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When to Fix a Failing Marriage

To stay on top of developments in marriage and divorce law, policies, education, and research, I monitor a bunch of Google alerts daily. As a result, I am almost certain to hear about every celebrity break-up.

This week, it is Jennie Garth and Peter Facinelli. They are divorcing. Been together long enough to leave three young daughters to deal with what they could not fix. Sixteen years, eleven of them married. Kids are 5, 9, and 14. Second marriage for her. Irreconcilable differences, of course.

He's 38. She turns 40 next week. His acting career is going great right now, hers not so much, so she's dragged their kids into a reality TV series on cable that debuts in April. In it, she and the kids move out of Hollywood to the country, accompanied by a female assistant who, if we believe the promo clips, hates the country and shares Garth's bedroom.

Facinelli has been filming in Vancouver and New York for the past two years, coming home to Garth's ranch/set in Santa Ynez on weekends. Now they plan to share custody of the kids.

She says she rejected the idea of divorce. She told People, "We both saw it unravel and it was painful. I tried everything I could to save our marriage."

If you see your marriage start to unravel, here are some things you might try to arrive at a different ending.

  1. If you must live apart for career reasons, be part of each other's weekday lives. Visit each other. Get to know the places and people your spouse lives among while you are apart. Be available by phone or internet during the day and not just late at night.
  2. If you live together but see less of each other than in the past, schedule some of your time to be available to your spouse, and keep to it even if he or she does not take advantage of it for the first month or two. During this time, make it clear you are available. Stay off the computer and the phone. Don't start anything you cannot drop at a moment's notice, nor anything that would keep you from noticing your spouse checking on your availability.
  3. When your marriage begins to unravel, spend more time on and with your spouse, not your children. A little disruption in their lives now might spare them the continual disruptions of shared custody and the many awkward life passages later.
  4. If you are unwilling to move to where your spouse is currently working, at least stay near where his or her next job might be found.
  5. Pay more attention to preserving your marriage than your income or wealth. Yes, you might lose both in a divorce, but staying married beats any individual strategy for protecting your future financial well-being.
  6. Find one more ray of love or respect every day.
  7. Assume Love when you get upset. Expect Love when you want more than you're getting. Find Third Alternatives whenever you disagree. And don't stick your head in the sand until your partner starts to move on from your unraveling relationship.
If your marriage is unraveling, be more present in it, not less. Start the mending as early as possible, before major repairs are your only option.


I don't know who those two people are. But it sure sounds like they've made a mess of things.

No matter what your career may be, living apart for any length of time is rarely healthy for a marriage. Some personality types can tolerate it, and perhaps the rest of us could tolerate it for a short time if we had to, but in the long run most people need a certain amount of quality time to maintain the relationship.

Even when the marriage is not at risk, this kind of lifestyle can be extremely hard on the children, who would rather live in a stable home with both parents present.

Thanks, Rosemary. Looking forward to your blog launch tomorrow. Loved your pre-post of the Turtles singing Happy Together. It came out the year I began dating. Ah, the days of calling each other at payphones for a dime.

My wife told me 10 weeks ago that she loves me but she's not in love with me anymore and wants out of our marriage. This came out of nowhere..she said I didn't make her feel special and I gave too much of my time to others and not enough to my family. Her sister, brother in law, and most recently her brother had died giving my wife a sense of mortality. She told me that there's got to be more in life than what she has. I thought we were happy for 21 years and then she drops this bomb. I love her and believe she is having a Mid Life Crisis. She doesn't see it. Help!!

Larry, no one sees their mid life crisis until it's in the rear view mirror. This wonderful woman is having a crisis, and she has given you a bunch of clues for how to help.

I would like to write a blog post about this. It will help so many. Check back in an hour or two for my daily post.

my wife and i married 17 years, many of them she spent away taking care of her sick mom and homeschooled our son for months at a time.

my personality could handle this and actually enjoyed the solitude.
her mom passed now it's hard to stay together without getting on each others nerves.

sometimes being apart does work for couples.

my wife and i married 17 years, many of them she spent away taking care of her sick mom and homeschooled our son for months at a time.

my personality could handle this and actually enjoyed the solitude.
her mom passed now it's hard to stay together without getting on each others nerves.

sometimes being apart does work for couples.

Sounds like you two need some Third Alternatives for your different ways of sharing a home, Chris.

My husband and I have been married for 7 months, but have been together much longer. Two days after our wedding, I put him on a plane to go back to Germany where he is stationed. Being apart has never been a problem before, as we are both in the millitary and stationed on opposite sides of the country/world for quite some time. Since we got married, he has become increasingly controlling and condesending. Rather than start a fight I have just let it go(now know this was a bad move). We just had the biggest fight that we have had, and I still feel backed into a corner. Its like nothing I do is right, and all our problems are my fault.

Im at my whits end with what to do. I feel like we were better off not married.

Kiena, it has to be really tough to start your marriage so far apart. But it's not uncommon to run into problems like this even for folks who live together full time.

When he comes across as controlling (assuming he's not violent), try to Assume Love. Ask yourself what might make a man who truly loves his wife become controlling in this situation. Usually it is insecurity. Sometimes it is just a very different view of what is his due. If either of these fit, then it probably is not the end of the love your marriage is based on.

If it is insecurity about your relationship, you can probably come up with a bunch of ways to make him feel more secure, ways that frustrate you less than the ones he's pitching. Remember that men, because of their chemistry, really need your respect and trust and will often behave bizarrely when worried they don't have it.

If it's a difference in expectations, you will want to read my Find Third Alternatives category for better ways to deal with disagreements. You cannot get backed into a corner once you know how to look for Third Alternatives.

When he becomes condescending, don't try to prove the superiority of your point of view. There is no way to debate or argue your way to a better marriage. Try something like, "Ouch, that hurts; let's resume this discussion later, when we're both feeling like loving equals again." And then stop. Repeat as needed until he stops, too.

What you're going through sounds normal. Dealing with it long-distance makes it harder, but I really hope you two come through it closer and stronger. I know the military offers a lot of free marriage education classes. If you can find one, check it out, and encourage him to do so, too.

My wife told me 5 days ago that she wants to separate after 17 years. She said she still loves me, but not in love with me. We have a 7 year old daughter. Now my wife has been telling me for a couple years now that she's not happy. For example, I'm 42, I don't drive we haven't had a very sexual relationship ever since we met. I don't hang out with friends, we have fought many times in front of our daughter. My wife recently told me that she had an affair since we have been married. It happened when our daughter was 2 (she's 7 now) and it ended last August 2013. I told her I'm not mad at her and am not surprised.I said i would be surprised if she hadn't. Even though this was only 5 days ago, I still don't have any anger or resentment toward her. She wants to live together for a few months or so. Now this is huge I know, but since September 2013, I have been seeing a counsellor for anger issues and am trying to change my life. Getting my liscense, getting out more, I started buying her flowers again helping out more around the house housework. She even said thank you and she has noticed the changes. My wife found out a year and a half ago she contracted herpes. It didn't turn me off my wife, but I also wasn't there for her either. I told her I don't want this to end and asked for a temporary separation she said she would be willing to. This surprised me so I asked her do you mean that? Or that's what I want to hear? She said it's what I want to hear. She has also reminded me of the saying set someone free. If they don't come back, it wasn't meant to be. She said things will figure themselves out.
Please help.

Aaron, this is a very interesting timeline. Seventeen years ago, you two married. For some good portion of these 17 years, you have been depressed (little contact with friends, dependent on her for transportation, and low libido suggest depression) and not so good at controlling your anger.

Seven years ago you two had a child. Five years ago, your wife began having an affair while trying to keep her family together. You apparently did not even notice her partial withdrawal from your marriage.

Two years ago, she began telling you she was not happy with your relationship. Sounds like you hoped it would blow over. Many men do. Women tend to feel abandoned when men don't respond to the news that their marriage is in danger. This might have been the case for her. It's also a likely sign her affair either hit a rocky patch or began to look like a permanent alternative to your marriage then, forcing her to check in on the possibilities for her marriage.

Eighteen months ago, she reported having contracted a sexually transmitted disease you did not give her. You offered no comfort, but you were not turned off and either you did not confront her about who gave it to her or she lied then about her ongoing, long-term affair, since you report learning about it later.

A year after this, her affair ended, and a month later, you began seeing a counselor for anger issues and a life change. This suggests perhaps a strong push from her right around the time she dropped the other partner and gave it another try with you. She noticed and appreciated some of the changes you made.

Five months later -- five days ago -- she decided to tell you about the affair and propose you two try a few more months of living together before calling it quits. You, the fellow who for so many years got a bit too angry at upsetting news, shrugged it off as no surprise, no problem. Then you offered her a temporary separation.

In case you're not counting, that's three attempts to let you know she's not okay with your relationship and does not know what else to do about it. And it is three times you did not say loud and clear, "I hate that you were in another's arms. Please stay. You matter to me. I want a better relationship, too." And three times I suspect she felt rejected and unimportant to you.

And that seems to be when she checked out of your marriage and said okay to separation, temporary or otherwise, and setting herself free.

My guess is that you still have a shot at convincing her what you really want is a strong, healthy marriage with her. But you will need to be 100% clear to her that this is what you want and why you think it's possible.

Then, if you're ready to get to work rebuilding your relationship, you might want to check out these two blog posts: One Last Stand Before Divorce ( and How to Get Your Wife or Husband to Love You Again (

Please let us know how it goes. I have my fingers crossed for you.

I've discovered your website, and really connect with your approach and your advice. I was hoping that you can help me as well.

My husband and I have been married for 22 years and have 5 children. We've been having problems for years, which has resulted in anger and resentment on my husband's part. We started dating rather young, and part of me thinks that the reason he feels so dissatisfied with his life is that he hadn't had the opportunity to discover life on his own -- without me as his ball and chain (for lack of a better word). He seems to be stuck in the mentality of his younger years -- his interests haven't matured from when I met him, and he seems to relate to younger people more (those that are single) -- which I can't understand as they are in a different place in their life than us. He may be going through a mid-life crisis?

Since we've started having problems, I've wanted to go to counselling to work through our issues, which he has flat out refused to do. I started to go to counselling on my own, as I figure at least I can get the support that I need.

We've come to what I call an impasse, he expressed initially that he "loves me, but is not in love with me" and expected me to be okay with this and continue to live in our non-intimate, non-affectionate relationship on "friendly" terms. (Note that he was always very affectionate with me in the past and no, he is not cheating on me with anyone).

While I understand that people fall in and out of love in the course of any relationship, hearing words like this tells me otherwise -- if someone loves you they wouldn't say something so hurtful to their partner. Fast forward a month later, during another explosive fight, where he tells me he's ready to end the relationship, has spend years not liking me, and that he does not love me anymore.

Here's the confusing part -- a few days later he says that he's willing to go to counseling with me. I think it's a huge step that he's willing to go with me to counseling, but I'm unclear as to what the motivation is -- is it to figure out whether he can regain a loving feeling towards me, or whether he truly doesn't love me anymore but is doing this to save the family unit and what he knows as his life? Does this mean that there still is hope for our marriage and that there is some love felt towards me and all the hurtful words were said in the moment, or is this just a way to say that he's tried everything and then is more comfortable with moving on if counselling doesn't help? It's not something I want to particularly ask at this time as we don't communicate well at this point, but I'm just trying to gauge what the motive behind the change of heart is?

Any perspective you can offer?

He may have proposed counseling to give it one last shot before breaking his vows. Or he may have proposed it because he's begun looking for ways to restore your marriage and someone or something convinced him to give this a try.

A few things I would note:

First, he didn't tie himself down by marrying, he did it by creating five children who depend on him. Divorce won't change this.

Second, it's quite likely that the problem with your marriage is the dissatisfaction with the life he's created for himself. Jump-starting your marriage may require your assistance or cooperation in redesigning that life.

Third, your dissatisfaction with the consistency of his interests over time and with his choice of friends is quite likely cutting way down on the "positivity resonance" that stimulates the vagus nerve, releases oxytocin, and makes a person feel "in love." You might want to read‎ and

My wife recently told me she loves me , but is not in love with me. She said that she has felt like this on and off through our entire
marriage. I just turned 40 and she is about to turn 32. We got married when she very young, 19. We have been married for 13 years and have 3 wonderful children, 3 year old twins and a 6 year old. I was very distraught and did not handle the news well. I broke down in tears and contemplated suicide. I think that made it worse. She has agreed to go to counseling but has said that she is only doing it for me and that she does not want to be married anymore. I don't want to give up because I still love her more than words can express. She said she is numb and is not her best self with me. She says I am her best friend and always will be and she always wants to be a part of my life. I've always tried to hide our problems and convince her that everything is okay. We have both had issues with our Faith, we both are Christians, and we have had struggles there. We have also had major issues sexually by being in a swinger type lifestyle on and off. I think that has hurt us tremendously. We have not been involved in that in years, but I think the damage is done. I love her so much and I don't know what to do. I want to give her space but I also want to convince her that we can work this out. Should I abandon hope and let her go, or do I fight for her. I want to fight, but I love her enough to want what is best for her. We are still living together for now. We are going to a marriage counselor next week.

I'm sure this was a very painful thing to hear from your wife, Greg. And she must be in some considerable pain to say it. Here are some blog posts that might help you plot your best course to a healthy, happy marriage to a woman who considers you her best friend. Be sure to read the questions and answers in the comments, too.

The Meaning of I Love You, But I'm Not in Love With You

One Last Stand Before Divorce

Why Your Wife Wants to Leave You

And because you are still suffering the effects of swinging on your sex life, you might want to check out these great blogs:

The Marriage Bed

Hot, Holy & Humorous

To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Wishing you a great counselor who can illuminate the path for you.

marriages and married life can be so difficult to get through and times and learning lessons that go with it means if you grit your teeth and keep knowing why you fell in love in the first place and come through together years later and find that happy place for each other then you can really love your partner more and the joys that keep you together. Patty it is so good to see a councillor like you helping people.

Thank you, Fiona. It's so good to know my writing is reaching people and helping them through difficult times.

I do want to repeat that I am not (in the US legal sense of the word) a councillor (or the US spelling, counselor). I have some training in marriage education and positive psychology but none in counseling or therapy. I read incessantly about marriage and relationship research and share what I read. But mostly I share the perspectives I gained by losing my husband to a sudden death right in the middle of our worst marriage crisis, back when I was just 34 years old.

Thank you, Fiona. It's so good to know my writing is reaching people and helping them through difficult times.

I do want to repeat that I am not (in the US legal sense of the word) a councillor (or the US spelling, counselor). I have some training in marriage education and positive psychology but none in counseling or therapy. I read incessantly about marriage and relationship research and share what I read. But mostly I share the perspectives I gained by losing my husband to a sudden death right in the middle of our worst marriage crisis, back when I was just 34 years old.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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