Back from the brink: How do you get from ‘hopeless’ to ‘happy’?

I’ve been astonished at the response to my last article “Staying together in a ‘hopelessly unhappy‘ marriage“. In the last few days, more people have read this than almost all my other articles combined! I’m not sure what that says about the other articles … but this one has certainly struck a chord.

The idea that you can turn ‘hopeless‘ into ‘happy‘ might seem contentious. If, like me, you’ve been there, done that, and come out the other side, it’s obviously possible. It’s all about encouraging others. If you were unable to turn things around, for whatever reason, then it may seem impossible or even insulting to imagine that things could have turned out differently. I’m not about to judge you.

Nor am I saying everyone can make it through tough times. But when you consider that family breakdown in the UK has doubled since 1980, it’s inconceivable to me that all of this was inevitable and none of those couples were salvageable. Look at the couple I wrote about at the end of my last article. Look at me. We could all so easily have become statistics. But each of us have had people who gave us hope and pointed us in the right direction. Sometimes it needs a lot of help. Other times, it needs only a nudge. Imagine if everybody going through trouble had such practical encouragement.

Twenty years ago, I discovered that I was in a ‘hopeless‘ and ‘unhappy‘ marriage. Today, our marriage is unrecognisable from what it was before. So if you’re going through a crisis in your own marriage or relationship, I know what it’s like. But I also know there may be ways to make things unrecognisably better.

Here are some suggestions that just might make all the difference to you:

  • First of all, talk to friends, ideally an older couple you know well. When you first fell in love, you probably couldn’t imagine ever running into trouble. But you did. Exactly the same is true in reverse. Now that you’re struggling, you can’t imagine how things could ever be better. But your friends may be able to see it. When my wife Kate confronted me about the dire state of our marriage twenty years ago, neither she nor I had any real confidence that we could build a marriage that was unrecognisably better. How could we when neither of us had experienced it. A particularly wise and wonderful couple realised we needed help. So they invited us for a meal. After hearing our story, they gave us some ideas for a routemap. They told us they were there for us and our children as a family. They weren’t going to take sides. They would help us fight for our marriage. They told us about their own ups and downs, and reassured us that all marriages have their bad moments. It’s why we say ‘for better for worse’. Anyone can do the ‘for better’ bit. The real test of love is how you cope with ‘for worse’. They told us that there were marriage courses out there that could make a huge difference. In our case, they realised that I had some personal background issues I needed to deal with first. I was incredibly emotionally closed. So they encouraged me to see a one-to-one counsellor. Sometimes one spouse needs to sort out their own stuff before the marriage can recover. This is not an excuse to blame the other person or wait for them to change. But it happened to be important in my case. Much more important was their encouragement. They gave me hope. Even if flickering, they also gave Kate hope.
  • Second, make sure you’ve bought into the marriage in the first place. If you’re not sure, then decide to fight for it now. I remember a couple who came to see me a few years back. They’d been married for over ten years and had two children. The wife had just found out that her husband had been having an affair. When I asked them to tell each other their own version of how they’d got to this place, right from when they’d met, the husband talked about how he’d felt steamrollered into getting married. It was like he’d jumped on a wedding train and couldn’t get off. So he’d spent the first six months of his marriage in torment. His wife was utterly astonished when he revealed this. It explained a great deal. But it also helped her understand how it had all gone wrong. He’d never bought into it in the first place. I told him that his starting point for making any kind of progress was to buy in to his marriage now. He needed to decide. Without that step of commitment, there was no future. Making a decision about the future is the number one indicator of commitment for men especially. And no, I have no idea how their story ended. All I do know is that making a decision was the crucial step, without which nothing.
  • Third, you’re not doing this for the sake of the kids. You’re doing this for one another. After Kate confronted me, it took me six long months to realise this. I made a lot of positive changes during that time, all motivated by the desire not to lose my kids. But none of them led to an improvement in our marriage. I think the reason was that doing it for the kids was really about doing it for me, not for Kate. Our low point was the really important turning point. Kate wrote me a letter outlining the job description of being Harry’s wife. Lots of fun, good social life, lovely kids, etc. But no friendship. And six months on, she had lost hope. She ended the letter with two words. “Who cares?” As I read those words, they knocked me for six. What had I done? I got down on my knees to her and told her she had no reason to believe me but I would change. Somewhere in my head, a switch had flipped. From now on, I wanted to make our marriage work for Kate, not for me or for the kids. For her. Just because she was worth it.
  • Fourth, change yourself not each other. Talk to any individual spouse with marriage problems and it’s almost never their fault. Amazing really. The finger always points at someone else. Unless you’re perfect, which you’re not because nobody is, there are things you can do to change the relationship for the better. Don’t just wait for the other person to change. If one person behaves differently, then the relationship must change. After all, that’s what you’re asking them to do. If you stop being nasty to me, I’ll stop being nasty to you. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Better still, If you cherish me, I’ll cherish you. Right idea but wrong way round. That is conditional love, dependent on the other person. You can’t change them. But if you want to make your marriage work, then change yourself. That’s in your control, however unfair it seems. Read my book Let’s Stick Together which tells you about good habits to build and bad habits to nip in the bud. You want your marriage to work? Change your own habits for the better and your relationship will change. You are the only bit you can control.
  • Fifth, go and learn how to be happily married. A few months after I made my big attitude shift – of deciding to put Kate first – we managed to get a place on a marriage weekend away. I may have been foolish in blowing it so badly with Kate. But I was smart enough to realise that I needed to do things differently. Friends had suggested these courses were good. They seemed like an odd idea but we went anyway. The weekend was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. But the net result was that I began to understand Kate in a way I’d never done before. In turn she opened up to me in a way she’d never done before. It all felt very vulnerable and scary. But it was key to us learning how to be intimate with one another. I fell in love almost for the first time. I still have the date of that weekend engraved on my wedding ring. It was the new beginning we needed for our marriage. There is a great deal of research to show that a marriage course can make a significant difference. It did for us. Maybe it will for you too. Look up a Marriage Course near you and book in.

It’s important to put what has happened to me and Kate since in perspective. Since that course way back in 1995, our married life has indeed been unrecognisable from went before. But that hasn’t meant it’s all been ‘wine and roses’ the whole time. Just like any marriage, we have our fair share of ups and downs. The good bits are terrific. We’re in a good bit now. But we still have to watch out for the times when we drift. Drift can easily lead to misunderstandings and times that are not much fun at all. Old bad habits die hard. What we have worked out though is how to spend more time in the ups and less in the downs. That’s a subject for a whole bunch of articles.

I realise that our circumstances will be different to many couples who are struggling. I also know that for many couples a recovery like ours may be simply too difficult. But I know enough about research studies on how commitment, love and relationships work that most people will recognise something of their story in ours.

There is always hope. But it’s hard to see that from the inside. So if you’re struggling now, go and find those friends …

… and if you’re not, then keep your eyes open for opportunities to be that friend to somebody else.


Here are some further resources that might help:

  • My letter to struggling couples. This is a longer version of the article above, available on the Marriage Foundation website.
  • Let’s Stick Together – the relationship book for new parents. My book is a quick and easy read. Although it’s mainly aimed at new parents, any couple should find it helpful. It outlines three simple behaviours that you can put into practice at home, including the key good habits that you can improve and bad habits that you can nip in the bud. It’s the book version of my mini Lets Stick Together programme that is run in post-natal clinics and Surestart centres and that was recently evaluated by the Department for Education
  • The Marriage Course. Go on this course! It’s fantastic, unscary, accessible and incredibly helpful. Seven evenings to learn all sorts of amazing things about one another. At no stage do you have to stand up and embarrass yourself. You just listen to the couple who present the course and then talk privately to one another. Dead easy and it might be all you need to get the fire burning between you again. Available all over the country. The Marriage Book by Nicky and Sila Lee is the book of the course.
  • Two other terrific books are well worth reading: The Divorce Remedy by Michele Weiner-Davis is fabulous, as is Fighting for your marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley & Susan Blumberg
  • Finally there’a a whole list of further resources here at the 2-in-2-1 website. Lots of other courses, other books, and other words of wisdom. Have a trawl through the website. It’s excellent.

3 thoughts on “Back from the brink: How do you get from ‘hopeless’ to ‘happy’?

  1. Pingback: Why it’s low conflict break-ups that should really worry us |

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