It was their first time attending counseling together and Alex and Christi sat on the couch together looking defeated. After a long silence, Christi looked at the counselor and asked "How do you know when it's time to end the relationship?" As difficult as it is for a relationship counselor to see a couple struggling with hopelessness in their relationship, Christi asked a great question and one that couples counselors are often asked by individuals and couples who are engaging in the counseling process.
The Gottman Method estimates that 69% of all conflict that couples experience is perpetual and unable to be solved with full resolution over the course of the relationship. In other words, even the strongest couples start their relationship with fundamental mismatches in their values that will impact their communication and that continue throughout the lifespan of the relationship. Each partner having a different perspective on some key issues in the relationship is to be expected, but also can be the source of conflict and stress in the relationship if couples lack the skills to successfully navigate these experiences. However, not all relationship mismatches require the relationship to end. When dissatisfaction in a romantic relationship sets in, it can be helpful to explore what factors don't necessarily mean the ultimate demise of a relationship.
Here are four ways to know that your relationship still has what it takes to be successful:
When a lack of healthy communication skills is causing issues in the relationship.
Think for a minute about the communication you or your partner had modeled to
them in your family of origin growing up. If it wasn't the healthiest example that one
or both of you witnessed, it's possible you never acquired the skill set necessary to
successfully communicate in your adult relationships. The great news is that like any
skill that you have to learn to be a successful adult (paying bills, starting a new
exercise routine, eating healthy), communication skills can be learned at any time by
two committed partners. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the creators of the Gottman
Method for couples counseling, have spent years researching couples
and understanding the skills that couples need to acquire to be successful in their
communications. What they found is that with practice, you and your partner can
acquire the skills the most successful couples utilize to navigate conflict and value
mismatches and that these seeming deal breakers that cause couples stress don't
have to be a reason to throw in the towel.
2. When there are betrayals or major ruptures in the relationship that have never been
Let's go back to our original couple referenced at the beginning of this article. During
their intake appointment, the couple began to reference many betrayals and ruptures
in their relationship that had never been adequately repaired. Alex had taken a new
job without consulting Christi a year prior and now worked hours that caused them to
have considerably less time with one another. Anytime Christi tried to discuss this topic
with Alex he would tell her she wasn't being supportive or happy for him about his new
job and shut the conversation down. Christi was experiencing loneliness,
powerlessness, and a feeling of not being important enough in the relationship to be
consulted with before a major decision that affected both of them was made by Alex.
Christi had started spending more money to cope with the loneliness of Alex working
more and Alex would often find out about this spending when a credit card lender
would call to inquire about a missed payment.
It quickly became clear in interactions with the couple that the relationship had no
roadmap for repairing these betrayals and, like an open wound with an infection that
was not being tended to with medications, these ruptures were causing the trust in the
relationship to deteriorate and each partner responded by function more
independently of one another. Repairing past hurts can be difficult for each partner for
a number of reasons, but learning a predictable pattern for creating a thorough,
complete repair of past hurts can be a game changer in relationships. When couples
learn the elements of a complete repair and practice these skills together, issues that
have been unrepaired and causing hurts for years are suddenly no longer a source of
ongoing stress in the relationship and couples can leave these discussions with a
renewed sense of understanding and commitment from their partner.
3. When you feel that you do not have a clear understanding of your partner's perspective and feel that they do not understand yours.
Did you know that there is a way to have a conversation with your partner that
guarantees a deeper understanding of their perspective and also that they leave the
conversation understanding your perspective on a deeper level? There is a myth about
relationships that you and your partner have to come to agreement at the end of
conflict and that the goal is to get your partner to agree with YOUR perspective. In
other words, the extend to which you and your partner agree on topics and work
through conflict by coming out of it on the same page is your degree of happiness in
the relationship. It actually doesn't work that way.
What we actually crave in our relationships is for our partners to understand and validate
our perspective. Once we feel truly heard by our partners and understand that the goal
is not to persuade our partner to accept our point of view you may be surprised to find
that you can accept that you both are stronger because of your differences and work
toward compromise. By committing to learn ways that you can validate and understand
your partner's perspective, conflict can do a 180 degree turn in the relationship and
relationship satisfaction can increase.
4. When you continue to feel genuine love, friendship and fondness toward your partner and there are no safety issues or abuse occurring in the relationship.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. All relationships require
work and if you genuinely enjoy the person you are with and feel like you are on the
same team that can be protective when you are going through tough times in the
relationship. Even the amount of the conflict that occurs in a relationship may not be
indicative of a poor relationship outcome if the conflict is productive, has resolution,
and there are healthy communication skills being utilized as you discuss areas of
disagreement. If you feel that you and your partner continue to feel love and friendship
towards one another despite having areas of your relationship that need extra support,
couples workshops and professional counseling services with a couples counselor may
be the best next step to take to acquire the necessary skills to
have a healthy relationship.
If you still aren't sure whether your relationship has what it takes to go the long haul, know that there are safety issues in your relationship currently, or know that you and your partner need to acquire new skills to make your relationship healthy, consider enlisting professional support. A relationship counselor who completes a thorough relationship assessment at the start of services can give you clinical insights into what parts of your relationship are a strength and some areas that need to be a focus in order for the relationship to thrive and grow in the future.
At Becoming Counseling we complete a Gottman Relationship Check Up at the beginning of services and can give you an snapshot of the health of your relationship so you can make a decision about how to best proceed. Reach out to learn more at email@example.com.
Ashton Fisher Jimenez, M.S., LPC-S
Therapist at Becoming Counseling & Clinical Supervision