One of the most common questions I’ve had posed to me as a coach is “Can I save my relationship?”
The answer is always “Yes – but you need to be sure you actually WANT to.”
Wanting to save a relationship in trouble is a natural response. The relationship is with someone we love, have established ongoing activities and connections with and human beings typically resist change because of fear; all completely understandable. Throw in some programming about longevity equaling success, that divorce is terrible, or staying together for the sake of the children and we can be overwhelmed into remaining, whether or not we actually want to. Here’s what most of us actually want… we want to keep what works and improve or let go of what isn’t working; and that’s where it becomes challenging.
Relationships suffer for many reasons, but at the heart of almost all challenges facing us is a lack of clear, kind communication. When one partner is unwilling to communicate with the other clearly and kindly, the relationship erodes. Back to the question – “Can I save my relationship?” You can, but in the event that the other person doesn’t wish to communicate with you clearly and kindly, you may find yourself sailing a ship with a huge hole in the bottom (ie. poor communication). As long as you’re willing to continue to bail water, you can effectively stay aboard and you will have “saved the relationship”. Or, you could go to your partner and say, “We need to build a new boat or abandon ship.”
Communication is hard; it is THE work. You know when people say that, right? “Relationships take WORK.” They mean it. And we’ve all heard the advice “You need to communicate more” or “You need to nurture it”; but what do those things actually mean? Well to me the idea of nurturing connects to the intent to come together rather than find things to disagree upon; finding the common ground, using empathy, hearing your partner and creating a safe space to talk (more on safe spaces later). Communication that is clear and kind is best when it is also vulnerable. Okay, I know. I just added another buzz word, but it’s true. Let me show you what a difference vulnerability makes.
In a situation with one of my clients, they felt that their partner’s expectations were that they would do most of the work in the home. My client thought this was old fashioned, gender-biased and insulting, especially since they both worked the same amount of hours. The individual was upset that this had been the case since they moved in (about 6 months). We agreed that a talk was in order. That DOESN’T mean saying “We need to talk” which is phrase that strikes fear into every heart. It means that at a time when things are relatively relaxed and there is no need to be anywhere, we check in and ask “I want to see if this is a good time for us to talk about something that came up for me”. If they respond by saying it’s not a good time, then we ask “Okay. I can bring this up again later tonight around 8 pm. Does that work?” Maybe they can’t concentrate on anything important right after work or before work or during their lunch break. Setting a time makes it more formal, yes, and it makes sure you get a chance to chat.
Clear communication could look like my client saying, “I feel upset because I am responsible for most of the housework”. This is a good start, but it isn’t enough. Kind and clear might look like this, “I know you’re tired after work just like I am. It’s hard for me to get the housework done alone. Could we find a way to do it together so it’s easier?” Even better. Okay, but let’s throw in vulnerability. “I know you’re tired after work just like I am. It’s hard for me to get the housework done alone, and I really miss spending that time with you. Could we find a way to do it together so we have some time to share our day and make the chores easier?” Now THAT is hard to resist.
Let’s return to the boat metaphor. When you’re with the right person, that person not only will HELP bail the water, but will also be looking for a safe place to harbour while you mend the hole or build a new boat. And that’s the key. Finding out if you’re with the RIGHT person. We often assume we are because we love them. Love is not enough to make a relationship succeed. The wrong person will leave you to do all the work or they might help just enough to be able to say “See? I helped.” They might even make the work harder by steering the boat into rocks so you have more and more to do to save you both from going under.
I would advise any of my clients to first assess whether or not this relationship is good for them. There may be good things about the other person, or even good outside experiences because you’re in a relationship – like other connections with friends and family – but to truly assess the relationship itself, independent of these aspects, is a bit of a process. The best way I’ve found to tackle this with clients is to objectively (as objectively as possible) look at how aligned they are.
When I talk about alignment in a relationship I mean asking, “Are the other person’s values in alignment with yours and are your needs met?” We make a list of these fundamental “non-negotiables”, though we often find they’ve been negotiating those for a long time. In any case, we list five of their most important values and five of their most important needs. (We aren’t even addressing “wants” yet – that’s level two.) Then we go through each and I ask them to give their partner a rating out of ten in terms of how often they demonstrate the values or meet the needs. Add those scores up and we end up with a percentage. That number is often a shock to the client. They may have thought the relationship was in deep trouble but ended up with a 90% or higher, in which case we’ll look at why their fears are driving them to worry. Or they may see that in fact, their partner really is only 40% in alignment with them, in which case they have some decisions to make about moving forward.
Once they have a clear indication of where they are at, we look at whether they actually do want to save the relationship. In either case, it is incredibly helpful for them to see the areas of weakness, and if they intend to stay, knowing those areas need work means they can ask their partner to focus there with them. Also recognizing the areas in which their partner shows up strong can be a great asset because they can bring focus to those and bolster their partner with their love and appreciation. If they recognize there are fundamental misalignments that may be out of their control or influence, the exercise can help them feel more confident in leaving the relationship. If they decide to stay and put the work in to save the relationship, then we come back later on, and go to level TWO with a list of WANTS. It’s imperative to distinguish between needs like “I need my partner to feel fulfilled raising animals instead of kids” as opposed to a want which might be “I would love to own an animal one day, but it’s negotiable”.
Staying in a relationship that isn’t good for us never equates to success. We all know there are those who refuse to leave, for whatever reason, and who live a miserable life because of it. If we’re staying to spend our time in the hull of the ship bailing water instead of enjoying the journey we’re on, then we need help figuring out why that is. To me, leaving the relationships that are not good for us so that we can continue to grow and advocate for our needs, that’s true success. We want to choose each day to invest in the relationships we do have, mindfully and intentionally, not stay because we fear the unknown.