Should you stay or go?
Do you know what it takes to make a relationship work? And how do you know when efforts to do so are futile? If you’re wondering whether ending your relationship is — or was — the right thing to do, or whether you can make a troubled relationship work again, read on.
Can your relationship be saved? As a practicing clinical psychologist, this is one of the most commonly explored issues that I have dealt with in my office over the past three decades. Here are just a few responses people gave when I asked why they would need to read an article about whether or not their relationship could be saved:
Could any of these statements have been made by you? If not, then how would you answer the question: “Can your relationship be saved?”
Maybe you’re feeling alone — or even odd — because you’re pondering the direction you are going in your relationship? Let me assure you how normal relationship ambivalence has become!
We all know that the divorce rate looms around 50%. And that doesn’t include people who live together and break up; people who are in long-term (non-live-in relationships); those who are in short-term relationships that can feel as emotionally intense as any marriage ever could; and those who stay in marriages and other long-term relationships that they describe as totally unsatisfying and unfulfilling. Add to that all those whose relationships have come very close to ending, for one reason or another, but have found a satisfactory resolution for both partners. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine that there are very many of us who haven’t been at this crossroad at some time, with one relationship or another.
Sometimes, both partners in a relationship make the decision jointly about whether to continue or split. At other times, one partner makes it all alone. Indeed, if you were to ask me to make the one single most accurate statement regarding relationships, it would have to be this: for a relationship to begin — or to continue — there has to be a degree of desire, effort, or at least collaboration on the part of both partners; but for a relationship to end, all that is needed is for one partner to want it to end. But as long as the door is open even a crack, it is, at the very least, theoretically possible to turn things around.
The two main pillars of relationships that work
Before going any further, let’s set up a frame of reference for looking at this issue. In my book, The Art of Staying Together: A Couple’s Guide to Intimacy and Respect (Hyperion/Avon, 1993), I highlighted what I believe are the two most important components of relationships that work: passion and comfort. Long-term relationships that serve the needs of both partners do so because they have an acceptable degree of both passion and comfort. Let’s look at these two ingredients:
When it comes to making a commitment to each other, passion is the part of you that commits from the heart. However, it is your brain that determines whether your relationship provides you with a sufficient degree of comfort to warrant the commitment. Maintaining a sufficient degree of passion and comfort — for each of you — is really a lifelong job.
There are three main categories of troubled relationships (which account not only for that alarmingly high divorce rate, but also the much higher percentage of significant non-married relationships which end). They include relationships that are stormy, that have become characterized by indifference, and those of a one-sided nature.
A stormy relationship is generally one that has plenty of passion, but not necessarily of the positive kind. Of course, positive passion is what we think of when we picture a relationship at its best. But when there’s an excessive amount of negative passion of the variety seen in stormy relationships, the result is a tremendous amount of anger and discomfort. At the extreme, these relationships can become abusive and even dangerous. A relationship with a lot of passion and little or no comfort can still be — and quite often (but not always) is — highly charged romantically and sexually. In some cases the most passionate sex actually occurs after the meanest and most volatile arguments. Sometimes anger even takes on the characteristics of “foreplay” for some of the best sex! This happens because after a nasty battle there’s often an apology, which can temporarily feel as if the issue is resolved (which, of course, it isn’t). The act of making up then leads to tender, romantic, and passionate feelings. Thus, negative passion turns into positive passion. The sad part is that the situation responsible for so much of the anger is never dealt with or resolved. Thus, the pattern can continue indefinitely. Ironically, most couples who follow this pattern often don’t realize that the “reward” of sex as a resolution to the fight could actually be the reason why they fight so much!
The second category is of troubled relationships that become indifferent. In this case, most — if not all — of the passion is missing. And although there can be a very comfortable living arrangement, partners may have little feeling or sexual desire for each other. Sometimes partners simply grow apart without anger, or there can even be as much anger present as there is in the typical stormy relationship. The main difference is that there’s just not the tendency to argue or do battle with each other. This may be a result of the partner’s personality styles, or the absence of passion altogether — including negative passion. Instead, the relationship merely begins to die a slow and quiet death. In other words, it may be brain-alive but heart-dead. (In contrast with a stormy, passionately driven relationship without sufficient comfort that is heart alive, but brain dead.)
Finally, there are one-sided relationships. In these cases, one person usually puts out much more effort and energy toward the maintenance, nurturing, and survival of the relationship than does the other one. In a one-sided relationship, one partner can be quite content — having all the passion and comfort he or she needs — while the other partner feels somewhat or totally unfulfilled.
In all types of troubled relationships, it’s important to ask: “What is the potential for change?” If the answer is “none,” the next question to ask yourself is, “Is this still where I want to be?”
What are your problem areas?
Now let’s explore your problem areas. What are the problems that now exist that have the potential to bring your relationship to an end? Reflect on your current relationship. Make a list of the issues and problems that are prompting you to ponder if your relationship can be saved.
What are the issues and problems that have brought you to this point? When did they begin to become problematic? What may have initially precipitated the situation?
Take a pen and paper out and list as many answers to these questions as possible. If you’re not sure what to write down at this point, that’s okay. In this article, I’ll be suggesting numerous ways for you to explore these often-difficult questions. But before giving you some of my ideas regarding what your problem areas are, take the time now (before reading the rest of this article) to make a record of how you see your relationship at this point. It will be helpful for you to refer to this initial list later on.
Potentially threatening problem areas
See which, if any, of these you can identify with:
You may now wish to revise your “problem list” and include some of your answers to the above questions.
Then and now
The title of a popular Off-Broadway play captures one of the most common sentiments I’ve seen: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
If you’ve discovered that perhaps you’re no longer growing together, it can be useful to look at how you got together in the first place, and how your initial attraction to each other may have given way to a sense of frustration.
You could be seeing your partner very differently these days than when you first met him or her. You may now be irritated by traits that perhaps you initially found to be irresistible! In other words, there’s a lot of truth to the cliche: “Be careful what you ask for.” First impressions are important. Very often they are the beginning of the fantasies of what you expect from each other. When I ask people to share with me their first impressions of someone with whom they are having difficulties now, I often get what was predictably a preview of how the relationship is today:
When initial attraction is present, quite often the glass is half full. But when initial attraction leaves, that same “glass” becomes experienced as half empty. So consider some of these questions regarding how your relationship has evolved:
After you have reflected on these questions, and maybe added some to your list of issues, you may want to go through them again — only this time as your partner, and take a look at them as they apply to you.
Warning: this can be a powerful eye-opening exercise.
Continuing your relationship assessment
As you continue to reflect upon where things are in your relationship now, here are a few additional questions designed to aid you in your understanding:
Use the insights and reflections from these questions to add further to your list and to your awareness and understanding of where your relationship is now. Again, dare to reverse the roles and answer them as you imagine your partner’s perceptions of you.
What are your expectations?
Reflect on your expectations for your relationship. What are they? What is it that you really want from your partner? What could your partner do now that would — from your point of view — save the relationship? Make a comprehensive list, and pay special attention to what you now recognize your unique issues to be.
What are your partner’s expectations?
If your partner were to compile a list such as the one you just did, what would he or she be asking of you? Compose a list of what you think your partner’s responses would be, then take each of these answers individually and ask yourself what you would be willing to give up, give in, or change about yourself in order to accommodate your partner. What are you now willing to do (that you may not have been willing to do before) in order to save your relationship or to make the climate better?
Looking at your expectations
Many believe in a variation of the idea, “If only I had the right relationship, my life would be totally complete.” But then once involved, the expectations become so high that in the end no relationship could possibly meet all of these expectations. Thus it turns into an unfulfilling experience. I’ve seen many relationships fall victim to the expectations put on them. When this happens, it can be quite unfortunate. That’s why it’s important for you to identify and very carefully reflect on what your relationship expectations are. For example, perhaps you tell yourself that your partner should always “be there for you.” Yet, when you look realistically at this request (or demand), you can see how tall an order that expectation can be. Can you always “be there” for your partner? Be clear about what it is that you really want and expect from your partner. What could your partner do right now that would make questioning whether the relationship can be saved obsolete or irrelevant? What would your partner say in answer to these questions?
By asking you to think about how your partner would respond to those same questions, I am pushing you to be empathetic (tuned in to what your partner feels, or your perception of it). Remember: if you’re working on these questions in private, there’s no downside to allowing yourself to reflect on them with total honestly.
And a few final questions
These are some of the factors that I urge you to explore regardless of what stage your relationship is at now, how long you’ve been together, or what your level of commitment may be.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Can Your Relationship Be Saved? How to Know Whether to Stay or Go. This book is for you if you’re trying to decide whether to stay or leave a troubled relationship, if you’re looking back at a failed relationship and wondering what went wrong, or if you want to avoid unworkable relationships in the future. Psychologist Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., offers clear, practical action steps to help couples resolve serious issues — whether that means revitalizing a dying relationship, or letting go and building a satisfying new life without your ex-partner.
For more articles on rebuilding your relationships after divorce, visit https://www.divorcemag.com/articles/Relationships/