When you think you may be on the brink of divorce, you may still have a glimmer of hope that you can save your marriage. You want to stay together. And by putting in the effort, you can do it.
Every couple’s situation and circumstances are different. So, too, are the reasons they drifted apart, ranging from a lack of communication to cheating. Still, there are certain exercises you can do as a couple and individual, plus small steps you can take with your partner now to increase love, trust, and intimacy in the hopes of keeping you together.
Here are 10 places to start:
1. Map it out.
Individually and as a couple, Torres-Gregory suggests writing down the following: how you started as a couple, what attracted you to your partner, where you are now, how you got here, and where you want to go. “You won’t be able to have the marriage you had in the beginning, but you can work on having a new marriage. Think of it as marriage 2.0,” she says. To do that, though, you first have to know what that would look like.
2. Turn inward.
Thanks, romantic comedies, for giving us idyllic expectations for love. “You need to be fulfilled individually, rather than expecting your partner to fulfill everything,” says Torres-Gregory. Your partner does not have to “complete” you—and shouldn’t. (Hopefully you’ve learned this before you said your vows, but alas…) “You should be complete so that you don’t burden your partner or the relationship with the responsibility of making you happy,” she says. Take a deep dive into yourself: Why do you rely on your partner for this? Was it because that’s what was modeled in your parent’s relationship? Are you buying what popular media tells you? By asking yourself these questions, you might be able to suss out what work you need to do to be a happier version of yourself, not just a happier wife. (The one begets the other, btw.)
3. Stop assuming.
Your partner asks a question: “Are the bowls clean?” and you lay into them—why are they always saying that you don’t do your part to care for the house? Can’t they see you’re swamped with life and work, too? “When couples have been together for a long time, they think they know each other. They begin to assume the other’s thinking and motivations and get angry and reactive to these assumptions,” says Torres-Gregory. Here’s the thing: The anger may be entirely coming from an argument that you’re having in your head—not the reality of the situation. Commit to stopping these assumptions, and if you think there’s a certain motivation behind a question or comment, at least ask. This’ll help you get on a path to better communication, which can help turn an unhappy marriage around.
4. Set rules for the relationship.
Mutual respect and trust is necessary for a happy marriage, and if those two things have been lost, you’ll need to find them again. “Couples get into ways of interacting with each other and they don’t question it. They keep doing it,” says Torres-Gregory. To minimize snapping and destructive comments, draw up some rules of the relationship when it comes to communication. “When you love and respect your partner, there are things you shouldn’t do or say,” she says. For instance, when you fight in the future, promise not to swear at each other or resort to name-calling. Again, the more constructive communication you can have, the better your chances of working through underlying issues.
5. Make a weekly date.
You two need to play together—ya know, like the old days. Go out once or twice a week for a date where you don’t discuss problems (or kids, if you have them). “Go back to the basics. What did you do before you were married that you’re not doing now? What did you do when you first fell in love?” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, a couples therapist in New York City and author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up: Finding and Keeping Love for Singles and Couples. If the answer is play mini golf, bowl, or meet at a trendy bar for trendy drinks, well then, you’ve got your next date planned already.
6. Touch often.
I’m not even talking about sex here. “Hold hands when you’re walking down the street. Give each other a 20-second hug. Kiss each other hello. Dance cheek-to-cheek. Look into each other’s eyes for 30 seconds before you go to bed,” suggests Eaker Weil. These simple exercises help deliver a rush of pleasure and bonding hormones (like oxytocin) to bring back the intimacy that you may be lacking now, she explains.
7. Show appreciation.
“I want you to have an affair with your partner,” says Eaker Weil. Say what now? Yep, Eaker Weil says that one of the best ways to save your marriage is to treat them like you can’t get enough of them. (Even if, tbh, right now you can.) That starts with expressing gratitude and appreciation of the other person: Gush over their new haircut, text them that you can’t wait to see them later—all the things that people tend to say to each other when they’re in the throes of romance. Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it, but starting a flame really does build a fire.
8. Fight fair.
Real talk: You’re not going to just wave your hand like a wand to make sometimes years-deep pent-up resentment disappear. But that’s okay. In this exercise from Eaker Weil, your task is to make an “appointment” with your partner that’s limited in duration. (Tuesday from 7:30 to 8, for instance.) During this time, you fight fairly. You’ll start by telling them why you’re angry or what grudge you’re holding onto. Finish by asking them for a change. For example: “I feel like you never make time for me. All of your free time is dedicated to playing golf/going out with the guys/holing up in your home office. I want you to make time for me every week, even if it’s for 10 minutes.” Your partner then follows up with something they’re resentful about; you just have to promise you’re not going to get angry, hurt, or reactive as they express themselves to you. To help make that happen, she recommends imagining that you’re holding their anger in a container as they speak (so that it’s something you observe, not attack).
9. Envision the future.
Some of the main ingredients in a loving and healthy marriage are shared values, dreams, and life goals, says Torres-Gregory. Sit down and talk about your vision of a future together and how you’ll support each other, she says—it’s an important and ongoing topic long after you’ve walked down the aisle or even had children. If that seems impossible to see now and you can’t or don’t want to have that conversation, consider couples counseling. “A professional can help you start building that trust and goodwill again, so that these conversations can happen more organically at home,” she says.
10. Try a Hail Mary.
Let’s say you want to save your marriage, but your partner doesn’t. (Sorry.) Eaker Weil suggests taking a planned, structured break. “This isn’t coming from a place of being nasty. It’s saying, ‘I want to save our marriage, but I see you don’t feel the same way. Let’s take some time apart,’” she says. This could be for just one night, but four to six weeks is the usual amount of time that gives the partner “a kick in the ass,” says Eaker Weil. “It’s not a punishment. It’s a wake-up.” No calling, no texting, and definitely no sex for the entire time—the point is to make your partner miss you. And if they don’t? Well, counseling is always a good idea—as is re-evaluating whether your lifetime partner is really living up to their vows. The hard truth is that some marriages aren’t meant to be saved–but that’s up to you to decide, when you’re ready.