Tips on saving a marriage


First aired on Fresh Air (13/04/13)

There are many reasons why a marriage breaks down. But social worker Gary Direnfeld has counselled enough couples over the years to recognize the most common issues that derail relationships. Direnfeld, who used to host the reality TV therapy show Newlywed Nearly Dead, has outlined these common issues in his new book Marriage Rescue: Overcoming Ten Deadly Sins in Failing Relationships. He stopped by Fresh Air recently to chat with guest host Karen Gordon about what they are, and what we can do if we're going through tough times in our relationship.

"These are the things that people come to therapy with over and over again, as their chief complaint: 'It's my spouse's fault,' it's the in-laws, it's money, it's the children -- yours, mine and ours. Do we even have children? Infidelity: the slippery slope from Facebook into sexual activity. Domestic violence. Drug and alcohol abuse...These are [among] the top 10 issues that I see week in and week out."

When a couple with marriage problems seeks him out for counselling, Direnfeld said it's difficult to predict whether the relationship will last. He said he's seen couples fighting over frivolous issues completely fall apart over them, and he's seen other couples with very serious differences hunker down together and overcome those issues.

In cases where the spouses are successful, Direnfeld said he observes a common thread: the ability of the individuals to take responsibility for their own contribution to the stress.

marriage-rescue-cover-110.jpg"You've got to get out of the cycle of blame and shame, and say what am I doing where I'm... pooping where I eat?" he said. "We only have control over ourselves, not the other person. Even if the other person is really annoying you, you then have to look within and say, 'How do I manage that in a way that doesn't escalate the situation but maybe keys into how they've been affected by something I've said, done, or thought?'"

When people get agitated in a marriage they tend to do one of two things: either withdraw into themselves or become more aggressive and controlling. Neither method of coping is actually a good way to get to the root of the problem, Direnfeld said. It's more effective to confront the issues by first acknowledging our part in fuelling it and managing our emotional intensity and our language.

Now, should all marriages be saved? It's hard to say sometimes, especially when domestic violence or drug or alcohol addiction is involved. Before working on rebuilding a relationship, Direnfeld is adamant that the individuals need to meet two pre-conditions: they have to be safe and they have to be sober.

"I wanna rescue your marriage, but if you're not safe within it, get to a place of safety. That is a fundamental starting point."

Related links