This is a common question for couples to ask when they first come to couples counseling. Oftentimes couples seek a counselor because things are really tough; sometimes they’ve been tough for long time. Maybe they fight a lot without really understanding each other, or they feel distant and disconnected. Sometimes they come in because one or both of them feel betrayed and they don’t know if they can overcome that or where that leaves their relationship. When a relationship is challenged in this way, it’s natural to wonder if it is time to end it- break up or divorce.
Sadly, this question has no simple answers. However, to help you navigate towards finding an answer to his question, I have provided a few guidelines and questions for you to reflect upon that may assist.
First, there are a few common mistakes that couples make when facing this question of whether to continue working on a relationship or to end it.
1. Leaving the relationship before determining what doesn’t work and why. If we don’t first clarify why the relationship isn’t working, we may end up stuck in the same patterns and problems with a different partner. It’s very important to understand the nature of the problem; what are our patterns and for what aspects of those patterns are we responsible. Striving to understand the nature of the problems makes it easier to know what is possible for the relationship.
2. Believing that if it was the ‘right’ relationship, then it would be easier. When a couple is encountering problems, they sometimes think it means that they are not right for each other. This can result in leaving the relationship too early, and possibly encountering the same problems with a different partner. The idea of the ‘right’ partner is one of the big myths of relationship. The truth is that all relationships require work.
3. Thinking “if we haven’t found a solution by ourselves, then it doesn’t exist”. When we are inside a relationship, emotions and personal histories can blind us to what is actually happening and why. A counselor, someone with an outside perspective, can help couples find solutions that they might not think of on their own.
Even if they don’t have the above misconceptions, many couples find themselves caught in a cycle of negativity that they don’t know how to stop, and as time passes the cycle gets more intense. It may look and feel pretty awful when a couple first enters counseling, but once they begin to recognize the cycle for what it is and learn ways to step out of it, they will begin feeling better and more hopeful about their relationship. They can see that, while there are still issues that need to be addressed, they are now on a path to creating a better relationship together.
For other couples, the pain and dissatisfaction has gone on for so long that it has maxed out their energy and motivation for working on the relationship. For some of these couples, sometimes the burn out is too great, and ending the relationship might be the best choice. For others, finding a way towards achieving very specific, attainable goals can give them the hope they need to renew their interest in working on the relationship.
Another thing to take into account is change. Sometimes, due to personal growth and life circumstances, the partners’ needs and wants may change. What they originally wanted from the relationship no longer applies to who they are. For those couples, ending the relationship may be the best option, so that both people can find partners that better fit their values and life goals.
To help clarify your thoughts on where you are in your relationship, here are a few questions that you and your partner can ask yourselves:
1. What are the main challenges that we face in the relationship? What’s missing in the relationship? The more specific you can be about this, the easier it will be to work on those things with your partner.
2. If there’s a way to overcome these obstacles, do I want to pursue it? How motivated am I to work on this relationship and how motivated is my partner? If you could overcome these obstacles – would you feel happy and content in your relationship, or would you still feel like you don’t know if it’s worth it? Try make it clear rate your motivation on a 1-10 scale.
3. Is the pattern that I have with my partner familiar to me? Is it possible that I’m repeating something that I have encountered or may encounter in other relationships? For example, if my partner complains that I am critical of them, and I heard that feedback already in the past then it would probably be better to first work on this pattern instead of moving on to another relationship that might bring out the same issues.
4. What can I change to make this a better relationship? Am I willing to do that? Of course, both partners need to work on the relationship in order to make it better. That being said, sometimes when one partner is very committed to making that change, it can influence the other partner towards being more committed to making changes also.
5. In good moments between us, how much love and affection do I feel towards my partner? All couples go through tough moments and good moments. In your good moments do you feel close to your partner and in love, or do you feel distant like you don’t care that much? in other words how much “glue” does your relationship have? Again, you can try and rate it on a 1-10 scale.
6. What is the cost of me leaving? If you and your partner are married, if you have children together, if you have been in relationship a long time – all of these are factors when you are considering whether you want to continue investing time and effort in the relationship.
When we are under stress and feeling challenged by our relationship, it can be difficult to answer these questions. A couples counselor can assist both of you in getting a clearer picture of what is happening in your relationship so that you can determine the best course of action. Another option is to come for individual counseling so you would have your own space to reflect on these questions and issues.