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.

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