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.

How to Apologize and How Not to Apologize: When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

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Is saying that you are sorry the same thing as making an apology? Indeed, many of us have said “I’m sorry for your loss” too often to keep track: to relatives, friends, business associates, and acquaintances. Were we trying to apologize or attempting to provide a consoling message? Were we admitting guilt for what happened or expressing sympathy?

The answer should be easy. When we say that we are “sorry for the loss” we are voicing concern and attempting to comfort, not taking responsibility for the death. Unless, that is, we specify that we caused the demise of the loved one. But ordinarily, we are communicating that we are sad that it happened, not culpable.

When a person is, in fact, blameworthy, he has not necessarily done something terrible. Accidents do happen and sometimes injuries are very small. But, surely the most difficult apology to make must be to acknowledge one’s part in the death of a child. I bring this up because George Zimmerman, the man whose gun shot killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin following a conflict with him in February, is widely reported to have “apologized” to Martin’s family when he said the following in court at a bond hearing:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.

Yet, whatever his intention, Zimmerman did not actually apologize. Leaving aside the legal wisdom of making such a statement in court, I’d like to discuss what would have been required for Zimmerman to apologize rather than simply express sympathy, which is what he accomplished.

According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, one must:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that you inflicted — for example, “I broke your toy” or “I shoplifted the purse” or “I shot and killed your loved one.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what you have personally done, admit that you should not have done it, and express remorse; not simply that you are sorry that a loss occurred.
  3. Attempt to compensate the injured party or parties in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by a cruel joke, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for you to make a public admission of your foolishness in front of the same people who were present when you embarrassed the other person. Similarly, if you broke his window, you would need to repair or replace it, or get someone else to do this.
  4. You must do your very best to make sure that your behavior isn’t repeated.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, making no excuses that diminish his responsibility. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without justifying it, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

Although George Zimmerman didn’t apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family, he did try to explain away his (unspecified) action when he stated, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.” If we look at the requirements of an adequate apology listed above, we can see that Zimmerman met none of them. He did not state that he was responsible for the death of the teenager and the pain that the family is suffering, he did not say that he was sorry for taking the action, he offered no compensation to the family, and he said nothing about changing his behavior (such as trying to avoid future conflicts or deciding not to carry a gun, for example). I understand that the legal process made some of this inadvisable, but that fact does not alter the definition of what an apology is and what it is not.

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Clearly, we cannot and do not apologize for everything. But, if we spill some milk, it really is nice and proper for us to say that we are sorry for what we’ve done and try to clean it up. Most of us do, except for those times when we blame the other by saying “You shouldn’t have put the milk there” or expect someone else to mop the floor.

Apologizing can be surprisingly rewarding, even if difficult. It can help to repair injuries and improve relationships. Apologies can sometimes provide closure to those parties who have suffered significant losses, where adequate compensation is not possible. They can contribute to mutual understanding and lead to forgiveness and letting go.

An example of an attempt to produce such reconciliation between perpetrators and victims was the Republic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid was ended in that country in 1994. Apartheid was the white government’s policy of racial segregation, denial of human rights, discrimination, and mistreatment of blacks. The Commission included public hearings in which some of the victims testified to their experience. Perhaps more significantly, perpetrators of violence were also permitted to make public statements of their responsibility for wrong-doing and to request amnesty.

There is quite a distance between spilled milk and spilled blood, no question about it. But the possibility of reconciliation, however remote, can only come with a properly voiced apology and the expressed regret that should come with it. Life is full of disagreements, differences, and damage, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those who are able to feel remorse and admit wrong doing set the stage for the possibility of some amount of healing. Indeed, the perpetrator and the victim are very occasionally bonded together more strongly by the experience.

I hear you saying, “That’s a lot easier to say than to do.” True enough. As one of the members of the comedy team Cheech and Chong used to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Self-interest often recommends denial of fault, as in the case of a trial in a court of law. And yet, sometimes common decency, conscience, and a caring heart dictate that we try to repair what we have broken.

The first image is St. Francis in Meditation, a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran from 1635-1639. It is followed by an 1885 Caricature of a Marriage Proposal by H. Schlittzen. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.