Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Right up front I want to establish that I’m neither a therapist nor a marriage counselor. I claim no particular expertise in relationship. I’m simply an attorney and mediator who has worked with hundreds of couples. Over the years, I’ve observed some subset of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to reconciliation. What follows are my observations.

A sizable percentage [I’d guess a quarter to a third] of divorcing couples will make one or more attempt(s) to reconcile. The vast majority fail. Below, I’ve done my best to explain the reasons, as I see them, why so many make the attempt and so few succeed. In addition, I’ve set forth some of the things that seem to set certain couples apart, allowing them to reconcile successfully.

When a relationship is failing, both husband and wife are under a lot of stress. When they separate, they’re no longer right there in person, day in and day out, triggering the heck out of each other. Often, things begin to settle down, leaving each the time and space to take a deep breath. At this point, many people will begin to recall the good times, see long-forgotten positive qualities in the other, and consider whether the marriage might be worth saving.

This generally lasts until they move back in together. Once under a common roof, they find themselves again struggling with the same, old unhealthy patterns and fighting the same old, unpleasant fights. Thus, most reconciliation efforts ends in frustration and failure. That’s the bad news. The good news is that knowledge is power and, for those who are up for a challenge, hope is not lost.

Those who successfully reconcile share certain identifiable characteristics. First, they seek assistance from professionals. When a couple is trying to break old, unhealthy habits and patterns of communication, no matter how good their intentions may be, they most always need help.

Second, it works best when both spouses are willing to look not only at what needs to change in their partnership, but also to focus on what they can change in themselves. After all, it’s far easier to change ourselves than to force someone else to change. And people are less resistant to change when they’re choosing it rather than feeling like someone is forcing it upon them under threat of divorce. Remember, whatever you learn about yourself is fully transportable if things don’t work out. So one has much to gain and nothing to lose by focusing on the things one can change within oneself.

Third, it helps when people are willing to look past the strategies by which they hope to change the relationship and their partner and instead begin to focus upon discovering their own feelings and needs. These words may seem inscrutable, as we’re not trained in this culture to notice our own feelings, let alone the needs that underlie them, so here’s an example. A spouse who complains, “You only care about yourself; why won’t you help more around the house?” might be feeling frustration, anger, sadness and the like. His or her needs might be for ease, peace, respect, etc. The particular feelings and needs are unique to each person. But the process of focusing on feelings and needs is universally helpful, as it shows us what we’re really wanting (beneath and beyond the conflict) and this process also allows us to share where we’re at in a way that our spouse can more easily understand and appreciate.

If these seems like colossal undertakings, that’s good. Turning a relationship around takes real commitment, as change does not come easy. However, it is possible — and the experience, being one of personal growth, can be satisfying and fulfilling.

As I’ve said above, to make meaningful headway, most couples need assistance. For some, couples counseling is the best option. For others, it works best for the partners to engage in individual counseling. Sometimes people will feel the need for both. Counseling is designed to help us get to the bottom of our unhealthy patterns and transform them. For many, it’s a great investment. However, it typically takes time. Thus, it’s important to have patience. But for those who are willing, it can be a great experience. After all, how often in life does one get to focus on his or her own feelings and needs and how often is someone with the training to help us there to listen?

For those who are interested, there’s a wonderful type of couples counseling called “Imago.” In my experience, it has tremendous potential to restore love and intimacy to relationships — even those that seem to be dead. A man named Harville Hendrix developed this form of counseling and wrote a seminal book called, “Getting the Love You Want.” It’s a fantastic resource that can help you get a sense of whether Imago might be the right approach for you.

If the Imago approach seems promising, one can find marriage counselors trained in Imago techniques. One can also find weekend-long workshops designed to impart the basics. It can be extremely effective to take a course to learn the techniques and then work with a counselor in engaging them.

Though counseling can be extremely effective, it’s not necessarily the right right approach for everyone. There are couples who have no interest in rooting around in their past or learning new relationship tools but who simply wish to negotiate practical solutions to issues that have been causing difficulty in the marriage. For many of them, mediation can be employed to negotiate the changes necessary to put the marriage back on track.

Marital mediation (as opposed to divorce mediation) focuses the potential of interest-based conflict resolution on couples before things have deteriorated beyond the point of no return. Very often in mediation, even when couples are divorcing, positive feelings and good will return. When they’ve already decided to divorce, typically one or both parties is no longer open to reconciliation. The process may still take them to a place of love and gratitude, which is a wonderful way to step into the post-divorce phase of sharing custody and moving on with one’s life, but there’s too much water under the bridge to get back together. However, in many cases, if they had come in sooner, more might have been possible.

That said, not all types of mediation are appropriate for couples working to save a marriage. Certain mediators are what I would term “evaluative” or “directive.” Such a mediator sees his or her role as that of helping the couple make the “right” choices. The downside to such an approach is it tends to focus narrowly on solutions with too much emphasis on the opinions of a third party, in this case those of the mediator. How different is that than when a judge makes the final decisions? Either way, the spouses are relying on a stranger to make important choices that will impact their lives and those of their children for years to come. No matter how well intentioned the mediator, he or she can not know as much about the family as do the husband and wife. It is the spouses themselves who are the experts best positioned to make choices that will impact their lives and those of their children. Thus, the best role for the mediator is that of facilitator, helping couples to discover feelings and needs, communicate effectively, and explore the full range of possibilities that are before them.

While a directive approach might be effective in resolving child custody and property division issues quickly in a divorce setting, it does not, in my opinion, open the full potential of mediation to find win-win solutions and it does even less to heal broken relationships. Thus, it’s not the right choice for couples who still hold out hope of staying together. The best mediators, in my opinion, are those who facilitate a process that shares certain common ground with couples counseling. Like counseling, it helps each spouse to see through the other’s eyes.

Ultimately, relationships work when people can step into each other’s shoes and really understand where the other spouse is coming from. They don’t have to ultimately agree about much of anything. People who are extremely different can have great marriages. In fact, those differences can be a source of strength. But each spouse must have empathy for the other.

When one partner can see the other spouse’s worldview and truthfully say, “I really get where you’re coming from and, even though I don’t necessarily see things that way, what you’re saying makes sense to me” limitless possibilities open. In many instances, they begin to see options that hadn’t seemed to exist before. There are times when the ultimate resolutions reached are better than anything either of them could have imagined before engaging in this process.

The other advantage to marital mediation is that, if things don’t work out, the transition to divorce mediation is effortless — as the foundation the couple has built by working together remains in place with the focus merely shifting to custody, visitation, division of assets and debts, and (when appropriate) spousal maintenance.

Finally, I’m going to mention one more avenue that might be helpful. A man named Marshall Rosenberg developed a technique called Nonviolent Communication, which is fully delineated in a book called “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.” Therein, he explores feelings and needs from yet another angle. In my experience, Nonviolent Communication is very difficult to master; however, the potential it has to open personal relationships (not just with spouses, but with anyone) is nearly limitless.

Regardless of the approach a couple that wishes to explore reconciliation chooses, the benefits of making such efforts go far beyond the immediate issues at hand. By working on oneself in relationship, one develops insight, learns new relationship skills, and creates the foundation for a healthier connection with his/her partner (either as spouses or as exes) moving forward.