When the going gets tough in your relationship, you can take the easy way out (and you should if you don’t love your partner anymore), but there can be plenty of upside in sticking the hard times out and trying to make it work. How you do that is up to you — there is no right or wrong way — but these tips on putting the pieces of a shattered partnership back together again are a great place to start.
1. Check yourself first.
When we’re not connecting with our partners in a positive way, it’s easy to concentrate on their negative behavior — where they’re falling short and letting you down (and annoying the hell out of you while they’re at it) — instead of focusing on how we’re contributing to the situation with our own behavior.
“The trap within this mindset is that it focuses on what the partner is doing or failing to do but doesn’t make the individual accountable for their own choices and behaviors,” explains Anna Osborn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. “Doing a gut check on how you as an individual are showing up in the relationship — and being willing to admit it — can have a profound positive impact on the relationship. Doing this can also help couples make communication safer by demonstrating that each person can admit their mistakes and work together to create change without it being held against them.”
2. Revisit what each of you value.
Most couples consider calling it quits because their feelings for one another change. What they don’t realize is that feelings are supposed to change; none of us are the same at the beginning of a relationship as we are just a few years later. But common values, like along with affection, loyalty and fiscal responsibility, are what hold a healthy relationship together — along with plenty of quality time. When couples work together in pursuit of those values, they’re more likely to re-experience positive feelings toward one another.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Jill Gross says, “When couples feel out of sorts, it’s because either their values are changing and they aren’t talking about it with each other — sometimes because they aren’t aware of these changes themselves — and/or because they are not spending time consciously living their values.”
If this sounds like what’s going on in your rocky relationship, Dr. Gross recommends taking inventory of your shared values.
• Find a list of values (just a Google search away!), sit down together and talk about the list while each of you circles his/her top five values.
• Identify one or two of the five that you two have in common. Brainstorm something you can do together in service of these values. “For example,” says Dr. Gross, “if you both notice that affection is on the top of your values list, I encourage to get creative about setting aside a regular, prescribed amount of time dedicated solely to the practice of giving and receiving affection.”
• If you find you have no common values in your respective top-five lists, Dr. Gross encourages you to seek outside assistance (relationship coaching or couples counseling) to help you dig a little deeper for creative ways to pursue your common values together.
3. Make an appointment with a couple’s therapist.
Not all couples can fix their issues on their own. And there’s no shame in that. If your attempts to work on problems usually end in arguments — ones where nobody walks away appreciating what the other was trying to express — an unbiased, highly trained, third-party mediator may be just what you need to make progress toward healing old wounds. But for counseling to work, you both must be willing to take your sessions seriously, recognizing that therapy may be crucial to your relationship’s survival.
To make the most of your time and money, go in with open minds and focus on listening to what your partner is saying — without getting defensive. Immediately responding with attacks won’t accomplish anything except building more resentment at $100-plus an hour.
4. Plan a getaway together.
Whenever my boyfriend and I eye aren’t seeing eye-to-eye (or we’re simply getting on each other’s nerves more frequently than usual), I like to plan a getaway. We go somewhere we can forget whatever’s going on at home (and work) and just spend a couple days reconnecting. Our fighting doesn’t mean we don’t love each other anymore — quite the opposite, in fact; our heated moments show we love each other enough to spar about whatever’s driving us crazy about the other — and sometimes a few days unplugged and focused on our relationship help get us back on track.
5. Stop talking and start listening.
Many of us — gay men, especially — like to talk at instead of listen to our partners. We think we’re right about everything (seriously, what’s that about?), but by and large, we’re probably not (and a lot of times we know it), so why don’t give our partners an honest chance to tell us what their feeling? The mending process will move along much faster if we just shut our mouths every now and again.
“Ask your partner what they need, and tell them what you need,” advises relationship expert David Bennett, who owns the relationship-coaching company Double Trust Dating and Relationships with his twin brother. “Be honest and tell them they can be honest. In many cases, even couples who have been together for a long time have no idea what each person really needs to do to make things work. It could be as simple as listening more, offering to help out more around the house, or even giving the other person more alone time — which, by the way, research shows is very important to the health of a relationship. If neither partner can make an effort to work on meeting the needs, then it’s time to break up. However, a couple may find saving the relationship doesn’t take that much work.”