Pouring out all your problems in the first session of couple’s therapy can be a relief. At last, you’re facing what has been pulling you down and apart. However, you could also be overwhelmed. The mountain to be climbed seems so high and the emotional cost so great that the first session feels like a reality check. It is easy to lose faith in the idea that things could ever change for the better. Sometimes the fears come out in the question: Is our relationship worth saving?
Personally, I believe that every committed relationship deserves your best shot and, if that doesn’t work out, a decent burial. But recently one of my clients asked a more interesting question: How do I know if the work our relationships needs is too much work? Here is how I helped answer it.
Seven Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Relationship
Sometimes the best way to tackle a difficult question is to break it down into other smaller ones.
1. How long have you been together and how high are the stakes?
Around eighteen months to three years into a relationship, the high of falling in love (what therapists call “limerence”) begins to wear off. Whereas previously, you would push down doubts with lovemaking or romantic gestures, you need to face differences and work through them. It is easy to panic and think there is something fundamentally wrong with your relationship rather than it is entering a new phase when you start to put down deeper roots based on facing and resolving conflict.
To get an idea of the stakes, ask yourself how many other people will be impacted by the break-up? For example, if you have few social and financial ties, it is a very different equation from owning a home and a business together while having children.
2. What were your expectations going into the relationship?
I am concerned when I discover both ends of this scale. Perhaps you had low expectations and moved in together because it was the next logical step. Think of this as an “escalator relationship” where you drifted into more commitment rather than making a conscious choice. Perhaps, it is time to take stock and think about what you really want.
Conversely, the passion was so great that you thought you’d found your “soulmate.” In the rush to have “happily-ever-after,” did you focus on what you wanted to see and fell in love with an idealized version of your partner? Are you interested in getting to know the real person?
3. What is the pattern of your past relationships?
Write down a list of all your significant relationships—back to your teenage years. How long did each one last? Why did they break down? Who finished the relationship? Have you fallen for the same type over and over again?
Rather than letting history repeat itself, it is worth staying (for the time being) and discovering if you can break the pattern. If you do decide to leave, you will still need to work on yourself or the likelihood is your next relationship could be similar.
4. What could you do differently?
Most people arrive in my office with a long list of how their partner should change but no constructive ideas for what they could do differently. They end up either trying to convince their partner that “I’m right and you’re wrong” or forcing change by upping the stakes on failed strategies (for example, shouting louder or sulking for longer).
What would happen if you focused on the one person, you can change— yourself? You could do the opposite of your usual reaction. If you go silent, try talking. If you pour your heart out, focus on what you really want to say and communicate just one key message.
If there are still things you haven’t tried, what would it be like to stay and experiment?
5. Is someone else coloring the picture?
Are you talking to someone about your relationship problems who has their own agenda? Perhaps your mother does not like your partner. Alternatively, your best friend recently got divorced and is trying to convince themself it was the right choice by encouraging you to do the same.
Alternatively, what if you are attracted to someone else and this person makes your marriage look dull and unappetizing. Perhaps your mind is being poisoned by someone else’s biased take on your partner.
6. Does divorce seem like a magical solution?
Time and again, I see clients blindly rushing into a divorce. They are so hopeful that it will reset their relationship that they tell me things like, “Once we are apart, she will have no right to tell me what to do” or “It will be difficult but I will not be constantly let down by him.” Sadly, divorce normally makes people behave worse rather than better—especially when they feel it was imposed rather than chosen. Instead of arguing in the kitchen, you end up arguing over text messages with even more misunderstandings and bitterness.
Talk to one of your friends who has a healthy relationship with an ex-spouse or partner about what they expected from their divorce and what happened. If they have a good co-parenting relationship with their ex, find out what work was needed to reach this positive place.
Just like saving your marriage, a good divorce takes time and energy. What would it be like trying for the first outcome before rushing into the second?
7. What could you learn from doing the work?
You choose your partner for deeper reasons than just looks and attraction. There is an overlap between the issues set by your parents’ relationship (and their relationship with you) and those from your partner’s parents. Couple therapists call this the “marital fit.” The topics the two of you fight about (and the style) are an expressway to understanding your childhood wounds and although painful, present a great opportunity for growth.
Furthermore, work on improving communication is never wasted. If you’re lucky, it can help you find a way back to each other and, if not, will lay the groundwork for a more peaceful split and an easier time for all involved.
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Seven Positive Signs
When you’re in pain, it is easy to become overwhelmed by negativity. So, don’t overlook any of the following:
1. You still feel the feelings.
The opposite of love is not hate but indifference. I worry most when couples can’t be bothered to fight. If you still feel love (at least some of the time), that’s something that can be built on.
2. Breaking up is only mentioned in anger.
Threatening to end the relationship or claiming you are not “right” for each other is destructive but it is often a cry for help: “Please pay attention. I am really hurting.”
3. You are prepared to look at yourself.
It is much easier to blame your partner than think about your half of the problems. It is a sign of emotional intelligence if you can step back and see the bigger picture. Furthermore, you don’t have to wait for your partner to change. By responding differently to them, you will begin to change the overall dynamic.
4. You have resolved problems in the past.
The knowledge that you overcame obstacles together in the past offers reassurance that you can do it again. Think about what helped that you could use again.
5. You can be vulnerable if you feel safe enough.
You would like to open up to your partner but when you’ve tried in the past, you have felt ignored, criticized, or attacked. However, you are ready to try again if a therapist can help the two of you really listen to each other.
6. You don’t expect instant results.
In the short term, therapy can increase the tension—while the buried issues come to the surface—before they can get better. It normally takes between three and six months to turn new skills into habits and set up a positive upward cycle.
7. You want the relationship to work. You’re just not sure how.
An outside eye and fresh input can make all the difference. I normally find that relationships improve because each partner makes one key change (and keeps it up). Small gains encourage larger ones and build trust in a shared future.
Ultimately, behind the question, How do I know if the work our relationship needs is too much work, there are two competing philosophies at play. One believes in the romantic myth that great marriages are built on connection and chemistry. So if there are problems, wouldn’t it be better to find someone who would be a better fit? The other is more practical and believes true connection comes from facing problems, learning from them, and growing together. What side are you on?
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