If you want to know how to fix a marriage, it often helps to know what’s not working. That is not as easy a question as it seems.

You see, there are symptoms and there are sources of symptoms. Most people focus on the symptoms.

So, for example, let’s say that you and your spouse are fighting a lot. If we ask what is not working in your marriage, you might say “We fight too much.” But fighting is a symptom. The question is “Why are you fighting?”

But even that might not give us the answer. Imagine I ask “Why are you fighting?” and you respond “Because he/she isn’t doing things he/she promised to do.” I could then ask “Why isn’t he/she doing things he/she promised to do?” and so on.

In fact, a good policy is to do just this. Ask “Why?” several times. There is even a technique based on this procedure called the “5 Whys” technique. Children naturally do this. They are rarely satisfied with the first answer about something. Once you explain it, they just ask “Why?” again. This might annoy you, but it’s actually a great way to get to the root of problems.

If you keep asking “Why?” enough times, you’re likely to learn some things, such as:

You don’t actually know the source of the problems

In this case, you will need to do more investigation into yourself and your partner. This might involve reading some books or seeing a counselor to help figure out the underlying source.

The source is actually something far in the past

Very commonly, the source of present problems is past wounding. A person who was neglected as a kid may lash out now when they perceive their partner is distancing. A person who was violated as a kid may lash out if not given enough space.

The source has to do with symbols

Why do couples so often have major problems over issues that, on the surface, seem minor, even trivial? The reason is that these small issues are symbolic of larger issues. It may not be a big deal that your spouse fails to clean up after themselves perfectly. But that may be symbolic of a larger pattern of irresponsibility. If that pattern of irresponsibility was something that bothered you with other people in your past, as well, the symbol can be even more potent.

We focused in on this difference between dealing with symptoms and dealing with sources in a previous piece called “Comparing the Two Fundamental Categories of Breakup Advice” in which we contrasted “symptom-focused” and “origin-focused” breakup advice. As you can tell, if you really want to know how to fix a marriage, we believe it’s important, in most cases, to take an origin-focused approach. There are ways to fix a marriage, in some cases, without knowing the sources. But in many cases it will be more effective if you do.

So what do you do once you’ve identified the source? At that point what is going to determine whether you can fix your marriage is how you and your spouse view the purpose of relationships. If you think the purpose is to stay who you each think you are and not change, then you will be committed to maintaining the source of the problem as it is, considering it a part of who you are. But if you think the purpose is to grow and develop, then you will be willing to work on transforming the source together.

Remember that, quite often, you are drawn to someone because your core wounds are complementary. You push each other’s buttons to bring those wounds to each other’s attention so you can help each other heal them.

So this is, in general, how to fix a marriage:

  1. Identify the source of the problems
  2. Become conscious about the origins of those sources
  3. Determine if you are willing to grow and develop together
  4. Work to heal each other’s wounded sources of suffering as a team

As always, a good therapist can be a huge ally in this journey of fixing a marriage, a journey which could be the most fulfilling of your life.

Step 1 – Make sure that you really do want to save the relationship

Often we are in pain over a relationship and want to make it last, even though deep down we know it’s not a healthy situation for us. It can be very difficult to save a relationship that we know isn’t right for us because we will be giving mixed messages and creating conflict.

Give this step some serious thought. If you truly believe the relationship is worth saving, then…

Step 2 – Give your partner what they need most at this time

What does your partner crave most right now in the relationship? In most cases, it is one of two things:

  • Closeness
  • Space

Odds are that lately you haven’t been meeting this need of theirs because it clashes with yours.

If you’ve been distant, it’s time to move a bit closer. If you’ve been overwhelming your partner, it’s time to move back and give them some breathing room.

Once you’ve spent some time meeting your partner’s main need and created some trust…

Step 3 – Share your stories

When you are talking to your partner, ask them to share with you the story of what has been going on for them recently in regards to the relationship. Listen carefully and mirror back what you’re hearing to make sure you’ve understood. Then ask if you can share your story. Stories are powerful. And try to focus on hearing their story and telling yours rather than finger pointing at each other at this stage.

Step 4 – Re-Romanticize

If Steps 2 and 3 of how to save a relationship have gone well, there should be some more trust and emotional rapport between you now. You might be tempted now to pressure for some kind of commitment. But instead, try putting yourselves in situations like those where you fell for each other in the first place. This is based on a technique called re-romanticizing that the great relationship therapist Harville Hendrix recommends. What did you used to be doing together when you fell in love? Go do some of those things again, even if you don’t feel like it before you do them.

Step 5 – Discuss the relationship’s status

Many people jump right to step 5. But if you do this without having built trust and comfort first, you may just push your partner further away. Only now, having done steps 1-4, it’s time to open up a more serious discussion of where things stand. If all has gone well, the bond will be rekindled between you and there will be a mutual desire to commit to each other again.

Saving a relationship can never be an exact science. Not every relationship can be saved. You can only do the best you can to make things work. Ultimately, your partner is a free person and has to make their own choice. But if you do these steps, you can be proud that you gave the relationship a chance, tried your very best to save your relationship and live with whatever the outcome is.

If you’re considering marriage counseling, questions are going to come up. Here are the answers to some of the most common ones. If you have any others that we didn’t cover, let us know and we’ll try to answer them for you.

How do I know if we need marriage counseling?

First of all, marriage counseling doesn’t have to only be something to fix problems. It can also be something to help make the most of a good relationship. In fact, many couples go to counseling before they get married just to prepare to have a healthy marriage. In premarital counseling, questions about their values, family plans and relationship skills can be addressed before they even become a problem.

So there is nothing to lose by trying counseling and there may be much to gain. As long as you find a competent, skilled therapist, err on the side of giving it a try.

However, there are some situations where counseling would be extremely helpful and important. For example, counseling would be recommended if:

  • The relationship has become physically, emotionally or verbally abusive
  • Addiction or substance abuse of any kind is taking place
  • There are children involved and you are experiencing challenges with parenting as partners
  • Communication has severely broken down between partners

How do I find a good counselor?

At Breakup Advice, we are fans of the Imago Relationship Therapy model. Imago Relationships International offers a directory to help you find someone trained in this approach in your area.

However, there are also other schools of counseling with different ideas. You should first do some research on these different schools, consider the different styles, decide which resonates with you and then seek someone trained in that model

Whichever approach you favor, don’t be afraid to try a few sessions with different therapists or counselors before deciding on one you want to stick with. It’s important that you feel comfortable with someone you are going to share so much with and you won’t always find that person on the first try. Be patient and put in the work to find the right person as this can be a life-changing decision.

What if my partner refuses to go to counseling?

You can’t force your partner to go to counseling. Unless they’ve broken the law and are ordered by a court, they have the freedom to refuse to go. And if you find a way to coerce them, it may backfire as they might not be sincerely engaged in the counseling.

Ask your partner to go with you. Express how much it would mean to you. But try not to be too pushy.

If your partner still won’t go with you, then by all means go by yourself. Marriage counselors are familiar with this situation where one partner is willing to do the work and the other is hesitant. They can help you from that starting point and go from there.

What if I’m scared to go to counseling?

If you are new to counseling and haven’t had much experience with opening up your private life and feelings, it’s natural to have some fear. Just remember, you are in control. You get to choose your therapist, you can say no to anything you’re not comfortable with and you can leave or stop seeing a therapist at any time.

So, as we said before, take your time meeting with a few people and see who you are comfortable with. Go at your own pace. Any counselor that pressures you in a way that you aren’t comfortable with is someone you might want to talk to about it or simply rule out.

Counseling can involve very sensitive discussions. But a good therapist will always be sensitive and responsive to your needs, as well. And counseling takes time so there is no need to rush into things before you get comfortable.

What if I can’t afford counseling?

This is one of the most common marriage counseling questions. Marriage counseling costs can vary. There are some counselors that offer options for lower income clients. Some will take some cases pro bono. Many offer sliding scale pricing, meaning that you pay less if your ability to pay is lower. If you find a therapist you are interested in seeing, just talk to them about your situation. They may be able to find a way to help you work things out. And, if not, they may be able to recommend someone they know that can help within your price range. Take the first step and see what opportunities arise.

Can I help myself without counseling?

Counseling can be hugely beneficial. But if you are not ready for it, there are some resources that can help you on your own. Start by reading some of these. They may help you figure out whether to go to counseling, which counselor you want to see and make your sessions even more effective once you do go.

Was this marriage counseling advice helpful? Let us know in the comments below. And please share any other questions or concerns.

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