One of the most common questions I am asked is: “How do I save my marriage?”

If more people asked how to improve their marriage then fewer of them would need to worry about saving it when their partner walks out or seeks a divorce. [RELATED: What do Do When Your Spouse Wants a Divorce ]

good marriageImproving your marriage now means not having to save it later. And believe me, it’s much, much better to work on your relationship now rather than have to walk your marriage back from the brink of divorce later.

So what can you do right now to help improve your marriage?

The number one thing you can do to improve your marriage is to communicate with your spouse. I mean really communicate, too. Communication, in case you’ve forgotten, has two parts – talking and listening. Most spouses are pretty good at the first one, though some of them can’t do that part very well, either (the “strong silent type” is another Hollywood fiction – try actually being married to one and it ain’t much fun). But few of us are really good at the listening part.

When I work with couples who are trying to communicate with each other, here’s the problem I usually see. While one spouse is talking, the other one is reacting and interrupting. The husband may be telling his wife a list of things that are important to him, a list, say, of ten things. Unfortunately, he never gets past number three because every time his wife responds angrily to point number one or two. They get bogged down in debate and his list is forgotten. [RELATED: Too Many Arguments With Your Husband? How to Stop Conflicts from Happening]

Here’s what I recommend instead. It’s “time share” talking. Each person gets to talk, without being interrupted, for a few minutes. Set a timer if you must, to be fair. Three minutes to five minutes is a good length of time – any longer than five minutes and the listener tends to feel overwhelmed. During those sacred minutes, one spouse can talk about themselves and their feelings and desires. The other spouse can’t say anything.

When the time is up, you switch roles. Now it’s your turn to talk. And so on.

familyWhat to talk about? Well, I always suggest keeping the focus on yourself, rather than ragging on your partner for their mistakes. Talk about your emotions, and be honest.

“I’ve been feeling exhausted this week, since school started and I have to make lunches for the kids and get them dressed, as well as trying to get them to go to sleep earlier in the evening.”

Don’t be afraid to talk about sensitive or scary subjects: “I’m afraid we might get a divorce,” or “I’m angry that you have to work late so much with your new job,” or even “ I feel alienated whenever you bring up your ex!

Try to keep your talk about yourself and your feelings, rather than hostile towards the other person. This ain’t always easy, but it gets easier with practice.

It’s also fine to say positive things, and it’s a good idea to express them, too. “I love you and I really enjoyed our walk to the park yesterday.” Or, “I really admire the way you handled that fight the kids had, how you talked to both of them and got them to share.” It’s important for you to say these things to your spouse, and it’s also important for you to hear yourself saying them. Hearing yourself praise your partner works wonders on your subconscious.

This sort of “time share” talking has turned around many marriages. Just knowing how your husband or wife is feeling and what they’re thinking is a great gift. You don’t have to wonder and guess about what’s going on. You already know. And you have a safe way to communicate your needs, fears and desires to them.

Practice makes perfect, too. When I coach couples this way, they often start out using “you” an awful lot. You do this, you said that, you make me feel, why do you always… But after a little bit of practice, talking and listening, they start to use “I” much more, and that’s much more helpful.

Just a reminder that your emotions are your own, and your spouse can’t actually make you feel anything. I mean, think about it. Someone else is furious, irate, incredibly angry. Can you just snap your fingers and change their emotions? Of course not. You can’t make them calm or happy. You can try bribery, coaxing, pleading, logic, whatever, but if they want to stay mad, there’s nothing you can do about it. The best you can do is work on yourself, on being a considerate, kind, agreeable spouse, a partner ready to work with them on problems and enjoy adventures together. Just as you can’t make your spouse happy, neither can you just make them sad.

It sounds strange, but it’s true.

Couple on couch talkingSo focus on honest communication about your own situation, your feelings, fears, dreams, hopes, worries, triumphs and troubles. Honesty is a great gift you can give your partner. Many marriages bog down when the partners get busy or bored and stop even basic communication with each other. Usually they remember to communicate only negative emotions like anger, and that’s not healthy.

The habit of creating time to talk will then spill over into other areas of your relationship. Make time, too, for other things (like not talking), for dates, for romance, for time spent together doing something fun. Take time with the whole family, but also remember to take time for just the two of you. This kind of time, even a little bit each day, is like flossing your teeth – it’s really important and it’s good for you.

Think about it. When you’re in a hurry in the morning, you’re tempted to skip the flossing. You might miss your train or get stuck in traffic and then the boss will yell at you. But when you take a minute to floss, you aren’t just keeping your teeth and gums healthy. You are showing yourself that you are important enough to deserve that time. And that’s an important message to tell yourself. Too many people run around with lots of negative messages in their heads all day – “I’m no good,” “I’m a failure,” “I don’t deserve to be happy,” etc.

When the two of you deliberately set aside time for one another, you are sending yourselves the same important kind of message. Our marriage is worth this time, worth this effort. And that’s an important message to tell yourselves, and each other.

Best of luck!