How Do You Know When a Relationship Can Be Saved?

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We all lose friends and lovers. We all hope there is a way — some way, some how — to recapture the companion, erase the slight, stitch up the wound and go back to the “days of wine and roses.” Time is spent thinking, dreaming, wondering, planning, and — very often, trying — to put the Humpty Dumpty relationship back together again.

Here is one possible guide to what might produce the loss and a second list of the signs suggesting you might succeed where “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” failed.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. One or both parties blames the other, taking no responsibility for any part of the rift, and refusing to be enlightened by either the partner or a therapist. I am excluding frank physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, as well as alcohol and drug addiction from the list of causes. Any of these compound the problem of saving the partnership.
  2. A tendency to store things up. Some people are hesitant to express their discontent frankly, even as the years pass. Short of mind-reading, the partner then cannot be assumed to know of the brewing disturbance until the anger blows up.
  3. Lack of self-awareness. Such a person doesn’t understand the negative impact he is having on his lover or friend. He is the counterpart to the person just described who fails to communicate his unhappiness.
  4. The unwillingness to compromise or work on changing yourself if the companion does specify his misery.
  5. The practice of “counting” and weighing the various kindnesses, concessions, and compromises you make on behalf of the other, as well as his, always smaller number (as you perceive it). A rough equity is desirable, but absolute equality is impossible to achieve. As my friend John likes to say, “Buddies don’t count.”
  6. Jealousy of the other’s success or of his closeness to his life partner or additional companions.
  7. The failure to evaluate your own relationship history, including unresolved issues from childhood that might impact your behavior toward the friend.
  8. Excessive self-effacement. Putting the other first to the point he experiences a sense of entitlement and you believe you are taken for granted. The tendency to place another on a pedestal points to likely self-esteem issues  — in you.
  9. The expectation that what you do (perhaps your job, for example), whether in or out of the home, qualifies you for special treatment.
  10. The friend or lover is replaced with someone else, though the betrayal might be a secret.
  11. Faux apologizing. Political style apologies (“I’m sorry if I hurt you”) fail on several levels: the precise nature of the injury isn’t specified, no real responsibility taking occurs unless the “if” is removed, and one needs a concrete plan and desire to prevent more pain, as well as an offer of restitution.
  12. Low priority placed on the relationship. Partners can feel abandoned to the loved one’s dedication to work, substance abuse, favoring a child over the spouse, overcommitment to his family of origin, or hobbies.
  13. Unrealistic expectations of what a good relationship should be.
  14. A tendency to be critical and/or judgmental.
  15. Betrayal. This can take the form of secretly assisting someone who wishes to undermine your buddy; and other, more dramatic acts of infidelity.
  16. A successful grieving process. When estrangement happens, either member of the dyad can begin to mourn the loss of the friend/lover. If he finally comes to be at peace with the rift, his willingness to try again is substantially reduced. He has achieved the much-mentioned state of “moving on.”

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WHAT MIGHT SIGNAL THINGS CAN BE PUT RIGHT?

  1. Both parties want the relationship to resume. Yes, two people start a friendship or romance, and both need to work on putting it together, but only one is needed to end it.
  2. You still possess an abiding love for the other. If memories of the best of times bring a smile and affection, a rekindling of the contact may be possible.
  3. You share a history impossible to replace.
  4. Readiness on both sides to discuss the painful issues face-to-face.
  5. Willingness to accept responsibility. Remember, however, Cheech Marin’s famous line: “Responsibility is a big responsibility, man.”
  6. Self-awareness.
  7. A tendency to appreciate the good qualities in the partner, rather than a blanket vilification of him.
  8. Openness to compromise.
  9. The capacity to review your life and history — the patterns that become apparent — and change them.
  10. Understanding what a sincere and complete apology requires and the desire to deliver it.
  11. An agreement to alter the rules of the relationship, being precise about what the new guidelines require of you, careful not to agree to those conditions you can’t stomach, and putting in place a system that will evaluate the compliance of both people.
  12. Going forward, the assertiveness to communicate future unhappiness before it poisons the relationship.
  13. The capacity to set “counting” aside.
  14. Resolving any jealousies.
  15. Learning to listen and ask questions.
  16. Giving the partner’s well-being increased and abiding priority.
  17. Realism and acceptance of the fact that no relationships in life are ever perfect.
  18. Ultimately, there must be forgiveness, lest the couple take turns in using the past as a weapon. Whether intended or not, the past is as lethal to love as WMD are to nations.

This is not a complete list, but a starting point in your analysis of what went wrong and whether companionship can be put right. The union of two good people doesn’t guarantee a joyous and congenial match. Compatibility isn’t always present.

Redeeming a broken relationship is rarely an easy thing. Be prepared to work hard and hope your partner is equally prepared. If a resumption of your friendship is what you want, do what you can lest you live in regret for not having tried.

I’ll leave you with two quotes about friendship that apply equally to romantic love:

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
― Bob Marley

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
― Linda Grayson

The top image is Bromance at its finest, as sourced from Wikimedia Commons and created by smellyavocado. The second photo, called Strawberry Banana Smoothie, is the work of Courtney Carmody and comes from the same source.

11 thoughts on “How Do You Know When a Relationship Can Be Saved?

  1. Dr. Stein, oddly enough, the one friendship I miss is mine with the woman who introduced me to your blog. We had a falling out a couple years ago. I tried to apologize for my overreaction, but my few efforts were rebuked. I then had to respect her wishes to cease our friendship. I’ve been very retrospective of my life as of late due to many losses I’ve charted due to PTSD, and it’s that one friendship I mourn the most. I still hold out hope that perhaps one day our relationship will be repaired; until then, the loss of her friendship is one of the deepest regrets and sorrows of my life. Thank you for just letting me say so.

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  2. You were honorable in respecting her wishes, Harry, something others might not have done. These situations are tricky. Sometimes the one who has ended the relationship eventually has regrets, but lacks the courage to send out feelers about reestablishing the relationship. I hope it works out in the way you wish.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. slowmovinglife

    Thank you for this, Dr. Stein. I see in this a few areas that I need to work on. Loosing the one who matters most to me has been devastating. I have been working hard to let her go and trying to deal with the gaping hole in my heart. I admit that there are areas that I need to work on in my relating and being the person that I want to be but there was one overarching issue that I had yet to clear in order for us to proceed. I know that she wanted to move forward with me.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I’m glad it was helpful. It takes courage for any of us to see ourselves in a new (to us) and imperfect way. You’ve already made a big step.

      Liked by 1 person

      • slowmovinglife

        How do I let her go? I don’t want to. I know how deeply she loves me and how I love her. There are circumstances that made our relationship a challenge and thus her decision. She told me how hard this was for her to do and that walking away from me was not something that comes natural. It is terribly hard and she is fighting her love for me and her desires. I am respecting her decision, however wrong I know it to be.

        I am trusting that in time, when everything is right with me, that we will find each other again and be ready for who we are together. I love her enough to let her go and to go with my blessing. I love her enough to say our goodbyes regardless of how excruciatingly hard this is for us (me).

        I love her enough to understand that I may never see her face, hear her voice, touch her skin, feel her love again and that this is what she has chosen.

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  4. Dr. Stein, your incomplete list of things that could put Humpty-Dumpty together again indicates just how complex reconciliation can be. When one partner flees the scene, abandoning the other, it becomes impossible to work things out.

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    • slowmovinglife

      This is where I am. I was abandoned. My soul mate didn’t want to continue with the shame and guilt of what we were doing. Neither do I. I want the life that I know we are supposed to have together. I love her more than I ever knew was possible. I want to give her everything, every part of my life. I made mistakes and I am learning from them. She made mistakes, too. We were open to each other.We listened to each other. We love(d) each other implicitly and completely.

      I want reconciliation and I want my life with her.

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    • Indeed, it does take two willing partners, Rosaliene. Flight is a deal breaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wanted to say ‘thank you’ – but without commenting in detail as this is difficult and painful and the last week has not been good (or rather worse than usual) in this regard…..as a therapist, did you find it hard not to give your view on a relationship; did you find yourself wanting someone to leave, or to stay, but being unable to say so? Did your clients reach different conclusions to the ones you were expecting or thought would be best for them? Were you frustrated if progress was so slow because your work together was undermined by a difficult relationship or lack of support outside therapy? And how do you deal with a situation where the party in therapy inevitably has more insight and self-awareness than the partner who is not, and so the entire task of resolution feels as though it is upon their shoulders? Particularly if they are the one who is ‘mentally ill’ and therefore the one ‘with the problem’?

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    • These are good questions and I think it best if I answer them, and any additional ones you or others might suggest, in a post devoted exclusively to the general topic you raise. But, let me just say this, for now: therapists do have opinions about what might be best for their patients, but short of a frankly abusive relationship, usually are well advised not to suggest the “solution,” as if it were the “correct one.” I’ll have lots more to say about this and your other concerns soon. I am sorry, however, to hear of your current distress.

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