Coming for professional help for your marriage is a last resort for some couples. While working in demanding jobs and busy raising the children, there is no time to work on your relationship. You often hope that when the stress of work and parenting subsides, the neglected relationship can be attended to then. You feel distant like two people living beneath the same roof but without any passion. You are like room mates. Couple therapy is a last ditch effort.
While I am a therapist who attempts to find the hope in every couple I see, I know that not all relationships can be saved.
When one person wants out and is unwilling to look at their own contributions to the relationship problems, it is obvious why the relationship ends. In most of the other ‘last ditch efforts’ to save a very unhappy relationship, the decision to save it or let it end is not quite so clear.
Sometimes mistrust and betrayal have grown so large that couples are uncertain about whether it is worth working on their relationship. Other times, the drifting apart has been occurring for years and having deep conversations about each other just feels very strange and awkward.
Five Dimensions to Consider
John Gottman in his book What Makes Love Last: how to build trust and avoid betrayal suggests five dimensions that be carefully examined before considering ending the marriage or long-term committed relationship.
- Fondness and Admiration
Couples who tell the story of how they met with warmth, respect, a sense of humour and compliments about each other, still have fondness and admiration for the relationship. Couples who tell the story of how they met with few positives, what went wrong, mistakes that were made have little or no fondness and admiration left for their relationship.
2. A Sense of Us vs. Me
Couples who identify as ‘Us’, tell stories about what they created together and how it strengthened them and their love for each other. In adversity, they describe how they overcame it together. A couple without ‘a sense of Us’, talk about what ‘I’ did in the struggle and how ‘I’ solved things without talking much about the other’s contribution.
3. Details of the Other’s Inner World
When couples are asked about their past, the early years or more recent events in their relationship, some have memories of distinct details about what makes the other person tick: what they care about, what made them happy or sad. They do it with a positive energy and humour. Couples who have lost the connection to each other are more guarded when they describe their history. The story sounds ‘generic’ with very specific few details about their partner’s inner world.
4. Glorifying Struggles vs. Feeling Defeated and Chaotic
When a couple describes their past as chaotic, they are usually unhappy with their relationship in the present. They seem to derive no meaning or insight from hardship they experienced. In contrast, happy couples express pride in having overcome struggles and tend to glorify their triumphs, commitment and strength. It is part of their ongoing effort to build shared meaning and purpose.
5. Disappointment vs. Satisfaction
A couple which is likely to break up, at least one of the partners is likely to express disappointment about the relationship not being what it promised to be. In reflecting on past decisions and choices, they are skeptical about long-term commitment. On the other hand, a couple whose relationship will last, believes their partner is the right one for them and still is. Even will when facing difficult challenges, they believe that their relationship meets their expectations.
The Negative ‘Story of Us’ Switch
John Gottman’s extension and rigorous scientific research on happy and unhappy relationships, is able to predict divorce or a relationship’s end with tremendous accuracy. The findings reveal that a relationship is salvageable if not all of the above five dimensions are negative. The loss of a positive history does not happen quickly. Often there is time to save the relationship.
Once the negative ‘Story of Us’ switch is thrown, (all 5 dimensions are negative), the relationship is very unlikely to survive. All the last ditch efforts for turning things around will be not possible. It will be too late. Even with a positive change in one partner, the other will likely remain skeptical and suspicious. They may think, “Well they finally did something good and nice, but the relationship is still horrible.”
If you are reading this and you feel your relationship is negative on all five dimensions, it is wise to discuss with your partner what you feel to see whether they are more positive and want to seek professional help. If some of the five are negative but not all, then it would be wise to seek help now.
Often mistrust and betrayal leading to a roommate-like relationship, are at the core. You may find the previous three articles about Gottman’s research helpful: How to Rebuild Trust, How to Get Out of the Negative Spiral of Mistrust and How to Tell if Your Partner is Trustworthy
Deciding to leave a long-term marriage or relationship, especially when your children’s lives will be affected, is not an easy one. Careful consideration with the help and support of good information, support of friends and family, and a good therapist are a good idea.