Can This Marriage Be Saved?: Strategies for the Struggling Couple

Ask any young couple how long their marriage will last and chances are they will say forever. In the latest Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, an expert on emerging adulthood, found that 86 percent of more than 1,000 18- to 29-year-old Americans surveyed expect their marriages to last a lifetime. Yet statistics suggest that many of these newlyweds are blinded by love.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the likelihood that a couple will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary isn’t much greater than a coin toss: 52 percent for women and 56 percent for men. Let’s explore what may be going on when two people who once said “I do” decide they’re better off apart. “Today, we have a pretty good idea of what’s likely to make for a good marriage,” says Arthur Aron, PhD., Stony Brook University researcher. Thanks to emerging research and repeated observations of couples over long periods of time, we’ve narrowed down a few factors for divorce that include finances, communication, affection and stress.

Studies also show that a couple’s behavior plays a big role in overcoming the factors that shadow a marriage from the moment a couple says “I Do”.  The way partners talk, argue and date can be learned so couples can give their relationship a fighting chance. Here are a few strategies that I recommend couples practice to maintain happy, healthy and long partnerships:

Maintain a balance of power. I am referring to power in terms of knowledge not authority. When there is an imbalance of knowledge and one partner is the only person in the household privy to certain information such as income, bills, insurance and even a child’s schedule of activities, the other person may feel delegated to a lesser status resulting in resentment. Paying bills together, handling finances, making a budget and going over schedules once a week can help.

Communication is key. You have certainly heard this piece of advice many times, but communication is key to any healthy, honest relationship. During my therapy sessions with couples, we practice many communication techniques. I tell couples to  avoid talking in shorthand by clearly and calmly communicating with each other what they are thinking and feeling. Any couple can turn a negative conversation into a positive one where opinions are heard and feelings are considered. Some couples fall prey to what I call kitchen sink sight, where instead of staying focused on what is bothering them at the moment, they digress and talk about everything that has aggravated them about their partner since the day they first met.

Demonstrate affection. Maintaining a healthy sex life does not ensure a long marriage. A couple should also be communicating and sharing demonstrations of non-sexual affection. Touch is an important way to communicate empathy and caring. The simple touch of a shoulder or the grasp of a hand can relay understanding and caring in a way words cannot.

Avoid and understand stress. Many arguments have been ignited by a bad day at the office or stress due to a medical illness, loss of employment, or caring for a large household. For example, Hurricane Sandy tested the relationships of thousands of couples across the NY/NJ region. The storm had the potential to ruin many fragile relationships because it served up a platter of financial, emotional and physical stress in such a short span of time. Understanding stress and knowing its triggers can help a couple to work through problems. There are many stress management techniques shared by licensed professionals that can also help a couple to strengthen their relationship against all the odds.

Marriage is a special bond of friendship, compassion and love. A marriage can be saved if both parties are committed to working on the relationship, and each partner is willing to acknowledge his or her individual role in the circumstance. If the couple makes a commitment to working on the marriage, then many times the relationship can be saved.