After the cake has been eaten, the pictures have been framed, and you've long forgotten your wedding hashtag, it's time to navigate the stresses that often come with marriage. “Marriages are complex entities made up of many different moving parts, in constant need of care, attention, nurturance, assessment, and adjustment,” says licensed mental health counselor Landis Bejar. “There is no one test with a certain grading system that can give you a 50% or lower and determine your marriage is failing, no matter how many quizzes you take on the internet.”
Meet the Expert
Landis Bejar is a licensed mental health counselor for individuals and couples in New York City and the founder of AisleTalk, a therapy and coaching practice devoted to working with couples who are experiencing stress during the process of planning their wedding.
So how do you save a marriage if you've hit a rough patch? Keep reading for advice from an expert.
Notice the Signs
It’s important to remember that every marriage is different, even when they are failing. “There is no one version of a failing marriage,” says Bejar. Relationships have conflict, but how conflicts are managed can be a sign of whether the relationship is working in a healthy, happy way. Bejar references relationship expert Dr. John Gottman and his research about types of behavior that can predict the end of a relationship. He calls these behaviors “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” which are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- Criticism includes attacking your partner at the core of their character instead of a particular behavior.
- Contempt is taking a position of moral superiority over your partner, and treating them as inferior or with disrespect, such as with name-calling, sarcasm, or ridicule.
- Defensiveness in a relationship is not owning your part in problems in the relationship and placing the sole blame on your partner.
- Stonewalling is when a partner completely withdraws from a conversation—not to be confused with when someone takes a break from a conversation and the issue is revisited later. These are signs that your marriage may have issues that you and your partner need to work on.
Talk to Your Partner
If you’re unhappy in your relationship, talk to your partner about your feelings and issues—don’t assume that they know. “I am very against the old relationship myth ‘if my partner really loves me, they should just know how I feel,’” says Bejar. “This promotes mind-reading and blurry communication which is not helpful in relationships.” She suggests writing down your feelings, thoughts, and concerns and asking your partner when they have time to talk about something important.
Talk in a neutral space where you can both focus on the conversation and not be distracted. “You can liken this to when you have something important to discuss with your boss or colleague at work,” says Bejar. “You don’t just show up to their desk when they’re in the middle of working on something and start yelling and blaming them for something. No, you find time on your calendars, prepare your thoughts and present them as neutrally as you can so you can begin to work on a solution, rather than getting into a cycle of blaming, shaming, and withdrawing.”
Voice your feelings and tell your partner what you need out of the relationship in a calm, non-attacking way and ask them to share their needs as well. Then make a plan on how to implement these changes.
Consider Marriage Counseling
If you feel like a neutral third party would help you have these difficult conversations and implement changes in your relationship, you should consider going to marriage counseling. “It’s a safe, non-judgmental place where you can learn your patterns and where you are missing each other and then set goals to try new ways of relating, build skills you may not have had before, and have a safe space to discuss possibly ‘taboo’ subjects you have been hesitant about,” Bejar says of couples therapy. Have your partner be a part of the search for a marriage counselor from the get-go so they feel like they are actively involved in this process.
One or both partners might be hesitant or nervous about marriage counseling, so it’s important to know what to expect. Every counselor is different, but the first session usually involves the therapist getting the “lay of the land”—learning about your history and the problems that you both feel are prevalent in the relationship. Many practices offer a free consultation session so you can know what to expect from their type of counseling. The counselor will create scenarios where both partners can talk and voice their concerns and feelings. It’s important to remember that a marriage counselor will never choose a side and they are there for the couple, not any individual. In marriage counseling, Bejar says you will learn communication, conflict resolution, and emotional-processing skills that you can integrate into your marriage.
After discussing your issues and changes you both want to see in your relationship, Bejar suggests agreeing on a time to check in to discuss your feelings about the relationship, such as a month from the first conversation. See if any improvements have been made and if a different plan is needed, and then check in again to assess the relationship. If you’re in therapy, a counselor may also establish check-in points.
“With check-ins, you are just giving yourself permission to do the work without the pressure of a deadline or the expectation that you will wake up one morning and things will be different,” says Bejar. “You can let go and be present in the process, knowing that your check-in date/reminder will ensure you do not go on an aimless, eternal path with no direction.”
Remember, only you and your partner can define what is a successful and failing marriage. “‘Success’ in a marriage is so subjective,” says Bejar. “I think one common thread in successful marriages is being able to answer the ‘yes’ to the questions, ‘Do I feel safe in my partnership? Do I feel like my partner will be there for me when I need them?’ If ultimately, the answer is yes, all the other stuff—clear communication, effective conflict resolution skills, growing together through change and hardship—all become accessible for the couple.” By having clear, open communication with your partner, you can move forward in a way that feels effective in your relationship.