It is hard to change a relationship by yourself.
I’ve spent more than four decades helping intimate couples turn their troubled relationships around. My initial assessment of whether they have a chance to rebuild their love and commitment has everything to do with how much motivation they have to do the necessary work.
Are they willing to look honestly at their own contributions to what’s gone wrong? Can they still listen deeply to each other?
Can they re-open discouraged hearts?
If they say “yes” to all three of those questions, they have a good chance of success. Sadly, it is often only one partner that comes in. That “lone fixer” is often frustrated and resentful. They’ve typically pleaded with their partners to participate in getting help and been given adamant reasons why they refuse to come. It is hard enough for a willing and committed couple to change the course of a relationship in trouble, but doubly difficult when only one partner is left to do it on his or her own. Their stories are often heartbreaking and filled with impotent longings or fears of reprisal. Here are some common examples: "He won’t come with me. He just thinks that this is all my fault, that I’m exaggerating things to get attention. I don’t want to leave the relationship, but I’m beginning to feel more and more anguished. He told me that if I bring in some stranger to witness the relationship, I’m on my own. But I just can’t take it anymore. Can you just help me, even if it’s only me?" “She tells me every day what a jerk I am, and then she won’t talk or tell me what she wants. I’m crazy about her, but I’m beginning to believe that she needs to be miserable, and I’m always going to be the reason. I’ve tried everything I know to make things better, but nothing changes the situation. She knows I’m here, but she’s really pissed off about it. She told me that all couples' counselors end up making things worse, and she’s totally against it.” Is there anything one partner can do on his or her own if the other refuses to come for help? Is it possible to “save” a relationship without the other partner’s participation? The answer is, “yes.” It’s not ideal, but it sometimes can make a real difference. If you are the “lone fixer,” the following directions may help. Better to Model Than to Plead
Many lone partners have done everything they can to get the other to change. Frustrated and defeated over time, they have become nagging, ineffective pursuers of transformation. By the time they have come in for help, they agree that they are no longer interesting or valuable partners. Our work, then, must consist of your recommitting yourself to who you used to be when you felt more desirable and more optimistic about your love lasting. If your partner makes a comment like, “You seem really different. Are you having an affair?” you’re probably reclaiming the person he or she fell in love with. Running Away or Going in a New Direction?
When relationships have gone sideways for a long time, many partners can only think in terms of what they can no longer bear, instead of what new direction they need to take. They realize that they have been helplessly repeating phrases and actions that don’t change anything. If they begin to think about who they are and under which conditions they would be happy and fulfilled again, they can imagine and plan a parallel dream that feels more under their control.
Examining What Has and What Hasn’t Worked
When trying to change a relationship on their own, single fixers often are buried in all the things they’ve tried that have failed. They have lost sight of whatever did make a difference in the wake of all that hasn’t. The counseling hour is a safe and coherent place to re-examine that perspective and begin thinking in a new way. Sometimes, just sharing what you still love about the relationship helps the other partner to drop his or her defenses and listen in a new way.
Love Can Be Blind
As the seeking-help partner begins to unravel the situation, they often realize they have ignored obvious signs that clearly demonstrate that the other partner is no longer interested in the relationship, but hasn’t had the courage or honesty to say so. It is very difficult for anyone to face that truth, and the straying or uninterested partners are often too fearful or cowardly to tell the truth. They may have other reasons for staying in the relationship, but not necessarily because they are still in love.
Re-Assessment of the Relationship
Very often, weary, resentful, and alone partners have forgotten what they have to offer in a relationship, and what they need in return. They have been compromising for so long, they’ve lost track of what they can no longer bear, or do without. Most relationships start off with a greater percentage of good over bad. They are mostly terrific but have some obvious flaws. Unfortunately, the not-so-good parts of the relationship may eventually become more than the relationship can bear.
Many partners who have to seek help alone tell me their unmet desires that have, in fact, never been met. They have not been able or willing to let go of them and continue to hope that they will experience them one day. Attachment to hope for a highly improbable outcome is a deeply human foible. Many people continue to believe that something will happen, no matter how unlikely, because it keeps them from facing an untenable disappointment that they cannot live with anymore.
It is often easier to find fault than to correct one’s own experiences. It is crucial to look at past relationships and assess whether or not the same feelings and thoughts existed when you were with other partners in the past. Ask yourself the following question about your current and past relationships. Do you think that your partner is asking too much of you? Were you promised more at the beginning of the relationship than you can now count on? Do you feel taken advantage of? Have other partners thought you asked too much or were not fully giving yourself? There can also be legitimate differences in desires and choices. One partner, needing certain behaviors more than another, may feel a specific imbalance is unfair when it is simply not equal.
Sometimes people have just never learned how to communicate their needs in an effective way. They feel they’ve tried everything, but have done and said things that have not worked simply because they didn’t know a better way. Even though it is always better when those skills are learned concurrently, one partner can become adept at them by him or herself, and successfully transform the relationship. If the other partner responds favorably, he or she may feel more encouraged to join the counseling sessions later on.
The Price of a Relationship Human beings are traders by nature. Every relationship is a give-and-get interaction. New lovers give and give and rarely ask for anything that is not offered.
In actuality, every relationship offers and costs. When both partners fully understand and commit to both, they sign a contract in good faith. There are no expectations that are not already clearly laid out in advance, so after-the-fact complaining is not acceptable by either partner. The sadness is that people often change over time, find themselves pulling back on initially expressed favors, or have new desires that invalidate the initial agreement.
Are you still willing to pay the price for this relationship? Is the partnership, as it is, worth it to you? Can you give up the attachments that are making you participate in the contract you originally agreed to? * * * * * * * *
Yes, it is always more hopeful when both partners come into counseling to help their relationship get better. But it is not always foolhardy or useless for only one to come in by him or herself.
The caveat is that the person seeking help may find themselves outgrowing the existing relationship and decide it is no longer worth it to try to make it better if they have to do it alone. There are many sad ways relationships end, but the one I feel the most sorrow about is one where the partner who initially refused to participate, finally realizes that he or she was wrong and now wants to be part of the process.
But it is too late.