Recently I had a man get in touch whose marriage was in a very bad place. He gave me a rough outline of what was going on. His big question for me was “Can my marriage be saved?”
This wasn’t a question I could answer right way, because I needed a lot of information, but this was something he desperately needed to know right now for his peace of mind. In fact, that is a question I can only answer absolutely with a “yes” or a “no” once I am a few sessions into coaching.
So I sat down and created a questionnaire for him, a handful of questions about his marriage that, while it wouldn’t give him a “yes” or “no”, answer, would give him both a better picture, and the start of an action plan.
I wanted to share a tidied-up version of the questionnaire to my readers.
Before You Start: Are You at Code Red?
The times a marriage can’t be saved are after a couple start either with serious psychological warfare with one another (isolation, using the kids as weapons, public humiliation, threatening suicide, etc.), or when there has been hitting on either side. I call that “code red”, and it usually means the marriage is better off ended.
Not at Code Red?
If you aren’t in a code red situation, then it all depends on where the structural problems exist in the marriage and how many major problems there are.
Here are the big places where most marriages get into trouble:
everyone has only one or two things that a spouse does that actually make them feel loved. If they are getting those things at home, then they will generally tough out a lot of other unhappiness. If they are not getting it at home, they are usually miserable.
1-a: Do you know which of the things that you do for your spouse actually make her feel loved?
1-b: Are you still doing them or can you do so again?
1-c: Have you ever given your spouse reason to believe that you do these things just to manipulate her?
Almost every relationship problem is, on some, level a communication problem. If one or both of you are constantly misunderstanding each other failing to share plans, expecting the other person to read minds, or giving each other the silent treatment, that is major issue. If you complain constantly to one another, that is also a big issue (it needs to be moderated.)
Some couples have trouble because they have radically different amounts of talk they need or want in a day, if one person needs to talk a lot an the other just wants peace and quiet, a middle ground has to be deliberately established.
2-a: Do you and your spouse talk openly and honestly about what you think, feel, or need?
2-b: Can you talk right now without one of you yelling, arguing, or shutting down?
2-c: Do you make time ever day to try to talk to each other, even if just over coffee or at dinner?
2-d: Do you have a friend that you complain and talk about the big problems in your life to first, before you do so with your spouse If not, is there someone you would trust to listen?
2-e: Are you honest and trustworthy in your wife’s eyes?
Married couples need to share common hobbies, interests or activities. While you can share some “whole family” pursuits with the kids, you also need things that you do with only each other.
You also have to regularly signal that you value each other by spending time and making a point to show the world around you that you are invested in each other. If you send time at opposite ends of the couch playing games or surfing the web on a tablet more often than not – or worse one in the living room and one in the man cave… then this is one of the first issues that needs to change.
3-a: Do you and your spouse still go out on dates once in awhile?
3-b: Do you say good things about your spouse to other people? Does he/she say nice things about you?
3-c: Do you spend time hosting your spouse’s friends and visiting his or her family? Do they do the same for you?
3-d: Has your spouse become a shut-in or socially isolated?
A healthy household should not carry a lot of debt. Overspending should rarely be a problem. You should have good, reliable things, and the car/house/garden should not be falling apart. If you find that you are constantly running up debt, are not making and keeping budgets, and surrounded by stuff that needs to be fixed or replaced, then that is a big structural issue.
4-a: Do you have enough money at home to have nice, functional things?
4-b: Do you manage your finances through a budget of some kind? Could you start?
4-c: Is there a lot of clutter, mess, broken things, or unfinished jobs around your home? Can you start getting rid of them and getting stuff that works?
4-d: Are you taking care of preparing for retirement or sudden disability/death?
4-e: Do you have enough money to do the odd fun thing?
4-f: If you are struggling financially, do you know what you have to do to get a better job, reduce debt, get a raise or promotion, or charge up your business to fix it?
5. Mental Health
Caring for a spouse with mental health issues, especially mood disorders like depression, Panic anxiety disorder, social anxiety, PTSD, or OCD can be taxing, and there are a lot of wrong steps a spouse can make that actually harm rather than help the spouse. Making sure to model good mental health, and supporting each other in getting better is critical.
If one of you has a personality disorder like Bipolar Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder, there needs to be constant professional help involved.
Even excessive or constant fatigue and work stress can be an issue here, specially if they affect communication, your social life, or sexual performance.
5-a: Are you suffering from any depression or anxiety-related issues right now? If so, are you taking steps to fix them either through therapy, CBT-based self-help, drugs, or pastoral help?
5-b: If your spouse has mood disorders, have you learned how not to coddle them and make the problem worse?
5-c: Does your spouse have any serious mental health issues where you can do nothing to help?
5-d: If you are dealing with a mentally unhealthy spouse, are YOU talking to someone to help you get through it?
5-e: Do you use, or are you willing to learn stress management techniques, scheduling and time management, assertiveness, and relaxation techniques?
6. Physical Health
“In sickness and in health” sounds so simple, and it sadly isn’t. If one of you is chronically sick, especially if it is affecting you ability to work, care for kids, get out, or have sex, it is going to be a dire issue for the whole marriage.
6-a: Do you have any serious health problems that won’t resolve themselves any time soon? How badly do they affect your quality of life?
6-b: Are you working towards losing weight and building muscle with some kind of exercise program?
6-c: If your spouse has chronic heath problems or disabilities, does he or she have all he help, support, and tools that he or she needs? If not, can you get them?
7. Social Lives
A healthy marriage is a lot more than two people, it is two people together in the context of two big sets of often-overlapping friends and family.
A couple needs to spend time with, appreciate, and get along with each of their families of origin (at least as well as the spouse that grew up with them did.) If there are issues between a person and their in-laws it is going to strain the marriage.
If a couple doesn’t get out among shared friends once in awhile then they are not doing a good job of signaling investment. and at the same time, both members of a marriage needs friends outside of the marriage to talk to and spend time with without their spouse (being all things to each other all the time is too much pressure). They need to be individuals with individual lives that overlap.
7-a: Do you have mutual friends that you both like that you see at least once a month?
7-b: Do you have at least three friends that you talk to regularly, who treat you with respect, and would listen if you needed an ear?
7-c: Do you get out with friends of your own at least once every couple of weeks to do something that you enjoy on your own? If not, could you organize something?
7-d: Do you make sure that your spouse has time to get out with healthy non-toxic friends regularly?
7-e: Do you both have hobbies that can be done socially, without alcohol?
7-f: Have either of you become solely dependant on the other (or your children) for social support, affection, listening, and fulfillment?
One of the first things to taper off, and one of the last to be fixed, sex is the lynchpin of a good marriage. For a marriage to work, somewhere between once to three times a week – with some fantasy play and kink worked in once in awhile – is absolutely necessary.
For a lot of men, sex is also one of their key affection needs, so if the sex dies down it is a double threat. Unfortunately, marriage vows and wearing a gold ring does not make a person irresistibly sexy to their spouse for the rest of their lives: both partners have to work to keep fit, attractive, and interested.
Because of the way womens’ sex drives work in particular if there are a lot of untended structural problems elsewhere in the marriage, then sex just stops happening because their unconscious desire for sex just shuts down.
If sex is not happening there are either other areas in the marriage that need fixing, or one of the spouses has let themselves go and is making no effort to be sexually exciting… if it is the latter, then that needs to be addressed pretty quickly.
8-a: Do you suffer from erectile dysfunction, and if so, have you see a urologist about it? – or – If you are a woman and suffer from vaginal pain, have you seen a gynecologist about it?
8-b: How much porn do you watch, and are you willing to cut it back or out entirely?
8-c: Do you know what your spouse found attractive about you in the first place, and do you still show that quality?
8-d: Are you willing to upgrade your wardrobe, health routine, and self-care programs to make yourself more attractive?
8-e: Is there any sexual health issues on your wife’s part – sexual pain, trouble orgasming, incontinence – or unresolved sex-related traumas – miscarriage, assault, that need attention?
9. Unresolved Hurts: (also called “Moments of Critical Neglect”)
Sometimes a spouse does something horrible: humiliates someone in front of their parents, cheats, loses their temper and lashes out, invades the other’s privacy, gets confused about the level of sexual consent given… and it can drag a marriage down. Every one of these is like a lead weight around a spouses neck.
If a couple is still married a few months after one of these events, then the odds are good that the one who made the mistake can be forgiven – if they know how to really apologize and make it up. But until and unless a real apology is given, these things will sit and slowly kill a marriage from the inside.
9-a: Are you aware of any moments of critical neglect or you may have done to your spouse for which you have not made both a full, frank apology and amends?
9-b: Is there anything your spouse has done to neglect you or abuse your trust that you need to ask for an apology for?
9-c: Are you capable of forgiving your spouse for any hurtful moments up to this point?
9-d: Is there anything either of you has done that the other considers truly unforgivable?
Two other questions that I believe are really valuable in assessing the state of one’s marriage have to do with their behaviour: are their actions consistent with someone really planning to leave?
10-a: Is your wife already taking actions to leave? Has she moved out, consulted a divorce lawyer, looked for a better job, etc.?
10-b: Do you suspect that your wife is cheating or in contact with another man who would want to take your place?
What do My Answers Mean?
You can have some problems in every one of these categories and still save a marriage. You can have serious problems in over half of them, and probably still save your marriage. Even if the spouse is sleeping in another bedroom, isn’t wearing the ring, and has a facebook relationship status set to “It’s complicated.” If – and this is a big if – you have enough control over those problems to start fixing them.
If you can spot things that you can learn and do better immediately, and you don’t see anything that looks like an insurmountable obstacle after considering those questions, then, your marriage probably is salvageable.