An Evaluation Questionnaire for Couples in Distress
Most long-term intimate relationships go through similar stages. They begin with passion, move to commitment and stability, weather their own unique challenges over time, and then wither or regenerate.
How life partners navigate their joyful and sorrowful times will determine where that path takes them. If they grow a stronger bond as they face challenges together, they have a better chance of building a relationship that deepens in love and connection. But if instead, their challenges come too often, last too long, or leave too much scar tissue in their wake, even the best of them will go down over time.
Sadly, I see most couples when they have been struggling for a while, unable to recapture what they have lost. Exhausted and discouraged, they don’t know how to find their way back to the love they once trusted. Their cumulative negative interactions and inability to sufficiently heal them have taken their toll.
Yet, they don’t want to give up.
“We’ve weathered so much in the last eighteen years. Money worries, a really sick kid, too many career moves, parents divorcing, you name it. We both feel we’ve given it all and we’re not getting any better. We can hardly look at each other without being combat-ready and we don’t seem to be able to help each other feel better anymore. We ask each other all the time, is it just time to move on? Yet, we’re still here wondering if there’s anything we could still do.”
“We both dated a lot, wondering if there were truly anyone out there who could both love our values and stand our liabilities. When we met, we just couldn’t believe it. Everything worked. We never fought, and every hardship that came our way just made us stronger."
"Then, a couple of years ago, we had some true setbacks. Our baby got really sick, Ken lost his job, and my parents moved away, into a retirement home. We kept wondering when we’d get a break, but it just never came. We started fighting over stupid things, and then we couldn’t seem to find a way to come out of those arguments anymore. I know we don’t want this to end, and we’ve done everything we know how, but I know we’re in real trouble.”
These examples of sorrowful expressions are cries of cumulative anguish, but these couples still can’t imagine living life without each other. They know that they can no longer tolerate the relationship as it is, but can’t imagine giving up and moving on.
These are my most challenging and yet deeply motivated couples. The knowledge that they may be close to the end seems to have given them a last-ditch burst of energy to give it all they have. That combination of desperation and commitment is touching and real.
The best way I can help them know if they have a chance is to have them answer the following questions aloud and in each other’s presence. The more of them that they can answer affirmatively, the greater the likelihood they can find their way back to each other.
1) Does compassion still exist?
I often ask partners what they would feel if the other suddenly became very ill or face unexpected challenges outside of the relationship? Their answers can be telling. For a relationship to have hope, both partners must feel a resounding sense of compassion and instant concern when they envision a crisis of that magnitude.
2) Does the thought of being apart forever feel more like grief than relief?
When couples are in trouble, the weight of the relationship’s negatives often feels too hard to carry. The first response of being apart can sometimes feel like a relief, but if I ask them to envision a foreseeable future, they realize that grief would soon overtake their present feelings of just needing to stop the pain.
2) Do you feel that you will be okay if you have to leave behind all you have created together?
People who have been together for a while have forged attachments that go far beyond the relationship. Social friends, families, children, financial investments, spiritual commitments, promises, and future dreams have taken hold, and the couple must be willing to give them up if they leave the relationship behind.
3) Do you imagine that life would be better overall without each other?
This is a crucial question. I often asked the couple if they are running away from the life they have created or running to something that feels more livening, more hopeful, and more likely. That is especially true if they feel that new life would be hampered or essentially not possible were they to bring the other partner with them.
4) Are there any deal breakers you feel you can’t get beyond no matter how much good still exists?
Sometimes there has been a transgression by one partner that the other is trying desperately to forgive and move past, but has just not been able to do. Infidelity is probably the most notable, but it can be other things as well. Compulsive commitments to drugs, alcohol, work or hobbies, spiritual quests, or any other pursuit that requires significant time away from the relationship. The lack of fair distribution of resources like these, such as time, love, energy, etc., will leave most relationships floundering over time.
5) Can you learn to quiet your reaction to triggers from the past and choose better responses?
Couples who have been fighting more than they’ve been healing over a long period of time can become very reactive to one another. A prolonged exposure that might have at one time trigger a dispute, can now happen with just a glance, a voice tone, or physical behavior that sets things in motion.
People who understand that they have become rapidly combat-ready without listening deeply any longer, must not only recognize their increased reactivity but must be willing to quiet it down, return to better patterns of inquiry, and seek other alternatives to blowing up or withdrawing.
6) Can you still laugh together, about anything?
Humor, when it is not sarcastic or one-sided, is at the heart of all good friendships and the capacity of a couple to heal. Laughter makes any situation easier and puts things back in perspective. When humor turns into humiliation, mockery, intended discomfort for the other, or just mean teasing, it has lost the magic it could have had to heal.
Couples who still love each other find themselves still laughing at the same scenes in movies and at the antics of friends.
7) Are there any others waiting in the wings?
Danger. Relationship partners in trouble, no matter how much they still care about each other, cannot compete with the lust, excitement, and magic of pending or already available new relationships.
8) Are you both taking accountability for what has gone wrong?
One-sided blaming is a knife in a faltering relationship. It is important that both partners are totally willing to look at what they have contributed or withheld that has harmed the relationship.
9) What are your individual histories of coming back from discouragement and loss?
How have you weathered crises before in your prior relationships? Do you consider yourselves able to draw upon deeper resources when you are overwhelmed? This is all about personal resilience, the capacity to bounce back. When either partner is having a hard time, he or she relies on the other to keep things going until the stress is resolved. The knowledge that both can, and will, do that is crucial to transformation when things are hard.
10) Are there present and/or cumulative challenges in your life that are threatening your relationship resources?
Sometimes the relationship is not the fault, but the victim of outside influences that diminish a couple’s capacity to hold things together. There may be extended illness, or long-term financial problems, or difficult children, or personal failings that created unexpected emotional and physical exhaustion.
It is crucial that a couple separate out which events are not the fault of the relationship, and how they can solve them together as a team. Couples who feel isolated and without social or psychological help can fall prey to the weight of just too many pressures they cannot weather without their relationship faltering.
11) Do you still look forward to seeing each other?
This answer to this question is often the most telling. Many of my desperate couples still seek one another out and seek the solace of the other when either is hurting. It is only when time passes that the difficulties start again. Yet, away from each other for any period of time, they miss each other in the same way they always did.
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The more that both partners answer these questions in the affirmative, the greater chance they have for rebuilding their love. Even if they can imagine ever feeling “yesses” to these questions again, they should still be hopeful. All of the answers essentially tap the same core, “I don’t want to live life without you. Please don’t give up on us.”