?
Will following these tips help you save your marriage? Like any good divorce lawyer, I’ll tell you that the answer is definitely: it depends.
It depends on you. It depends on your spouse. Of course, it depends, too, on whether you and your spouse both want to save your marriage. If one of you doesn’t really want to work on your relationship, the saving your marriage becomes infinitely harder. Finally, whether or not you can fix your marriage will also depend on how damaged your marriage was before you started working on it.
The one thing I do know is this: you’ll never know for sure unless you try.