How to Fix a Relationship in 5 Steps

couple nuzzling up to each other“Can this relationship be fixed?”

Troubled couples often ask this question in relationship or marriage counseling. Having exhausted all the tools in their toolbox, partners come to therapy as their last resort, feeling rather hopeless.

Fixing a relationship doesn’t require a personality makeover, but it does take effort and energy to hone your communication skills and create deeper intimacy and connection. These five steps will start you on your way to repair:

1. Face and embrace your differences.

Ever know a couple who never seemed to argue, who was the envy of other couples in your circle of friends? They seemed to be the perfect pair. Next thing you know, you’re shocked to hear they’re splitting up.

We see this all the time. Couples who appear the most at peace may not be dealing with their differences. They may look good on the outside, but underneath it all they have a mountain of hurt, anger, resentment, sadness, and fear that they have been unable to share in their relationship.

They may be “pleasers” who avoid conflict at all cost. Or maybe one person controls the relationship and the other submits. Either way, they are not facing and embracing their issues.

The deepest emotional connections of love and intimacy are the ones where you and your partner genuinely express the most difficult feelings at the most difficult times; where you choose not to hide vulnerability; and where you willingly engage each other in the real feelings—anger, fear, pain, and love.

2. Practice effective communication skills.

  • Carve out regular time for dialogue about concerns. State your thoughts in terms of behavior, without judgment, attack, or blame. Be specific, constructive, and positive.
  • Use “I” statements to convey your thoughts and feelings. Own your part of the problem. Tell your partner how his or her behavior affects you and why; e.g., “When you left for work without saying goodbye, I worried you might be angry with me.”
  • Hear your partner’s story fully. Everyone’s perception is valid, whether or not you agree with it. Listen without interrupting or judging. Be curious about your partner’s point of view; e.g., “Help me understand what you mean by …”
  • Paraphrase your partner’s thoughts. Affirming that you heard him or her does not mean you agree or disagree. It just means, “I understand and believe that’s the way you see it.”
  • Empathize with your partner’s feelings. Feelings are never right or wrong; they’re just feelings. And all of them are genuine. Expressing empathy validates that you heard your partner’s feelings without judgment; e.g., “I understand that’s how it makes you feel.”
  • Take your turn. Once your partner feels heard, share your story and ask your partner to validate and empathize with your thoughts and feelings. When people truly feel heard and validated, whether or not they agree, it’s like magic. They automatically feel better. Only then can people problem solve and come to consensus on solutions.
  • Put the problem on the “chalkboard,” view it as a team, and resolve the problem. After each partner has had an opportunity to be heard, it is much easier to be rational and work toward solutions. Identify specific actions each person can take to fix his or her portion of the problem.

3. Love your partner the way he or she wants to receive love.

Make a list of responses to: “I feel loved when you …” Anything goes—give me flowers, plan a weekend away, bring home my favorite candy bar, initiate sex. Exchange lists. Giving love the way your partner enjoys receiving it is the greatest gift of all. Receiving love the way you enjoy it isn’t bad, either.

4. Create the habit of loving.

On holidays, we express our love with gifts and affection. On the other days, we often forget. Consciously doing small acts of love every day creates “love habits”—loving behaviors that become habitual. Practicing love habits grows connection and intimacy. It’s as simple as greeting each other after work every day with a kiss on the lips and a long hug, establishing a regular date night, going to bed together, and planning regular sex dates. When you show your love, you will feel your love.

5. Express gratitude for “the things your partner is supposed to do anyway.”

Most people thank their partner when he or she does something special. What if you thanked her for cooking a meal, or him for mowing the lawn? But wait. “Why should I thank my partner for the routine chores?” The answer: “Because it feels good.” Every drop of love you express nurtures and feeds the relationship.

Practicing these five steps will grow your love and connection. Start today. Share this article with your partner and ensure that your relationship lasts a lifetime. It doesn’t happen by accident.

“Love is not about finding the right person, but creating a right relationship. It’s not about how much love you have in the beginning but how much love you build till the end.” —Unknown

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, therapist in Owings Mills, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 20 comments
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  • Sadat M

    Sadat M

    September 3rd, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Wonderful, nourishing, practical advice!

    –thanks for sharing.

  • Julian

    Julian

    September 3rd, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    THe most difficult thing that my wife and I have ever gone through in our marriage, and it started this way and I suppose that it will be this way forever, is that we have very different ways of expressing our love to each other and we have very different needs that have to be met. It can be pretty frustrating at times for both of us, and we have had more than one fight about it. I am very physical and she is not so much, and whereas I like to give and receive in this way, my wife is more like she is ok with a little hand holding from time to time but she is very conversational and wants to know that I am fully engaged with her in conversations in ways that she wants. It is a struggle sometimes, but we somehow manage to get through it, but sometimes it is not that easy when your needs and what you give are so drastically different.

  • Christy

    Christy

    September 3rd, 2014 at 10:00 PM

    Julian- there’s been a book written about your concerns. Have you ever read “The 5 Love Languages”?

  • LMW

    LMW

    September 3rd, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    YES! #3 the most. My pastor taught me about that one and it made my marriage much happier

  • Gina

    Gina

    September 3rd, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    Many years have gone by since we first got married and it has only been recently that we were willing to address the fact that we are not always the same nor do we think the same or feel the same… and that is okay!
    I think that both of us lived with this perception that if we admitted how different we really are then this would encourage both of us to hit the road and head in the opposite direction. I think that there was this fear that we had to try to be alike no matter how much that then showed us that we were not being true to who we really are. After many many conversation we have finally come to the conclusion that we still like each other(hehehe) despite our differences on so many things and that this does not have to mean it is the end, just a new chance to learn new things from each other.

  • cabot

    cabot

    September 4th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    These are things that all of us have to practice so that they become a habit, like getting up atthe same time or going to work. There is nothing that is rocket science about keeping a relationship together, but it is all about you get out of it what you put into it.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 6:58 AM

    Sadat,
    I really appreciate your kind words!!
    Take care,
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 7:08 AM

    Julian,
    Thanks for sharing your situation. What you describe is very difficult to navigate. There are things you can do to work towards accommodating each other. Think about the roadblocks to her being more physical. Is it that she can’t relax or she grew up in a family with little affection? Also think about your roadblocks to listening and being more engaged with conversation? Would it help to find something you are both interested in and dialogue about something that would keep your attention more? Or learn more about “active listening”? If the two of you can identify and address the roadblocks you might be able to move towards the center more in terms of meeting each others needs. Thanks for sharing. Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 7:09 AM

    LMW,
    Thanks for your comment!
    Take care,
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Gina,
    What a beautiful “re-frame,” i.e. differences give you a new chance to learn new things from each other! In counseling/coaching with couples, we often hear that people hold back from communicating out of fear. They think, “If I say this, he might reject me, leave, get angry…” And they become stuck. I ask them, “What will happen if you don’t address this?” The answer of course is they will build resentment, put up a wall around themselves, or detach which will also negatively affect the relationship. We encourage people to embrace conflict and walk through it in a positive way to get to a mutual understanding. Thanks again Gina! Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    Christy,
    A great suggestion. Love that book and recommend it often. BTW the author is Gary Chapman. Take care,
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 11:49 AM

    Cabot,
    Exactly. It isn’t rocket science yet many people don’t do these things or take their partner for granted. What’s sad is that most of them don’t realize it. Relationships can insidiously drift apart. Thanks so much for sharing your comment. Lori

  • Carleigh

    Carleigh

    September 4th, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    I get it that we all like to be praised for the things that we bring to the relationship, I think that is something that all of us thrive on.
    what bugs me is that my husband will make it a point to tell me if he has swept or mopped. Great, I think, these are the things that I do every day and he never thanks me but then I am supposed to throw my arms around him and tell him that he is the best when he does it one time?
    I am okay with giving out the love, but it would be nice if he could reciprocate that too. I mean, the house doesn’t lean itself and I would like to know that he notices and appreciates what I do.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 4th, 2014 at 9:02 PM

    Carleigh,
    What you described about your husband wanting the pat on the back, but not reciprocating is something I have heard from many women. Instead of looking at it as “You never thank me, why should I thank you,” tell him how much it would mean to you if he recognized the everyday chores that you do.
    I appreciate you sharing!
    Take care,
    Lori

  • Candace

    Candace

    September 5th, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    Practicing our communication skills? Oh so important! I think that most of us feel like why do I need to practice these things, we are married and things like this should easily fall into place if our marriage is strong.

    Wrong!

    I have never heard too many people describe a good marriage as easy. You might love this person but sometimes even that can take some effort. If you continually work on effectively communicating with each other then I think that you will find that you can begin to get so much more out of your relationship than what you have been able to in the past.

    What do you truthfully have to lose by working on something that will only make things better?

  • Carmen H.

    Carmen H.

    September 5th, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    After ten years, my husband and I have grown together nicely. However, we do have issues that seem to plague us. He has a unique way of making me feel guilty and it always seems that I do not do enough for his children. I have expressed to him often regarding my role in his children’s life, but for some reason it appears that it is not enough. In order for us to move forward, I have encouraged him to express himself more and to start taking responsibility for his actions.

    Thank you,
    Carmen

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 6th, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    Candace,
    You’ve got it right! There’s a great quote by Robert Louis Stevenson…”Marriage is one long conversation, checkered by disputes.”

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 6th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    Carmen,
    Every marriage has their “chronic issues.” In the research of John Gottman on marriages, he found that the couples who continue having dialogue about their chronic issues succeed. It’s the ones where people stop communicating about these issues that doesn’t last. So keep talking!

    Thanks for sharing.
    Lori

  • jean h.

    jean h.

    September 6th, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    Thank you. This is very helpful when u live in a country like Fiji.
    I need help for my marriage of 30 years. Old patterns of not listening, explosive angry outbursts, blowing up n storming off, all unacceptable, keep happening betwern us again. In Fiji, there is no counselling like this.
    Can I get help thru this forum ?
    Jean

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 6th, 2014 at 8:01 PM

    Jean, I would suggest you and your husband read some books together and work on your communication skills. John Gottmans books are the most well known. He specifically writes about how to resolve conflict. Also, I found that there will be a couples retreat in Fiji given by a wonderful well known expert on relationships, Dr. Tammy Nelson. Here is a link to the event. Hope this is helpful. drtammynelson.com/fiji-couples-retreat/ Lori

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