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Can a Broken Marriage Be Fixed?

If you decide to stay in an unhappy marriage, know that change is hard work.

Key points

  • Love isn't easy, and it isn't supposed to be.
  • Maintenance is necessary to keep romance in a relationship.
  • There is a difference between hearing and listening.
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

Is it possible to change an unhappy marriage?

Several months ago, I wrote a post about why people stay in an unhappy marriage, and judging by the reader responses, the struggle of whether to stay or to go is very real.

Some people shared their past experiences of being trapped in an unhealthy cycle of emotional abuse that they didn't realize until they got out of the marriage. Others felt frustrated by the financial need to stay with someone despite the state of the marriage. But mostly what people wanted was to know how to fix a marriage that feels so broken.

You can fix your marriage, but it is going to be painful.

If you and your partner are both willing to put in the work, are able to truly acknowledge your part in contributing to the current state of your marriage, and will actively attempt to change your behavior in a way that best suits your relationship, then your marriage can be fixed.

Pop culture long ago latched onto the idea that it takes 30 days to change a habit. Or maybe it is 28 days? A year? Six months? The reality is that although the promise of significant change in a clearly defined time period is a great way to sell self-help books, empirical research on how long it takes to truly change, as well as how long that change will last, is significantly more complicated.

To find out if your marriage can be fixed, you have to give it your all and hope that your partner is doing the same. You have to put your marriage before yourself. And although I am a huge proponent of attending therapy, either by yourself or with your partner, the reality is that therapy does not guarantee the return of the flush of first love, or that the love you give to your partner will be given in kind.

The stronger your love was before, the greater the challenge of finding it again.

Once a marriage starts trending downward, it is incredibly difficult to rechart its course. And, sadly, the better the relationship was, the more of a challenge it will be to get back. If the beginning of your courtship made you swoon and swear you had found your soulmate, getting back to a romance that sounds worthy of a Disney movie is going to be a much steeper climb than if your relationship had started more slowly and with reasonable highs and lows.

Time can color the memories of your past in a more positive light than the relationship actually was. In this case, your struggling marriage of the present has an impossibly high standard to live up to, which can result in a negativity bias. A negativity bias skews your present struggles in a way that causes you to remember the arguments, doubts, and unhappy moments of your current state as having a greater significance.

Let it go.

Often when I work with couples, therapy begins with anecdotes of arguments from months or even years ago. The history of the relationship is extremely helpful in understanding what led the couple to commit to therapy at this moment. But there is a difference between a couple telling their story and two people who can't let go of the past.

In couples therapy, one of the most important concepts is to help each person to see and understand the other person's point of view. It can be very powerful to walk one person through the thought process, actions, and emotions that their partner experienced during an argument. Establishing this skill is a crucial tool for the couple to be able to look at both past and future arguments through a different lens. If you can remove the idea of one person being in the right while the other person is in the wrong, the doors of reconciliation swing wide open.

And yet, there will be times when no amount of exploration or explanation will change someone's understanding of the argument, nor will it decrease their feelings of hurt and resentment.

This is totally normal. And probably this one argument, or this one slight, this one incident, is not worth ending your marriage.

Let it go. Because holding on to an argument that doesn't serve your relationship is sending the message that winning an argument is more important than staying in your marriage.

Lead with love.

There will be times when the best way to improve a relationship is simply to let go of whatever argument or betrayal or disappointment is chipping away at your marriage and to instead lead with love. In other words, moving forward, both partners agree that the love you have for each other is a given, despite the arguments that arise. You agree that the intent is not to harm the other person. And you agree to apologize if someone gets hurt.

Marriage is a long-term investment fraught with long-term resentments. Keep in mind that this is the person you chose to commit to, despite their flaws and yours. Once a relationship starts feeling unsafe and unstable, our tendency is to focus on the negatives that arise.

But if you are always focusing on the negatives, it is all too easy to forget about the love that you feel for each other. Leading with love is essentially agreeing to give your partner the benefit of the doubt that they want this relationship to work just as much as you do.

No marriage is perfect, and any couple who claims that they never fight is either lying, or terrified of what might happen if they allowed their true feelings to come out.

Marriage isn't supposed to be a well-choreographed dance, but rather an opportunity to learn and grow with another person.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication, First Edition. Edited by Charles R. Berger and Michael E. Roloff. © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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