8 Steps Toward Healing When Your Relationship Is Falling Apart
If your relationship has been on the rocks these days, you're certainly not alone: January tends to be a rough one for couples, with the first Monday after the holiday break informally dubbed "Divorce Day" by lawyers because of the immense flood of divorce inquiries they receive. Last year, divorce support service Amicable expected over 40,000 people to Google the word "divorce" in January, and some reports show it to be the most popular month of the year to break up.
What's up with all the early-year turbulence? Part of the timing has to do with the holidays that have just passed—these family celebrations can be stressful for couples, both because of the chaotic family celebrations and traveling but also because of the need to perform an aura of joy. Even if the relationship is falling apart, most people can't bring themselves to initiate a breakup once the holiday season takes off around early November. But once January rolls around and a sense of normalcy sets back in, the gloves can finally come off.
Now of course, if you're facing the possibility of a breakup right now, you don't need to lose hope just yet. Just because you're in hot water doesn't necessarily mean you need to throw in the towel. If you care deeply about your partner and you're both committed to making the relationship work, there's almost always a way to rebuild. For couples who are struggling and mutually do want to try to work things out, heal, and ultimately stay together if possible, here's some advice on how to proceed:
1. Don't make any rash decisions.
Many people enter a particularly rough patch in their relationship—an awful fight or transgression, a grueling and unspoken sex drought, a dysfunctional pattern that has repeated itself one too many times—and begin to head for the exit. But that's giving up too soon, whether out of fear, frustration, or laziness.
"The longer the relationship and the more invested (think kids), the more you should take your time and be sure about what to do," certified sex therapist and couples counselor Jessa Zimmerman tells mbg. "Absent any abuse—substance, alcohol, physical, verbal—I think we have a lot to learn by staying and trying to make things work. We're going to carry any unresolved issues or work into our next relationship."
Not only will you save yourself the trouble of falling into the same patterns the next time around, but the truth is, many couples really can work through their difficulties if they're both willing to put in the effort. So how do you know a relationship is worth fighting for? "Length of time, co-owning a house, children all influence and demonstrate a level of investment that may be worth fighting for," Zimmerman says. "When you have looked at your part of the problem and done your work to change (and feel good about that) and you're still unhappy—that may be time to end the relationship. Avoid the tendency to make rash or sudden decisions in a difficult moment."
2. Get brutally honest.
Don't sit around trying to fix your relationship all by yourself—it just won't work. Get your partner involved if they aren't already: Talk to them honestly about your concerns, and let them know that you're contemplating whether the relationship can really work. Don't threaten them with a breakup, but make sure they truly understand how seriously you're taking these issues.
"Try not to blindside them, especially if you haven't shared those concerns before. Give them a chance to change," Zimmerman says. "Be kind but totally honest. This is the time when there's nothing to lose."
3. Seek therapy.
Get some professional help! Both Zimmerman and Margaret Paul, Ph.D., another couples counselor, emphasize the importance of having an outside expert's perspective, someone who understands the common pitfalls couples fall into and has experience helping them out of them.
Dr. Paul suggests even going alone if your partner resists the idea of therapy—although attending together is ideal, the insights will be valuable either way.
4. Understand how you're contributing to the problem.
Beware the trap of blame. You may be upset with something your partner is doing; at the same time, make sure you're taking time to seriously reflect on the ways you've also contributed to the dynamic, energy, and problems between you.
"Most people are clear on what their partner is doing that is causing the problems but not clear on what they are doing," Dr. Paul tells mbg. "You take yourself with you, which means that you will take with you into your next relationship any unhealed patterns that are your contribution to the problems. Unless there is physical or emotional abuse, I suggest people stay until they have healed their end of the relationship system and are taking responsibility for their own feelings."
If the problem is less about something either of you is doing to upset or hurt the other and more about a difference in views or lifestyle, you should both acknowledge this difference—respectfully and without resentment—and consider whether a compromise is reasonable or achievable. (It may not be, and that's OK.)
5. Focus on healing yourself.
This is separate from just recognizing your own contribution to your relationship's troubled waters. This is about recognizing the inner work you have left to do on yourself.
"Many people who leave are no happier than they were in the relationship," Dr. Paul says. "If you have been making your partner responsible for your feelings and you are blaming your partner for your unhappiness, then it likely isn't time to leave. You have your own inner work to do."
Oftentimes, many of the problems that emerge in our lives are directly related to underlying mental or emotional struggles we ourselves have been dealing with all along, Dr. Paul says: "If you ignore your feelings, judge yourself, turn to various addictions to numb your feelings, or make your partner responsible for your feelings of worth and safety, then you are rejecting and abandoning yourself, and you have inner work to do to learn to love yourself. People tend to treat us the way we treat ourselves, so focus on how you are treating yourself rather than how your partner is treating you."
During this trying time, you need to love yourself now more than ever. What can you do to manifest more self-love right now?
6. Recognize your partner's pain.
It's easy to fall into the trap of ruminating over your relationship and getting caught up in your own difficult emotions around it, but relationship and well-being coach Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH, emphasizes the importance of taking time to see things from your partner's perspective. You're not the only one who's struggling right now. Right now, the person you love most is also going through something very painful. Can you find a way to show up and be there for them?
"Turning toward your partner and recognizing their pain can take you out of the attack-defend mode that many unproductive fights take on," Melamed says. "Remembering you are on the same team and the only thing you are fighting for is the relationship to thrive is key. When someone 'wins' an argument, that means that someone has to be a loser—is that how you want to see your partner or have them see themselves?"
7. Spend some time reflecting on the good.
As you're working to rebuild your relationship, remember to take a breath from focusing on all the bad and spend some time reflecting on the good parts. What are some of your fondest memories together? What things about your partner bring your joy, inspire you, or amaze you? Don't spend all your conversations talking about the heavy stuff, Zimmerman recommends; make a point of trying to have some fun and ease, too.
"Tap into the reasons you got together in the first place—access that love—but also know you can't go back," she says. "Commit to a process with this person to bring your relationship to a new, good place."
Things were good, once. They can be good again. It may never look exactly the same as it did before; it may very well become even better.
8. Say "thank you" more often.
One simple, ongoing way to make sure you're focusing on the good is to simply make a point of expressing gratitude to your partner each day.
"Gratitude practices are popular strategies for individuals to be present and manage anxiety but could also help you in repairing your relationship," Melamed says. "When you are at odds with your partner, it sometimes takes practice to be more present to how you are treating each other day to day and moment to moment when you are focusing on whatever the issues are that might be driving you apart. Instead of taking for granted the things that your partner does on a daily basis to make your life together easier, better, run more efficiently—acknowledge and thank them."
Say "thank you" out loud when your partner does or says something loving; convey how grateful you are to them for the work they're putting into this process, for the coffee they brewed you this morning, for picking up the kids after school, for the peck on the cheek they gave you before heading out the door. These small acts of affection and words of appreciation can together begin to rejuvenate the positive energy in your relationship.
"This will strengthen your ability to appreciate one [another] and create an atmosphere where you understand how you collaborate in many ways," Melamed says. "It may also inspire you to do more for one another as the positive feedback that comes in creates a positive and more supportive environment."
Keep these tips in mind as you move forward working with your partner. With dedication, understanding, care, and generosity, you can make it through this turbulent season with time. Remember: On the other side of this winter is spring.