Searching for moments of connection.
Sadly, many couples come to see me when their relationship is in trouble. Sometimes, they’ve tried to do as much on their end first and have finally run out of emotional resources. But, too often, they’ve ignored the deterioration, perhaps hoping things would turn around on their own.
No matter what their reasoning, they come in raw and feeling discouraged. It is predictable that the first few sessions will be filled with stored negative emotions that must come out first. When the couple realizes that is expected, temporary, and supported, they are less likely to allow those necessary interactions to keep them from their commitment to hang in there.
Though things may seem bleak and hopeless during those early sessions, there are often almost imperceptible actions, voice intonations, facial expressions, and behaviors that I have learned to recognize as hope amongst the despair. When I see them emerge, even for a mini-moment in time, I know that there is still motivation to hold on.
When they appear, I ask the couple to stop for a moment and recognize them. When they can, they appear to see things from a different perspective. Sometimes, they actually begin to look for them with me.
Following are the nine most common signs that tell us if the relationship is still viable.
Caveat: Both partners must recognize those moments are believable so that one or the other will not respond with sabotaging invalidations.
1. Walls-Coming-Down Moments
When a relationship is in trouble, the partners invariably have put up walls to protect and repel any anticipated behaviors that may re-wound. As those walls thicken, there is less chance that either partner will be able to ever trust the other again.
If, even for a fleeting moment, they drop those walls and let the other in, there is hope that the walls can still crumble.
2. Shared Nostalgia
Relationships are often sustained by both partners remembering times when they were once happier with each other. If the partners are willing to share those experiences and noticeably soften as they miss the people they once were, I know they still have the capability to create more of those moments again. We can begin to explore their current heartbreak as a time when they have temporarily lost each other and can find each other again.
3. Attachments to Extended Family
Even when couples feel as if they may have lost each other, they have often committed deeply to each other’s families. They have created an emotional community that goes beyond their own personal relationship, and cannot bear the thought of no longer being in touch with once-strangers they have now grown to love. They’ve been willing to sacrifice the relationship between them to maintain those connections.
4. Sparring With Humor
No longer being able to laugh together or even in the presence of the other is a sure sign that relationship partners are in trouble. Laughter is a state of vulnerability and sharing that bonds people together in an open way when it is shared. As a relationship connection wanes, one of the first things that happens is humor becomes more sarcastic and more biting, before it disappears. If I can help a couple take out the anger and realize they can still spar without the bite, I can help them to bring back those moments of healing.
5. Pride of the Other in the Outside World
Even when a couple is deeply disappointed in one another, they have not always lost their pride in their partner outside of the relationship. They still respect and honor the traits and behaviors they were once so attracted to when their relationship was intact. When they can share that with each other, they often seem positively surprised that those two processes are not necessarily intertwined. That leads to hearing appreciation from the other in the current moment, something they may not have said aloud in a long time.
6. Response to the Fear of a Forever Ending
When relationship partners are facing a thickened wall and the trajectory seems glum, the partners may never have taken seriously how each would feel if he or she never saw the other again. They have never faced that potential looming in front of them. Permanent separation erases the importance of one person to the other forever. When I share that with them, the couple often looks startled as if they had not realized the likelihood of that outcome. I ask them, “Would you feel more relief than grief if you never saw each other again, and would you later regret not trying harder to stay together?”
7. Sharing Important News
People who trust, value, and love each other look forward to sharing the things that matter to them. They want to know about all of the important things that have happened when they’ve been apart. They are each other’s “go-to” person, eager to keep each other informed. If I can see that, even if it lacks the enthusiasm that most likely once accompanied it, I can show them that they still truly care about what is important to the other.
8. Concern for the Other Partner’s Well-Being
It is a tell-tale sign that a relationship is still potentially viable when the partners respond strongly to the other’s physical or emotional crises not related to their relationship. Even when they seem unmoved by what is happening between them, they still respond with concern if the other is in trouble from another source. When I ask either partner to talk about his or her current internal state of distress and can see a caring response, the relationship is not over.
9. Imagining the Other With Someone Else
Unless there is suspicion or evidence of current infidelity, many partners feel an intense response when I ask them what it would feel like imagining their partner in the welcoming and supportive arms of another. “Is he or she giving to someone else what they have stopped giving to me?” "Should I want my partner to be happy, even if he or she is no longer with me?” “Can I bear that scenario?” Just that realization, brought out into the open in a session, can be a game-changer.
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