“The whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” The metaphor is perfect for understanding marriage in its ideal state. But what happens when that larger-than-life entity is reduced to its individual components? Would you know how to save your marriage when you feel hopeless, disconnected, and alone?
You may not even recognize how you got here, but you feel where you are. The criticisms from your spouse sting and linger. The compliments that were once so validating and that made you feel so appreciated have disappeared. Going to work and busying yourself outside the home become welcome distractions.
And going home, especially if your spouse is there, is the loneliest part of the day.
This is the point in marriage where you may ask yourself, “How does an unhappy marriage affect you? Am I reading my feelings correctly? Is this how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life?”
Perhaps you don’t even share some key values anymore. Perhaps sex is actually a distancing, emotionally painful experience. Perhaps you bicker about petty subjects as a way of avoiding deeper issues (and deeper intimacy).
However this marriage-of-one-or-none is playing out, you know only that you don’t recognize this life to which you are sworn. You may even wonder if you made a huge mistake uttering those two life-sentencing words on your wedding day.
The only thing that could make you feel worse is your suspicion that your spouse might feel the same way. And if both of you feel such disconnect, the time has come to learn how to save your marriage.
When you feel hopeless, it’s natural to wonder if you will ever feel happy again. But if, when you think about being happy, you run the video of your early days together, there is great hope. Simply knowing that this “stranger” was once the keeper of your heart is a powerful resource for reclaiming your marriage…and your happiness.
According to Family Systems Theory, if even one person in a system (a couple, family, household) changes his/her behavior, the whole system is forced to adjust.
Applied in the negative sense, it would support what we all know about addiction — that everyone in the home is affected. It is, in essence, a family disease.
As a model for how to save your marriage when you feel hopeless and alone, the application is much more positive. Even if only one of you wants to save your marriage and is willing to make necessary changes, the marriage can be saved.
Here are some tips for how to save your marriage when you feel hopeless.
Remember your ‘why.’
Why do you want to save your marriage? Have you really thought about the reasons, or have you just based your decision on the assumption that staying married is your only option? Are you guided by a sense of obligation, guilt, or shame? Or are you motivated by the possibility of taking your marriage — in the words of Buzz Lightyear — “to infinity and beyond”?
Be specific as you explore your reasons, as your reasons will be your anchor as you make changes in your marriage.
Develop deep empathy for your spouse.
It can be so easy to believe that your shoes are the only ones with pain-inducing pebbles in them. But take a stroll in your spouse’s shoes. Wear them in a little. Learn what makes them feel comfortable and what makes them rub the wrong way.
In other words, get to know your spouse in detail. Pay attention to what irritates, stresses, and scares him/her. Learn those little indulgences that light up your spouse’s face and infuse delight back into his/her life.
And start being present to your spouse’s perspective, even if yours is entirely different. Empathy is the most loving way to live the Golden Rule in your marriage. Take the initiative and watch it come back to you.
You don’t always have to agree with your spouse, but you can always choose to be kind, sensitive, caring, appreciative, and affectionate.
Listen with the intention to learn.
Active listening takes effort, energy, and positive intention. It has nothing to do with tapping your foot while you wait for your turn to speak. Instead, it is about paying attention to all available information — both obvious and not so obvious.
Pay attention to your spouse’s body language…and to your own. Listen for opportunities to express understanding. And watch for opportunities to extend comfort and validation.
Nothing is more powerful in communication than making someone else feel heard — truly, deeply heard.
Step away from the problems.
When you feel hopeless and alone, you can end up in a downward spiral of feeling nothing but hopeless and alone. You see only the problems in your marriage, and they fuel the negative emotions, which fuel the focus on the problems. Ick. It’s exhausting.
Force yourself to step outside your normal focus and see with a fresh perspective. Where you would regularly look for and see your spouse’s faults and the ways in which you feel disappointed by him/her, look for even one positive quality.
Focus on it. Remember how it captivated you when you were first dating. And remain in that energy until it’s time to choose another positive focus.
Little by little, just as you drifted into seeing only the negative in your marriage, you will drift back into seeing only the positive.
Put your marriage first.
Hopelessness usually develops as a slow erosion of the essentials to happiness. Couples forget that marriage is tough work, and they start throwing little things overboard to lighten their load.
Before they know it, they are traveling with none of the things that make an adventure possible, let alone worthwhile.
Commit to having each other’s back at all times. Provide a safe place for both of you to be vulnerable and transparent.
This is also the time to consider incorporating help from couples therapy if you need to develop your communication skills.
Feeling hopeless in a marriage is more common than you might think. And it doesn’t make you a bad person to ask the question “Why stay in an unhappy marriage?” Sometimes that is a motivating starting place for realizing that your marriage is worth fighting for.
If all you do is lead with love, even if you feel like the only one making the effort, you can redirect your own heart and your marriage. And it’s impossible to feel hopeless when you have that much power.