3 Marriage-Saving Skills That Can Help You Through the Hardest of Times

Every couple needs to know how to survive when things get tough.
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Krizia Liquido
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Every couple needs to know how to survive when things get tough.

Lately, it feels as though life, and all its unforeseen circumstances, have set out to put my wedding vows to the test. In November last year, we had a miscarriage. A few days after that, my husband bought a company, which meant even longer hours and more time away from the family. Another month later, we bought a house and moved cross-country from New York to California with our two daughters, ages 1 and 3. On top of our familial duties, my husband travels a lot for work, and so do I. We struggle with child care, managing our money, making friends, and attempting to achieve that mythical work–life balance.

Never has “in good times and bad” felt more real.

As my friend and cohost of the “Marriage is Funny” podcast Jessie Artigue and I were discussing the challenges of marriage, she asked, “Have you ever felt like . . .” She paused. “Like I made the wrong decision?” I replied, finishing her question for her. It’s a question every married person has probably thought at some point.

Of course, when I clear my head and consider all that I love about my husband, I know that I’m better off for having married him. But sometimes it can feel like marriage is just too hard.

And I know I’m not the only one having a hard time. Divorce data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average duration of marriage for those who divorce is 9.2 years (the average duration of a second marriage is 6.6 years). That 38.9 percent of first marriages and 36.4 percent of second marriages end in divorce indicates the basic fact we often skirt around: Marriage is difficult.

What separates my husband and I from couples who throw in the towel?

My husband and I walked into our marriage accepting the fact that it was going to be hard. But, more than that, we knew that if we walked into a fight for our marriage unprepared, we would fail. In order to truly have a successful marriage, we would have to learn to use those difficult times to grow closer. Marriage expert Dr. John M. Gottman, Ph.D., writes in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “Conflict is inevitable, and it’s a mechanism for learning how to love each other better.”

The lessons we learned from Gottman’s book and from marriage counseling have taught us to look at our relationship challenges with hope and weather each storm with the optimism that our marriage would be better for it in the end.

Of the seven principles Gottman addresses in his book, I’ll share the top three that have helped my husband and I embrace the difficult times, using them as an opportunity to grow instead of viewing them as a punishing plague signaling our doom.

01. Go beyond the gridlock.

Imagine two cars in a packed parking lot during rush hour. There’s only so much room before one has to make way for the other to get where they’re going. These days, my husband and I experience this kind of frustrating holdup frequently. But when neither of us is willing to budge on a point of contention, moving on to a peaceful conclusion seems impossible.

The answer isn’t to walk away. Gottman writes, “The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem but rather to move from gridlock to dialogue. The gridlock conflict will probably always be a perpetual issue in your marriage, but one day you will be able to talk about it without hurting each other.”

He concludes, “When either spouse doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of supporting his or her partner’s dreams, gridlock is almost inevitable.” This is because our day-to-day actions often indicate the nature of our personal dreams.

Our frequent gridlock? I like the house neat and tidy, for instance, because it fulfills my desire to live an ordered life, something that I didn’t have as a child. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t care whether the house is a pigsty because spending time cleaning takes time away from his dream of building his own business so that he can spend more time with our family.

When we acknowledge and respect one another’s dreams, we can better achieve compromise. He spends a little time helping me with the chores I hate most (hello, bathroom cleaning and taking out our kids’ smelly poop trash). And I don’t prioritize cleaning messes or nagging about them over spending joyful quality time with him.

02. Leave criticism out of it.

We don’t have family or a strong community close by (yet), so relying on each other is necessary for our survival. But it also means that we see a lot of only each other, and, yes, you can have too much of a good thing if you play your cards wrong.

First Things First has a great article called “Seasons of a Marriage” that aptly describes the stage my husband and I are in now. As the article discusses, we’re now comfortable enough to battle one another, use every argument as an opportunity to define the marriage, and dig in our heels.

Among Gottman’s tips to avoid constant bickering, reserving criticism and judgment helps us solve our solvable problems best. Gottman advises, “Complain, but don’t blame.” Blaming your partner’s personality for a problem (e.g., blaming your partner’s laziness or insensitivity for an unmet request or expectation) only leads to tension, resentment, and defensiveness. Instead, “Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge.”

So, instead of telling my very busy husband, “You don’t care about my career!” I’ll say, “I’m having a hard time taking care of the kids and finding a time to finish writing this article.” My husband doesn’t feel attacked. Rather, he’s able to see my point and offer a solution to help me out.

03. Use arguments as opportunities to engage.

Whenever we argue or I make a remark about something that clearly annoys my husband, he’ll take a deep breath, look at me, and calmly say, “I love you. I love you so much.” It baffles me. I mean, he’s clearly pissed off! One day, after a particularly heated argument, he said the same thing. “Why do you always do that?!” I asked. Did he mean it? Was he mocking me? He told me that he did it to remind me, but more importantly, to remind himself.

Tough times make it easy to forget about how much you truly care about a person. It gives you a great excuse to walk away. Setting aside your ego to love the other person when all you really want to do is prove your own point is not easy. But one of Gottman’s seven principles to a successful marriage is intentional engagement.

When my husband tells me he loves me in the midst of a yelling match, he’s intentionally choosing to use it as an opportunity to engage with me. In doing so, he inspires me to do the same. Instead of nagging or following up with negativity, I work on swallowing my pride enough to tell him, “I love you very much.” Even though I may feel angry, I remember that these feelings aren’t facts. Our hearts soften, and we’re able to get to the heart of the matter instead of wasting time beating our chests and seeing who can scream loudest—or worse, walking into separate rooms to stew in our own frustration, convincing ourselves that this is the end.

It took Gottman sixteen years of intensely studying happy marriages rather than analyzing bad ones to figure out how to revive or divorce-proof a relationship. So even though his principles guide couples on how to cope with conflict, Gottman notes, “The foundation of my approach is to strengthen the friendship that is at the heart of any marriage.” Dialogue and engagement, in good times and in bad, will strengthen a relationship so that together you can thrive against all odds.

Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography