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When Your Relationship Is On Life Support: 5 Things To Consider Before Pulling The Plug

shutterstock_48443191 (1)Being in a long term relationship always has its ups and downs but what if you’re feeling like you can’t hang on anymore? Here are a few things to consider that may help you gain clarity before you decide to end it.

1. Have You Examined All the Solutions To Your Issues?

When a relationship is in danger of coming to an end, it often boils down to just a few fundamental, yet frustrating, issues that the couple has been unable to find a successful way of dealing with. If you are at this point, an important thing to consider is whether you have truly examined every option. Quite often, people are offered lots of resources that would help repair the relationship but they fail to follow up on them. They may have simply overlooked them or they might feel they are unrealistic, too costly or a waste of time. These might be things like learning new skills, going to counselling or just being open to finding examples of other people’s success and using them as inspiration. Take the time to ask yourself if there are any stones left unturned and, if so, what is stopping you from having a good look at them. It could be that there is an underlying resistance to these options that is preventing you from considering them as viable.

2. Are You Able To Communicate Safely?

A couple may love each other deeply and have every intention of making their relationship work but if they don’t have healthy communication, they will soon find that their connection will be lost and all may seem rather hopeless.  Addressing sensitive issues and talking about feelings can be tricky, especially when we are right in the middle of them.  Recognizing and understanding your “go to” reactions and fighting style (ie defenses) is the first step to being able to manage your communication better. When you realize that you will always react the SAME WAY when your defenses are triggered, you will begin to have more control over what happens next. By identifying the pattern, you can choose to interrupt it at any time. This alone can greatly reduce the amount of conflict a couple experiences.

Once you are able to diffuse conflict it is important to have a structure in place for resolving the issues that create conflict in the first place. In my private practice I teach couples a communication structure which enables them to express how they are feeling without having to keep their guard up. The feeling of being able to share what is really going on for you without fear of it escalating into an argument is extremely healing to a relationship and will get you well on your way to understanding what the relationship needs in order to move forward. To start with, I teach Mirroring, Validating and Empathizing, part of the Imago Dialogue and the three most valuable skills you can learn. You can find out more about the process from the book “Getting The Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix. Mastering these skills will help you and your partner create a safe place in which to express your feelings, allowing you to feel heard, understood and connected. Another approach I draw from is Emotionally Focused Therapy and I recommend reading “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson which teaches couples how to have “conversations which will give you insight into the defining moments in your relationship and guide you in reshaping the moments to create a secure and lasting bond.” These books can be extremely helpful but, regardless of the structure you choose, remember to take turns listening to each other. Simply listening without an agenda, putting your reactions aside for the moment and waiting for your turn to speak can be the most powerful experience of all.  If you are both trying to be heard at the same time, nobody is really listening or feeling heard at all. This will surely trigger your defenses and, before you know it, you will find yourselves having the same old argument you always have. So, take the time to Just Listen.

3. How Willing Are Each Of You To Do The Work?

Now that you have read the first two items in this article, take notice of your reaction so far.  Are you feeling interested in knowing more? Are you a little more optimistic than before?   Can you see your partner reading this article and the two of you having a discussion about it?

Chances are, if you are reading this at all, part of you is still wondering if ending your relationship is the right thing to do. But, if you have read this far and still feel discouraged you may want to ask yourself some tougher questions.

In Part 1, I mentioned the possibility of one or both of you having resistance to pursuing certain options.  It could be that the resistance comes from fear of the process itself or what it might require of you to follow through on it ( ie change, effort, acknowledgment, forgiveness, etc..). If that is the case, it is important to examine it so that it does not remain an obstacle. In that example, though, it is the option and what it represents that is the obstacle and not necessarily an unwillingness to work on the relationship at all.

However, if you are still resistant after reviewing and addressing the possibilities in Part 1, you may have to explore your own underlying beliefs about relationships in general or your beliefs about the specific issues that you and your partner are dealing with. Beliefs are very powerful and can control our behavior and affect our choices even when we think we want something quite different. Underlying beliefs operate on the unconscious level and can sabotage our efforts to make changes in our lives.  We sometimes can’t understand “why” we can’t experience different outcomes, despite our efforts. This is usually affected by our unconscious beliefs and the personal meaning we assign to certain situations as a result of them.

To explore your underlying beliefs it is important to look at your past experiences (from childhood and onward) that may have been significant enough to alter your perspective on relationships and what is possible for you within them.  Look at the relationships and events that impacted you the most and ask yourself what you “decided” in response to them (ie marriage never works, I have to give up my identity to keep a relationship, happy couples never have conflict, kids ruin everything, etc..) If you notice that your beliefs about what happened then run contrary to you having a successful and mature partnership now, this is the time to challenge them.  Remember that, when you made those earlier decisions, you were in a different stage of life and in a different situation. You may have needed to believe these things in order to make sense of inexplicable circumstances that were beyond your control or understanding. But it is important to realize that what was true for you or the people involved at that time is not necessarily true for you – NOW.  Explore the present you and see how your life and this relationship is different from what you witnessed or experienced in the past. Perhaps you may recognize that the only thing that is keeping that reality alive is your own belief or expectation that things cannot or will not change.

4. Are You Avoiding Anything About Yourself by Trying Too Hard or Giving Up Too Easily?

So far, we have focused on those who experience the resistance that often comes up when a relationship is in trouble and requires more work. But what about those who keep trying to pump life into something that is seemingly unresponsive? At what point does it become obvious that it will take much more than your own effort to save the relationship? These types of people are usually optimistic, resourceful and full of ideas but they also have trouble stepping back, relinquishing control and letting things happen. If you feel that you are trying too hard, giving too much or doing the bulk of the work that both of you should be sharing, perhaps you are trying to avoid some important truth about yourself or the relationship.  One of my clients said it best when she commented “It’s easy to avoid my own issues when I’m so focused on giving to the relationship.  It buys me lots of time.” Ask yourself what you would be doing or feeling if you didn’t spend so much time focusing on the relationship.  What other priorities are you setting aside or what kind of awareness would you have about your own issues if you weren’t trying so hard to keep the relationship alive.  We can avoid things for many reasons and just giving yourself the space to imagine what it would be like if you were to step back and let things happen may give you some powerful insight as to what motivates you to work so hard when your partner does not.

As for the flip side, giving up too easy can indicate some avoidance as well.  As I mentioned earlier, it could mean that doing the work would require something of you that you feel unprepared to give.  You may struggle with giving up your independence or  having to be more responsible. You may even feel shame for past mistakes that may not be forgiven or that you are just not good enough for your partner.  Regardless of which category you fall into, being aware of what is motivating you will ultimately empower you.  You will be that much closer to knowing what you truly want.

5. Do You and Your Partner Have Common Values and a Vision For Your Relationship?

I can’t tell you how many couples and individuals I speak to who are amazed to discover that they have really never discussed their Vision for the relationship with one another.  So often, people grow up having hopes and dreams about marriage, kids, lifestyle etc.. but when they fall in love and get caught up in the romance they fail to communicate with their partner about what their common Relationship Vision will be. We all have certain things that we could not tolerate in a relationship as well as things that we could not live without. These things would be considered “deal breakers”. Unfortunately, if we never discuss them we are at risk of finding these things out much too late in the game and we end up feeling trapped, confused and helpless as to how to resolve them.

Much like a Vision Statement for a business, a Relationship Vision takes into account what each individual values and wants for their life as a whole and compares it with that of their partner. It is a powerful exercise in determining how many items they have in common and identifying the areas in which they differ.  It is a first step toward coming to terms with the fact that each partner is not an extension of the other but rather a separate individual who is on a path of their own, even though they are choosing to spend their lives together.  With this awareness, the couple can begin a dialogue that will form the building blocks of their unique Relationship Vision. Using this as a guide, they can refer to it throughout their relationship. When one or both of them gets off track, the Relationship Vision will help them to reconnect, remember their overall vision and make decisions and address issues which will be in line with their common values. If you have not tried this exercise with your partner, I highly recommend it. It may help you identify some very fundamental differences in your values that you may have not been aware of or had otherwise been unable to admit.  You may find that you will be able to address most of them and come up with win-win solutions but, for those that are more difficult, perhaps now is the time to find out if they are truly deal breakers or not.