How to Save a Troubled Marriage: Advice From Couples Who Have Been Beyond the Brink

Husbands and wives reflect on how ‘Love …. bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Corinthinans 13:4; 7).

Marital relationships can be healed, say couples who have experienced struggles.
Marital relationships can be healed, say couples who have experienced struggles. (photo: Unsplash)

As Ivonne Ream’s ex-husband hugged her during a birthday dinner at a classy Italian restaurant, she started crying, and mentally she said a prayer — of sorts.

“God, you know how I hate this man.”

She reminded God that she wanted nothing to do with Tomás, whom she had left in 2009 and divorced in 2013. She had replaced him with other men, and she had drifted away from her faith into New Age practices.

But she left a tiny opening in her prayer: What did God want?

In that moment, her heart melted. Years of resentment and estrangement dissolved. Tomás and Ivonne reconciled and began living as man and wife again.



Say That Again?

Today, the Reams coordinate the Spanish apostolate of The Alexander House, a nonprofit organization in San Antonio, Texas, founded in 1999 that uses Catholic principles to help couples repair troubled marriages.

The organization sprang from the rejuvenation of Greg and Julie Alexander’s disintegrating marriage in the 1990s.

The Alexanders estimate that they have counseled about 5,500 couples since then. Of that number, said Greg Alexander, “There have only been 37 that we haven’t been able to help.”

A reporter from the Register challenged that figure, which suggests a success rate of more than 99%.

Greg was adamant about it.

The broken-down marital relationships the Alexanders have seen healed, Greg says, include five cases where one of the spouses was not only unfaithful, but also conceived a child outside the marriage. (The reconciliation between the spouses was so complete that the other spouse welcomed the child into the family and agreed to adopt the child.)



Not That New

The Alexanders say their approach is not original. It emphasizes old Catholic practices, such as making an examination of conscience — particularly looking for times when a spouse has offended the other spouse. The husband is encouraged to request forgiveness from his wife for a list of specific items he has done or failed to do. The wife is encouraged to say out loud, “I forgive you.” Then the wife is encouraged to offer her list of shouldn’ts and didn’ts. Then the husband says out loud, “I forgive you.”

“Forgiveness is not an option,” Greg told the Register. “We have to understand at the end that if I choose not to forgive, then maybe I am putting myself in the position of preventing God’s grace from allowing me to forgive.”

Acknowledging failures to the other spouse is also effective, Julie says.

“It brings you to your knees. It’s a self-reflection, of what it is that I have done to cause hurt and pain in Greg’s heart. It’s humbling. And it helps you get rid of pride,” Julie told the Register.

Afterward, each spouse is encouraged to go to sacramental confession to a priest. That’s crucial, they say, because God’s participation in the marriage is frustrated by sin and encouraged by spiritual cleansing.

The counseling is usually wrapped up in four or five sessions, the Alexanders say.

To broaden their reach, the Alexanders are planning on July 17 to launch an online service called Your Marriage Disciple Members Club, available at The Alexander House website. Memberships are $30 a month.


Anatomy of a Failed Marriage

In frank terms, the Alexanders describe the forming, collapse and resuscitation of their own marriage, including what they call “the embarrassing details,” in their 2011 book Marriage 911: How God Saved Our Marriage (and Can Save Yours, Too!).

Greg, now 59, and Julie, now 57, were both raised Catholic. They met in college, moved in together, and later got married. Both pursued high-paying careers, status and buying things, leaving little time for each other or their kids. After the birth of their second child, Greg got a vasectomy. Communication dried up. They came to despise each other. Each had an affair. They went to a priest looking for his blessing for a divorce and annulment. Instead, he asked them to read about God’s plan for marriage in Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Neither had ever heard that God has a plan for marriage or that it includes dying to self, being open to new life, and trying to help your spouse get to heaven. For two days, Greg read. At first, he saw evidence that Julie was in the wrong. Then he began to see evidence that he was.

“For the first time I really began to think that maybe — just maybe — some of my own selfishness was contributing to the breakup of our marriage,” Greg writes in the book.

On the second evening, he called Julie into the bedroom and asked her to listen to the things he had discovered.

That very act changed everything for Julie, immediately; “… it was as if I was falling in love all over again, but this time it was a totally different feeling,” she writes in the book, adding that “my heart … was on fire.”


It Happens That Fast?

That instant thawing is a persistent theme in marital reconciliations the Alexanders have witnessed.

The Alexanders, who spoke to the Register for this story, also recommended other formerly distressed couples for interviews.

Details differ; in some case, one spouse wanted out and the other didn’t, for instance. Some couples were religious when they were married, some less so.

But certain themes emerged from each interview. In all cases, neither spouse fully understood at the time of their wedding what marriage is about. Each spouse acknowledges falling short in behavior. And in each case, when they finally got back together, the reconciliation was immediate.

Success Comes From Surrender

George Zamura, 51, and his wife Robin, 49, were raised Catholic and went to church before and after they got married in 1993, but weren’t that devout.

George acknowledges often being inconsiderate toward Robin. In the early years of their marriage Robin was worried about having too many kids, so she used artificial contraception.

Each had come from a family in which the spiritual leader was the mother, not the father.

“I really wanted George to lead us, but I guess he never really knew how and didn’t step up to that role,” Robin said. “It probably didn’t help that I was very critical and judgmental about how he did things … Nobody wants to try after being shut down a time or two.”

George wanted out around the fourth year. They got back together, but at 15 years he wanted out again. Eight months of counseling left him feeling no better about it.

“I would get really frustrated sometimes,” Robin said, “and I would say in my conversation with God, ‘I don’t care how this ends, even if it’s divorce. I just want the pain to be over.’ And I can remember hearing, ‘Just be patient. I have work I have to do.’”

“All this time I thought I was giving it up to God, but I realized I wasn’t,” Robin said. “… I went to God, and I completely surrendered it.”

She said to God: “I know you know what’s best. And I trust that whatever you allow to happen, it’s for a purpose.”

Robin asked George to pray and take a couple of days away to consider his position. He did. In a hotel in another city, life on his own didn’t seem so attractive.

“I got a dose of what it was going to be like being by myself,” George said. “It just opened my eyes. That selfishness I had, I just realized that’s what it was. … What I realized was, I need to be a better husband, a better father.”

George came home at night, to find it empty. He learned that Robin had gone to her sister’s house for the weekend. He asked her to come back.

“I was hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” Robin said. “When I ended up going back to the house, it was like he was a different person. I saw a fire in his eyes that I hadn’t seen. He was ready to ask for forgiveness and work on the marriage.”

George and Robin had always danced poorly together. The problem, Robin says now, is that both wanted to lead.

Still, shortly after their reconciliation, George suggested going to a dance hall. They ended up two-stepping at Cowboys Dance Hall, a country-and-western place.

“When he said, ‘Let’s go dancing,’ I thought, ‘He really doesn’t want to make this marriage work,’” Robin said.

But she gave it a try. This time, she decided to let George lead.

“I got on the dance floor. I closed my eyes, and next thing I know, we’re dancing really well,” Robin said. “Next thing I know, we’re dancing better than we’d ever danced before.”


The Light Goes On

Tomás and Ivonne Ream, mentioned at the beginning of this story, were both religious at the start of their marriage: daily Massgoers and members of Opus Dei.

But Ivonne told the Register she didn’t understand the key words of the marriage commitment “freely, totally, faithfully, fully.”

“I didn’t know what those words mean. We have to cooperate with the grace. Of course, I didn’t know how to cooperate with the grace. I had the words in my mind, but I didn’t have the words in my heart,” Ivonne said.

It was no big blowup that led her to leave Tomás, she said. She simply grew dissatisfied with him.

“I thought that he was supposed to make me happy, that that is his obligation,” Ivonne said.

She thought of marriage in terms of self-fulfillment.

“I left because I heard the world,” Ivonne said. “The word ‘deserve’ is killing women nowadays: ‘I deserve to have him make me happy.’ ‘I deserve much more than the guy I’m sleeping with.’”

Tomás had different struggles. Others told him the marriage was irrecoverable.

“Even one priest told me to let her go,” Tomás said.

But the permanence of marriage became clearer to him as it fell apart.

“One of the things that I was able to understand when we were separated and divorced is we are one,” Tomás said.

To promote marriage, and particularly individual marriages, Ivonne said, requires believing in what marriage is.

“We really need to start believing in the power of the sacrament,” Ivonne said. “It’s Christ.”

Now, Ivonne says she looks forward to Judgment Day and the moment God brings up Tomás.

“Because my husband is the first person he’s going to ask me about,” Ivonne said. “I want to tell him, ‘Lord, I couldn’t love him more.’”

“After God,” she said, “he’s the person I love the most.”