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How To Save A Marriage

If only every couple knew how to fight fair. The right words can make the "for worse" part better.
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1. Stop with the Threats

No one knows the kind of dangerous territory Greg and I were in by always threatening each other better than Laurie Puhn, a lawyer and couples' mediator and the author of Fight Less, Love More: 5 Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In. How many empty threats to leave a marriage have landed a couple in divorce court when deep down inside they wanted nothing more than to stay in the relationship? "The most important thing you need to do," says Puhn, is "recognize that this is just a bad verbal habit. You're not a bad person; you have a bad communication habit. Throwing out these caustic threats is just a habit; you're barely thinking. You've got to separate the person from the problem. That's the only way to diminish your own self-hatred, the only way to stop thinking, Why did I say that? This also helps you diminish the hatred you may feel toward your mate for the things he's said."

2. Recognize the Power of the D Word

Greg and I had to stop saying we wanted a divorce every time things got rough. But it turns out that the D word serves a very important purpose in marriage. Hal Runkel, a family therapist and author of ScreamFree Marriage, says that one of the things that makes marriage and the daily decision to stay together so powerful is that the threat of divorce is always there. When the threat of divorce makes you bring your best self to a marriage, then it's a vital, even necessary, ingredient. "The D word only becomes a weapon when it's used as an attempt to avoid dealing with the matter at hand," Runkel says.

3. No Time-Traveling

After seven years together (we've now been married for nearly 10), my husband and I had a rich history to mine for both positive and negative episodes. But keeping tabs, feeling like we owed each other for past shortcomings or for past graces, was doing us no favors.

Many married people, like Greg and me, find themselves in the middle of a fight and, like a lawyer making a case, reach into the past for evidence that our partner is wrong (and has been wrong for a long time). Digging up past dirt is easy. What is effective is stopping in the middle of the fight and reaching for a happy memory.

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