How to fix a broken marriage

We spoke to three couples whose relationships very nearly came apart to find out how they stitched them back together again.

TP02_Couples_660x660The sweethearts
Sarah*, 46, Toronto

Robert and I fell madly in love while I was travelling abroad when I was 20. We were so young and we wanted different things—he wanted to travel, I wanted to go to university—so we broke up. We both went on to have other relationships, but the fact that we were still in love in our different parts of the world always got in the way. Six years after we met, he moved to Canada and we got married.

Honestly, it was hard from the start. He knew no one here, so I had to be his everything: partner, lover, money-maker. And then a few years later, after we had our second kid, things just got impossibly difficult. We were so totally consumed and overwhelmed by parenthood. I had no time or energy for my husband. We never had sex. We had no kindness for each other. Though he loved the kids, he would come home after a long day of work and I’d be desperate to hand the baby off after my own long day of taking care of her, and he’d say, basically, fuck this—I need to relax first. Our life was a constant negotiation in a high-pressure environment. And god, money was tight. We had daycare costs for our son, and I was home on mat leave with our daughter. We were completely miserable. We weren’t sharing a life together so much as simply recovering side by side on the couch at the end of every day. Money was what almost broke us, but it’s also what kind of made us stick together: I saw divorced friends trying to do it on their own, and it was so messy. I didn’t want to live with my kids in a crappy basement apartment. The prospect was pretty financially bleak, so I stayed. I think if I had magically come into some money during that time I definitely would have left.

How we made it through

We saw a therapist and it helped, but only because our mutual hatred for the guy brought us together. We decided to stop seeing him and use the money for date nights. At first I still complained all the time to my friends: I’m miserable, I don’t want to be married but I can’t afford not to be, etc. But as we spent more quality time together, I didn’t have the same degree of desperation. One day, an older friend gave me some advice: Make sex a habit. “You’ll start being kinder to each other,” she said. So I gave it a shot. I made a decision to have sex with him once a week, and I stuck to it. Some weeks were great, some were whatever, but it totally made a difference in how we were together. It wasn’t just about him getting laid—although he was delighted by it—it was a way to make him feel loved and appreciated. It recreated the intimacy we’d lost. It’s much easier to bare your soul to someone you feel affection for. Eventually, the baby was in daycare and I was working again, which took some of the financial weight off. And things got a lot better.

Where we are now

Money is still a constant stress, and every few months I want to board a one-way bus to New York City, but I think that’s pretty normal. I look back to the really hard times and can’t believe we made it through—I was so lonely and so sad. At the end of the day, he always makes me laugh, and I really like him. Now that the kids are older, I have more freedom to do things I love, which makes me happier. I miss that first flush of love, of course, but when I look at him from across a room at a party, I know I still want to be married to him.

The teammates
Christopher, 41, Salt Spring Island, BC

Natasha and I were a couple for eight years before our son was born—eight long, wonderful years spent exploring, travelling and learning how to be together. I think back on it and can’t believe the abundance of time and freedom we had. Then we had a baby. Nothing anyone says can prepare you for becoming parents—we were completely thrown. Our son was very active and not a great sleeper, and he had breathing problems that resulted in a surgery. My wife and I both felt as though we’d been dropped into a canyon of stress and sleep deprivation. Of course there was incredible joy and love, but for all the beauty he brought, the stress and exhaustion of caring for him got between us. The challenges were just so deep, and they exposed massive fissures in how we communicated. Our biggest issue was where we wanted to settle down to live. We’d lived all over the world before we became parents, but having kids really upends the idea of “home”—who do you want around you to help raise your child? We desperately needed to it figure out, but when you’re that sleep deprived, there’s no deferring a conversation for a better moment. There’s no, “Oh, let’s talk about this in the morning once we’ve slept on it.” We were just trying to make it through the week.

And biological amnesia is an incredible thing: We are built to reproduce and our memories conspire. That’s how we had our second child, 21 months after our first. On one hand, our confidence showed up: We had some ability to take care of an infant. But on the other hand, things got even more challenging. We had even less time to talk and be compassionate. I was tremendously lonely. I felt such love for my children, but I felt the total loss of my wife as she became immersed in motherhood, and I deeply grieved that. Our home was so cold, so alien. We both felt like we were trapped under heavy blankets. Everything was a haze.

A dozen or so times over the past six years, I have felt us close to the end. Several times, after terrible fights, I would be away on a work trip, completely unsure of what I would return to. Many times it felt fully terminal, but we kept coming back together.

How we made it through

For us, our recovery as a couple boiled down to creating and developing community. I believe that behind every great parent, there’s a team of people providing support, learning and sharing. Before our first baby was born, my wife had joined a women’s group, and I had joined a local men’s group. We turned to these for extra support during the hard times. The group is something that has been critically important to me in the past. There is something very powerful about sitting with men from different generations, and having an older man put his hand on your shoulder and say, “Everything is going to be OK.” Natasha and I learned to do everything possible to not overreact in the moment, to never say the things that we can’t take back. We learned that it’s OK to step away—that letting a few days unfold to make space has a potent effect.

Where we are now

As the kids have grown, life has just gotten easier. They sleep more and get sick less, and we have more time to be out in the world, to make time for ourselves and each other. We aren’t great at “date nights”—we tend to get upended by the pressure of them. But we do love to be together. We love sitting shoulder to shoulder working on something, listening, talking through things. We make time for that now. We’re still not winning any awards in the sleep department in our house, but there’s now an incredible amount of warmth in it.

The adventurers
Alison*, 44, Victoria

When Jon and I first met, I was pretty exclusively dating women. He and I became friends, and it was a slow boil, which I saw as a really good thing compared to my past tumultuous relationships. We were together for five years before we got married; we had a daughter two years in—and that’s when we started arguing. It was always over the same thing: He wanted us to be non-monogamous. I had seen a ton of open marriages and I had never seen it done well, but he constantly pushed it. We did explore a bit with an ex of mine, and it went terribly for me. I found the experience incredibly hurtful, but he still wanted to fantasize together—about friends of mine. And no matter how many times I told him it hurt me, he kept doing it. This wasn’t all the time—literally twice a year we would have these blowout fights, always about the same issue: His soul was suffering from not being able to sleep with other women, he’d say. And I was the one causing him pain. But again, this was two days out of the year—the other 363 he was a wonderful partner and father. Why did I stay? Picturing life without him seemed so grey. I couldn’t imagine the impact and implications separating would have for our families, and for our daughter. And because we were a creative team professionally, I couldn’t fathom how we could continue working together. But I thought about it a lot.

How we made it through

We saw a few different counsellors. The poly-positive (supportive of polyamory or non-monogamous lifestyles) ones basically told me to “Get over it,” and a non-poly one I saw on my own said I needed to leave him within five minutes of our first session, which made me feel she didn’t understand the complexities of our marriage. Eventually, a good friend of mine encouraged me to look at the thing I was most afraid of at the root of his desire to be with other women, and that was abandonment. I spent four days straight deliberately triggering myself, imagining all the worst-case scenarios, allowing the feelings to come and not getting attached to them. By the end, I felt calm. I felt like I could stand on my own. The next time the same argument came up, I said, “I refuse to have this conversation anymore.” I gave him an ultimatum: Either commit to giving heart and soul to me, or I was done. He heard that. Finally.

Where we are now

There’s been a lot of healing. I’ve been less angry and more calm, which means he can no longer write off what I’m saying—before when I’d lose it, he could dismiss it as “you’re crazy.” It was all such a mess. I feel like I used to want him to be my everything, but now I’m having some needs met by others and I depend on him less. My social circle is wider and I feel OK spending time alone. I’m working on reclaiming my sexuality—for so long I felt like the prude to his explorer, like the brakes to his accelerator. Now we are talking about going to a sex club to safely explore my desire for women, something I had to put on the back burner out of fear of what he’d want to do with it. It feels possible now: I feel confident, and I feel loved.

* Names have been changed

In good times and bad
Dark times happen in all relationships. Add some kids, money woes and time crunches, and many of us start eyeing the door at least occasionally. So how to muddle through the hard stuff? “If, underneath all of the disconnection and challenges, there’s a genuine desire for a better relationship, that’s a great sign,” says Anu Sharma-Niwa, a registered psychologist in Calgary. “It requires patience, time, repetition, consistency and respect.” Noted relationship researcher John Gottman says the magic ratio is 5:1—there need to be five times as many positive interactions as negative ones. Gottman suggests these ways to support a healthy relationship.

Learn to ask for what you need without blame, accept responsibility and express appreciation. Understand the difference between “You are destroying my career” and “I would really appreciate it if we could find a way to let me catch up on work for 30 minutes in the evening.”

• Take 10 minutes to check in with each other every day. It should be done when you can give each other your full attention (not during chores), like while you’re relaxing with a cup of tea or once you’re ready for bed.

• Seek help before you’re sure you need it. “Couples wait six to seven years too long before seeking help. Everyone thinks they can do it on their own, but sometimes we need a little support,” says Sharma-Niwa. Ask friends for referrals, and if you don’t click with one therapist, try another.

• Watch for signs your marriage is in trouble. “Lack of respect and emotional disengagement (including a lack of intimacy) and the withdrawal of attention and affection,” says Sharma-Niwa. If you don’t feel you’re a team anymore, and your future goals are no longer aligned, seek help. Remember, kids are affected by negativity and hostility. If that’s the case, talk to a therapist about a controlled separation that involves rules and professional guidance. Two happy homes are always better than one toxic one.

A version of this story first appeared in our February 2015 issue with the headline “Back from the brink”, p. 67.

Read more:
How to improve quality time with your partner
7 secrets to a happy marriage
Would you take a pill to improve your sex drive?

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