The Marriage-Saving Advice Therapists Give Couples On The Brink Of Divorce
This is the last-ditch advice therapists and counselors give their clients.
If you’re on the brink of a divorce, know two things. First, sorry to hear that. The fracturing of a marriage is a hell of a thing. Second, while it may seem futile, there’s always a chance to get your relationship back to where it once was. It just takes certainty, work (a lot of work), and the right direction.
When it’s obvious that clients are teetering on the edge, couples counsellors and other practicing therapists will try to offer direction in the form of some last-ditch advice. Curious as to what they say, we spoke out to an assortment of counselors, psychotherapists, authors, and consultants, all of whom have experience with couples at the precipice of divorce, and asked them for the Hail Mary advice they give those who are considering ending their marriage. They offered everything from visualization exercises and eye-opening questions to simple writing prompts. Sometimes the advice works, sometimes it doesn’t. But, whether you’re experiencing some marital troubles or simply want to build up your relationship resolve, it’s worth reading.
1. Visualize Your Fantasies
“By the time a couple is saying they want out, their entire focus is often on escaping their present problem with the unrealistic belief that everything will be better when they do. When a couple comes to me with this mindset, I have them fast forward to a post-divorce life: sharing custody (especially around holidays), birthdays, and other significant celebrations; visualizing their exes moving on with new partners, and dating again. Many times, they realize that the grass on the other side is much browner than they thought it would be. Visualization can really put people in touch with what life could be like versus what they see in their escape fantasies. The usual outcome is a shift in their focus — everything that is bad and wrong turns to what brought them together in the first place, what does work in their relationship, and what they could be giving up that can likely never be replaced.” – Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC, Psychotherapist, Relationship Coach, Divorce Mediator at Nova Divorce Mediation in Virginia
2. Realize You Have A Choice
“As a therapist, I am a huge advocate of Viktor Frankl and his Logotherapy approach — basically reminding couples that they have a choice. That choice may not be easy to recognize or to follow through on, but through making a choice, even the most hopeless-seeming dynamics can start to improve. The important thing for couples to remember in this situation is that both parties must make the same choice in order for things to work out. If both people choose to work on the marriage, then they are also choosing to work on communication patterns, priorities that may have gotten in the way of the relationship, and wounds that each other have caused. In my experience, couples do not go into counseling unless they have hope that they can save the relationship. In these scenarios, it is imperative to give the couple some perspective, which starts with reminding them that they always have a choice.” – Patrick Di Vietri, Licensed Professional Counselor / National Certified Counselor / Director of Therapy Services, Hope Therapy and Wellness Center in Virginia
3. Understand That You’ve Let Your Partner Morph Into Your Enemy
“Intimate partners unconsciously look to one another to validate and ‘grow’ the parts of themselves they could not acknowledge, experience, or express in their families of origin. The same qualities we adore and idealize in our partners at first become the most frustrating to deal with because they represent the shadow parts of our own minds that we don’t allow ourselves to feel, leading us to reject them in our partners, too. Most couples don’t see what’s truly driving their arguments, and get stuck in endless cycles of defensiveness, withdrawal, or angry demand. Some partners become so disillusioned and filled with hate that they just give up in hopeless resignation. The thing to remember is that every argument contains a secret wish for growth. Don’t let your partner morph into your enemy. Instead, stop the cycle and unlock the potential of your marriage to be the powerful force for healing and growth that it can be.” – Ma’ayan Greenbaum, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist & Online Conscious Couples Coach in New Jersey
4. Write A List of Critical Changes
“When couples come in on the brink of divorce, I tell them to write down three absolutely critical changes that your partner would need to make in order for you to want to reinvest energy into the relationship. The key to this exercise is to stop pointing fingers without taking personal responsibility for change. When there is a mutual and responsible effort to embrace your partner’s list, a reconstituted optimism will be injected into the relationship. Why? Because it’s fair! Both partners are simultaneously accepting the need for change.” – Dr. Joe Luciani, psychologist, author, wellness coach in New York
5. Recall How You First Met
“I’ve seen this technique work time and time again – go back to treating your spouse the way you did when you first met them. Over time, marriages become soured by the ebbs and flows of daily life. When two people can go back and recapture what they first loved about their partner — thus amplifying it in their mind — they can start putting the bricks back in a crumbling wall. Often, my male clients will say, ‘I don’t like drama.’ To which I say, ‘Then why do you create it?’ If your wife is angry all the time, what did you do to make her so angry? Go back to treating her the way you did when you first fell in love with her, and do it for at least 90 days. If things get better, there’s your answer.” – Nancy Cramer, leadership consultant in Texas
6. Embrace Your Vulnerability
“Your marriage is on the line here, guys. Your only chance for salvaging the relationship is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Allow your personal flaws to come to the surface, and look at them together with your spouse. If you’re unwilling to be vulnerable in this marriage, it’s highly likely that this pattern will persist into your next relationship as well. Let your guard down, because remaining guarded and defensive will be your fast track to isolation and divorce.” – Anthony F. Tasso, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, Chair and Professor of Psychology (Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey), private practice in New Jersey
7. Drain Your “Resentment Tank”
“On average, couples wait up to six years from the start of their problems until they actually seek therapy. By that time, resentment is very high for one or both partners. I ask them, ‘What percentage of your resentment tank is full?’ Once we establish that concept, we work on what caused it to fill up, and how we can drain it. Too much resentment clouds communication, and most issues stem from misunderstandings. Examine what your partner’s needs are, and learn new communication techniques that can help you meet them.” – Julie Bjelland, LMFT, psychotherapist, author in California
8. Give Yourself Space (And Write A “Pros & Cons” List)
“I recommend 48 hours. Separate yourselves, and don’t contact one another. This may be hard, especially if children are involved. If that’s the case, any contact with your partner should be exclusively to figure out drop-offs and pickups, not to process the argument. The 48-hour period will allow each person to get some mental clarity, and to shift out of the emotions and pain associated with divorce. They can think more rationally, and more clearly. During this time, write out a physical ‘pros & cons’ list about your decisions. Doing so is very grounding, and can help you think more clearly about the difficult decisions you need to make.” – Gabrielle Freire, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California
9. How Can I Express My Love To You Today?
“Ask each other that question every day. Your partner should tell you how, very explicitly. It can be the smallest of tasks — like a hug, a kiss, or a simple ‘I love you’ — or something more like helping out with household chores, watching the kids, or coordinating a date night. The point of this task is to help the couple focus more on their partner’s feelings, rather than think about how they, themselves, are being taken for granted.” – Michael Bouciquot, MS, registered marriage and family therapist intern in Florida
10. What Needs Are Not Being Met Right Now?
“That’s the question I ask. The point of this exercise is to constitute thoughts about what you, as a couple, need to stick it out. There may be emotional or physical needs that you feel like you’re meeting, but neither of you has spoken up about them for years. If that’s the case, these needs are not being met – at least not to their full capacity. The present is a great place to start. ‘What is it that you need from me right now, to get through this week?’ You can build on it from there.” – Jacob Kountz, MFT trainee, clinic manager at CSU Bakersfield in California
11. Remember What You Used To Sound Like
“Search through old emails that might remind you why you connected in the first place. Highlighting what worked for you in the past can allow for renewed connection and tenderness.” – Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, clinical psychologist in New York
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