Typically, they come at the brink of breaking up.
I usually start by saying, "If there's any chance of fixing your relationship, we need to nibble away at it a piece at a time. Each of you, what's one specific annoying thing your partner does?"
For each annoyance, I ask, "Is that something you just have to accept about your partner, or is that something that could realistically be expected to improve?"
If the latter, we discuss ways to maximize the likelihood of that change occurring and end with a commitment on both parties' part. For example, one partner might say, "I promise to try to pick my stuff off the floor" and the other partner might say, "And I agree that when something isn't picked up, not to nag but simply to raise my index finger as a reminder, and if he doesn't do it, to let it go--it's just not that important."
I also often say, "It's easier to change yourself than to change someone else. So, each of you, what's one other thing you want to do differently in the coming week that would please your partner and thus make your relationship better?"
Also, I remind them that when arguments occur, to force yourselves to discuss fairly:
- Start with a positive.
- Criticize the behavior, not the person.
- Listen well.
- Don't interrupt.
- Ask questions to better understand the situation or in proposing a solution.
- Don't expand the argument beyond the specific incident.
- Break up the tension with a joke, a compliment, a diversion (for example, where should we go to dinner?) or simply a five-minute break.
At the end of the session, I ask each of them to summarize what if any behavior changes they want to commit to in the coming week. We all write those down and I promise to ask about those at the next session.
I invite them to, during the week, have at least one meeting (perhaps even daily) in which each person self-assesses how well they're doing on their commitment.
Finally, I remind them that little wins reverse the relationship to a positive direction, and it begins to snowball--good begets good.
Candidly, I have used this approach in my own marriage, to significant benefit. Our marriage is not made in heaven but we've learned how to make it work here on earth. I wish the same for you.