We hear the duo argument all the time: “It takes two to tango,” “two heads are better than one,” “there’s no I in team.”
But what do you do if your relationship is in trouble and your partner isn’t ready to work on the problem? Of course it’s better to tango with two, but if you’re the only one dancing, a one-person performance can sometimes be better than no theater production at all.
An, no, it doesn’t depend on your horoscope.
1. Can you save your relationship alone?
Possibly. Read on.
2. Decide whether the relationship is worth it.
Consider: how healthy is the relationship? Sure, there’s tension — otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article — but is the foundation solid, or is there a harmful undertone poisoning the connection? A toxic relationship might not be worth saving.
The formal definition of “toxic:” a repeated and often mutually destructive pattern of relating between a couple. Interactions can be affected by manipulation, humiliation, dominance, jealousy, rejection, violence, and threats of suicide.
The informal definition: the relationship is just plain bad news. No matter what you do, it’s unhealthy for both sides.
If your relationship seems toxic, don’t approach it solo. Instead, connect with a professional to tease out the situation. If you’re in an abusive relationship, consider calling the US national domestic violence hotline at 800 799 7233.
Your relationship not toxic? Go onto #3.
3. Now, figure out WHY your relationship is worth saving.
Why do you want to rescue this relationship? Assuming this will be a long, painful process, why is that connection worth fighting for?
To hash this out, grab pen and paper and write out your partner’s name at the center of the page. Next, brainstorm in writing exactly why you wish to rescue the relationship. Jot down every detail that comes to mind. Consider what you like about your partner and the relationship. Is it because of the kids you share? Did he keep you smiling during the rough times? Did she help you avoid relapse? Are you financially dependent on her? Does the relationship keep you honest?
Consider characteristics, feelings, goals, shared memories, responsibilities, culture, finances, family, and future. Add anything else you can think of.
Your paper should be full. If it’s half-empty, look for something on the sheet that sticks out, something so singularly important that it alone metaphorically fills the space. One way or another, a full page might be a sign that, yes, your connection warrants the fight.
If on the other hand, the items of the page are luke-warm, think hard about why you want to save the relationship.
One way or the other, be sure you know what you’re fighting for and why. You’ll need to refer back to this sheet often.
4. Next, come up with a RESCUE PLAN for arguments.
If you and your partner argue frequently, come up with a Rescue Plan for arguments. If possible, establish a rescue plan together. Ask your spouse or loved one, “What’s the best way for us to deal with these rows we’re having?”
If they aren’t up to working on an answer, you’ll need to establish a guideline alone. In doing so, remember that old adage: you can’t change others, but you can change yourself. Focus on changing your behavior. It’s also important to choose an intervention that is helpful to both parties. Your emergency plan shouldn’t be focused on proving you’re right or making your spouse feel foolish. So think: what is a healthy, effective way to deal with arguments in your relationship?
Every relationship is different. There’s no all-encompassing solution, but consider the politely-excuse-yourself method. Next time you argue, tell your spouse you care about them, need to calm down, will talk when you’re able to, and walk away. If possible, exit BEFORE you need to. Don’t walk away in a huff. This isn’t revenge. This isn’t attitude. This is about giving your partner and you time to cool down before touching bases.
Looking for alternative ideas? Here are some ideas:
- If you don’t want to walk away, take a short break to reset your emotions. “I’ll be right back, I’m going to get us some soft drinks,” will give you a little time.
- Relax your muscles, breathe deeply, and listen. Try to see the issue from your loved one’s perspective, then tell them what you’ve heard. Sometimes helping your spouse feel understood makes a big difference.
- Ask your partner how they’d prefer you respond when you have arguments.
- Own up to your part of the fight. If you’re the culprit, admit what you did to get your partner upset and be empathetic about their reaction.
- Take care to avoid useless language, like offensiveness, accusations, ruminating about the past, or obsessing about things your lover can’t change. This just separates you further.
5. Come up with a list of personal “rules,” rules that apply to you.
Establish a few ground rules for yourself, ideas to help you take care of yourself and decide how to approach your loved one. These ideas can vary from person to person, depending on your style and relationship, but here are some ideas.
Take care of your needs. If the relationship is worth saving, don’t focus on your spouse’s not meeting your needs. If you need something, and fulfilling that need isn’t going to hurt your partner, you must do it for yourself. It’s no one’s job except yours to keep yourself happy.
Take care of your partner. Approach your partner’s needs the same way you do your own: give them what they need, as long as their needs don’t hurt you. Accept that caring for your partner might be a one-way street in the beginning. In a healthy relationship, this eventually slips back into a mutual “give and take.” However, if the one-sidedness lasts indefinitely, see #9 below.
Your goal is to bring about emotional closeness. Remember, you’re not trying to change your partner’s personality. Your work isn’t about “winning” an argument or being the person who is right. Plan to meet and accept your lover where they’re at.
Go out of your way to cherish them. The most important thing in a relationship is not communication, trust, or time spent together. The key to a good connection is kindness. Appreciate your partner. Don’t wait for or expect them to do nice things for you. You must act first, over and over, and relish in the fact that you’re making someone you care about happy. Slowly your significant other might pick up on your kindness and appreciate you too.
Practice understanding. Your partner might not be very understanding of you, but – if the relationship is worth saving – try to understand them. Arguments are a good opportunity. Next time you exchange words, pause and listen. Really listen. Then, repeat back what they’ve told you, albeit in a kind, confirming way. You don’t have to agree, but “being understood” makes even the hardest heart melt. For example, imagine you’re upset at your wife because she spent five hundred dollars on a dress. While you don’t agree with her purchase, you understand that she bought the dress because she wanted to look pretty for you.
Examples of situation specific rules. If you’re clingy or tempted to call too often, limit yourself to two phone calls/day. If you’re not reaching out often enough, plan to call your spouse daily at lunch to tell them you love them. If your lover is depressed, get them out of the house at least once/day, and remember to tell them you’re glad they’re around.
6. Figure out the cycle.
Most relationships have patterns. They revolve in circles: I do this, which makes you do that, which makes me do this, which makes you do that… Problem relationships tend to have very repetitive, inflexible cycles, where each player fulfills their role predictably without knowing it. These circular interactions are hard to break. Often there’s more than one cycle.
Figure out what’s going on between your partner and you. Usually that’s going to be 4-8 steps that repeat themselves endlessly. Can’t see it? Ask a friend. Although if they don’t know the dynamics of your relationship, friends can often identify major patterns.
Example of a cycle:
7. Figure out ways to change the cycle.
Once you’ve clarified the cycle in your relationship, identify where you can throw a wrench in the mix to change things up. Again, since you can’t adjust the other person’s behaviors, change what you are doing.
What can you do differently to derail the cycle? Look at different parts of the cycle, searching for interventions that can be made at each stage in the wheel. For example, in the Sarah and Jeff’s cycles, what are the options? From Sarah’s point of view, she could:
- ask Jeff why he was acting the way he did. She could do this when he starts showering her with attention, or when he gets to the point of smothering her.
- let Jeff know she needed more space, instead of pulling away. Again, she could say this sooner or later.
- notice the cycle and pointed it out to Jeff.
- interpret Jeff’s attention differently, recognize it as his way of showing he cared. If she had responded warmly, instead of pulling away, perhaps his response might have been different? There’s no way of knowing.
- ask a friend for advice. This is always a great option.
Make a list of alternative ways to respond to your lover’s behaviors, which are usually a response to yours. Do they blow up whenever you point out their faults? Try appreciating their strengths. Help them develop those strengths. Do they spend so much time on the computer that you end up arguing? Set a date, then find a hobby and do your own thing until it’s date time. Or pull your laptop up aside theirs and make it a quiet computer snuggle time, no talking or touching but building curiosity each time you chuckle at something they can’t see.
Not sure how to change what you’re doing? Instead of doing something different, consider undoing negative behaviors. We all have bad habits, and these habits are magnified in troubled relationships. Bad habits might include:
- Trying to improve him or her
- Criticizing your partner or their family/friends
- Keeping score
- Spying or allowing jealousy to take over
- Thinking the other person can read your mind
- Not communicating your needs (the “if they love me they should already know” syndrome)
- Forgetting to forgive
- Timing your discussions badly
- Expecting to spend all your time together
- Spending all your time with the computer
Your job now is to brainstorm away: what can you do differently in these cycles, and what bad habits could you stop? Come up with as many ideas as you can. As usual, if at a loss, ask a friend for advice.
8. Act and make those changes.
By now you’ll have a list of ways to improve your relationship. The next step is to act. Sometimes this is trial and error. Which actions bring you together, and which ones don’t? Give each change a week or two before trying something else. If the change is effective, even a little, stick with it and add something new. As you adjust your behaviors, you might find the relationship will improve too.
Another example of a cycle and how to handle it:
What is the cycle? Here’s a possible scenario:
What is my role in the cycle? I get mean and yell a lot, plus I don’t communicate the reason I’m mean. Although it frustrates me he spends so much time with his friends, I’m probably pushing him away by acting on my frustration.
What behaviors can I change to break the cycle?
(a) Stop getting upset when he’s gone. I can enjoy life on my own without being mad at him.
(b) Treat him well when we’re together.
(c) Spend time with his friends and him, since he keeps inviting me along and obviously wants me involved.
(d) Ask him to reserve Saturday nights for me.
(e) Instead of yelling, let him know I miss him when he’s not around.
(f) Welcome his friends to come hang out at our house. Invite my friends too?
(g) Ask my partner if he wants to sign up for tennis lessons or karate lessons together once/week?
(h) Explain directly why I’ve been upset
What’s your next step? It’s time to choose one of the above options (your options) and try it. Each time the situation comes up, react in this new way and see what happens. If things get worse, try something else. If things get better, keep doing what you’re doing. Adjust your actions according to what works and what doesn’t.
9. How will you know where to draw the line?
This article is about holding onto a relationship in a healthy way. But sometimes, no matter how good your intentions or sincere your approach, your mate’s response remains unhealthy. Or sometimes your own maneuvers wax on tragic. Whether the toxic element is you or your lover, you have to know when it’s time to let it go.
For example, giving your friend the bigger half of a cookie lets them know you care. But allowing that friend to steal your cookie — just so you can maintain the relationship — is somewhat problematic. Perhaps it’s acceptable once. But let it happen again? Unhealthy. How about three more times? A dozen more times? That’s when it gets awfully iffy. At what point do stolen cookies = no relationship? You have to decide for yourself. Where do you draw the line?
Of course there’s no fine line here, but any behavior that harms you or your spouse is probably a red flag. Here are some warning signs that might indicate relationship-repairing is over:
- Your partner is an addict and isn’t ready to stop using.
- Your spouse threatens you if you don’t do what they want.
- Your loved one threatens to hurt themselves if you don’t do what they want.
- You get extremely angry every time you see them, and it makes you illogical and nasty.
- You did something wrong and your boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t able to forgive you
As usual: if you don’t know where to draw the limit, ask a friend.
10. Give it time.
Remember, if the relationship is worth it, be patient and give it time. And be kind. Always be kind.
So happy marriage or connection rescuing, and good luck!