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Can You Save a Dying Relationship?

The six crucial steps to reviving a dying relationship.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Throughout my 40-plus years of working with couples, I have witnessed many intimate partners in the midst of despair. They come into therapy emotionally disheveled, but still searching for a way back to the love they once knew.

Despite the different ways these intimate partners present, their stories have much in common. Some of them have become fragile enemies from repeated battles. Others are struggling to re-breathe the air of intimacy, choking in the armored atmosphere they have created together. Many, once-resilient, have ultimately caved under the weight of too many crises.

With the right kind of support, these withering relationships may still be healable. If the partners within them can yet get past their distresses and commit to the therapeutic process, many are able to stop their negative patterns and turn things around.

But, sadly, not all relationships can regenerate. Some have become so rigid that repair seems almost impossible. The partners within them seem lifeless as if both have long lost whatever joy their partnership once thrived upon. They look as if they are buried together in an emotional tomb of their own creation.

Yet, sometimes, they do come into therapy, unable to bear what they are experiencing, yet unable to let go. As we explore, they often explain their reasons in the following ways:

  • They are in the midst of unexpected, continuing crises that have used up all of their emotional, intellectual, or financial resources, but hope they can still recover.

  • Concerned family or friends still believe they can regenerate and have persuaded them to give it one last try.

  • They feel lost and are no longer able to trust their own experience.

  • They are fearful of entering the outside world without each other.

  • They don’t want to later regret their decision and feel that they should have tried harder to save the relationship.

  • They don’t want to hurt others who would suffer if they quit.

  • They are heavily invested as a couple in mutual friends, families, financial holdings, memories, and the spiritual vows they would have to break were they to leave one another forever.

If you find yourself identifying with any of these situations, please do not lose hope. Even if your love feels severely diminished, you still might still be able to reach into places in your hearts and minds that you have forgotten are still there. With the right support and direction, you might still be able to turn things around.

To make that possible, you will need to embrace these six requirements:

  1. Even though you have lost aliveness with each other, you have somehow maintained your capacity for it in other parts of your lives (infidelities aside).

  2. You feel energized and awakened by deciding to give it one last try under the guidance of a non-judgmental supporter. That person can be a spiritual guide, a therapeutic professional, or a group of trusted friends who offer to intervene.

  3. You are open to unearthing how you got to be where you are and to take accountability for whatever each of you has done to contribute.

  4. You are willing to look at any and all unresolved past and current relationship traumas that have allowed your relationship to harden over time, and work to resolve them, individually or together.

  5. Even if currently discouraged and exhausted within your relationship, you are committed to sacrifice all other priorities until you are able to heal each other and the relationship.

  6. You will suspend your despair and commit to making your relationship thrive again.

  7. You are not yet ready to face never seeing each other again and fear that you might be making a terrible mistake to let your relationship go without one last authentic try to make it work.

If you can entertain those requirements, even at this level of distress, don’t give up easily. The outside world is not necessarily a better choice. If you can bring your once-loving relationship back to life, you can actually have the best of both worlds.

If you are willing to try, the following steps can guide you on your journey.

The Six Crucial Steps to Reviving a Dying Relationship

Step One–Revisiting Positive Memories

Hopefully, you were once enough in love when you made your long-term commitment to each other. After a time of dating, you willingly became a couple in the eyes of others and a team in the eyes of each other. You deeply intended and promised to hold on to those commitments and to resist anything that might break them. You believed with all of your hearts that you would fulfill your individual and relationship dreams with and for each other.

Those memories have been chronicled in pictures, in the minds of important others, and in the stories you’ve shared over the years. Sure, there were times of distress, but there were many others of joy and contentment, of meaningful involvements together, and of shared sacred moments.

Go back to revisit those times together. If you can, reach out to others who were there with you who can remind you of what you were like when your relationship was still alive and prospering. Take out old love letters, and read them aloud to one another. Go back to places where beautiful, intimate moments were shared and relive them together.

Try, in every way you can, to reactivate the times when your relationship was thriving, when every day brought more intimacy, closer connection, and the absolute certainty that you were perfect for each other.

Step Two–How, When, and Why Did Your Love Begin to Fade?

The paths each of you have taken in your lives, both separately and together, have affected your current relationship. Some of your experiences were not under your control. Maybe one of you may have faced an unpredicted illness, a broken career, or the death of a loved one. Perhaps you are unwittingly and unconsciously projecting negative memories from your past on to your partner.

Have other priorities in your life have taken resources away from your current relationship that were once prioritized for its survival? Have your conversations deteriorated from exciting and interesting interactions to mundane exchanges? Have you become a couple whose primary interactions are about complaining or blaming?

Have you stayed kinder to others than you are to each other?

Perhaps you’ve begun sharing the better parts of yourselves with others and giving only the leftovers to each other, turning the relationship into the equivalent of a “pitstop,” while running the exciting “races” outside?

How, and in which ways, did you stop being the person the other partner fell in love with? If you’ve maintained those once-attractive characteristics but are now only expressing them outside of the relationship, what can you do to bring them back in your own relationship?

Step Three–Symptoms of Increasing Failure to Connect

Though a tortuous situation can shock even a resilient relationship, most wither slowly over time. But, when they are not able to regenerate, these symptoms are the most likely to emerge:

  • Lack of interest

  • Withdrawal of energy

  • Withholding and armoring

  • Blaming the other partner

  • Double standards

  • Betrayals

  • Increased conflicts

  • Easier to harm, longer to heal

  • A lack of personal responsibility for one’s own actions

Before you turned away from one another and life and began to feel alone even when you were together, you must remember that you didn’t give up easily. You most likely faced many frustrating setbacks and found yourselves unable to regenerate your healing process.

If you started to feel that the other partner didn’t truly care anymore, or that you cannot go to one another for love, support, or understanding, you started to spiral downward. If one of you began to give up, the other will have certainly withdrawn hope as well. Your inability to find a way back to each other has become an apathetic acceptance of what feels inevitable.

Like so many others who have begun to lose connection with each other, you have probably sought outside interests to feel more alive somewhere else. Perhaps you’ve put your energy into your career, your family, your friends, your faith, a cause, or, sadly, another intimate relationship.

If this has happened to you, you’ll feel less accountable for revitalizing your relationship with each other. You may have begun to rationalize your own defeated behavior by blaming your partner for the problems. “If only he/she, then I….” “I’m the giver, adjuster, accommodated here. I’m just not going to do that anymore.” “She/he needs to get with it. I can’t imagine any man/woman who would put up with this.”

As one or both of you rationalized your own “innocence” at the expense of the other, the symptoms of a withering relationship increased. Any chance of regeneration can only begin if and when both of you are willing to look hard at whatever your own behaviors were that brought you to this place, and vow to change them.

Step Four–The Commitment to Make Your Relationship Your First Priority Again

Once both of you realize how far you’ve come from your original loving relationship and take full accountability for whatever each of you has contributed to the current situation, you’re ready to commit to whatever it will take for you to create a different future together.

Both of you must individually look at why you’ve allowed your relationship to die. At the same time, you must agree, for now, to give up the diversions and alternatives you’ve been involved in outside of your relationship. You’ll need all of your available resources redirected to your current partnership.

This path is truly similar to becoming emotional immigrants. You have to essentially leave everything that has not worked behind without having any guarantee whether what you create will be worth it. Your relationship is in an existential crisis: You can’t go back to who you were together, you can’t stay where you are, and you don’t know what the future holds. The only option is to put yourselves fully into the process of letting your relationship continue to wither away.

There are two essential questions both of you must answer to determine if you have the stamina and willingness to take this path together. The first question is:

“If you never saw this person again in your life, what would be your response?”

The second is:

“If you don’t put all of yourself into this new possibility, even if it doesn’t work out, will you both look back and regret that you didn’t give it your best shot?”

In order to determine whether you have a real chance, you should answer the first question with a resounding, “I would be devastated!”

The second answer should be, for both of you, “I would likely regret it for the rest of my life.”

Once you understand that, no matter what you do, it might not work out, you must still be absolutely willing to take that risk.

Step Five–“Knowing What You Now Know and Understand, Would You Choose to Be My Partner Again?”

Imagine for a moment that you are encountering someone for the first time, but you know everything there is to know about each other before you meet. You’re understandably wary of what you know to be that person’s negative qualities, but you still are intrigued by the positives. How would you handle that meeting?

You are striving to create a new relationship with your partner and to overcome what destroyed the other. Going into this hopefully “new” relationship, you must know better what you can offer, and what you’ll need going forward.

To have any chance for your relationship to heal and grow, you must now authentically share the following with each other:

  • What you’ve missed between you

  • What you need now to regain faith in yourselves and each other

  • What would help to make you the best relationship partner you could be

  • How you would care for each other in the future when times are hard

These commitments form the beginning of a much more realistic set of relationship vows for a new future together.

It may be very painful to go through these challenges as you expose the things you have withheld from one another and the hurts you have caused. As that happens, do not blame yourself or your partner in any way. Try to focus on what each of you can give and need going forward that could make your new relationship exciting, meaningful, and deepening.

The beauty of this risk-recommitment duality is that you know exactly who you were when you fell in love. You’ve known each other in many roles and in many situations. You are building from a foundation that once was beautiful even though it may now feel in decay. You can leave failure behind because you know what caused it and what you must do now to leave those heartbreaks in the past.

Be one-hundred percent honest. Talk to each other about what would be the most wonderful relationship you could have emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and compatibility-comfortable. You may not be able to give each other everything the other wants, but at least you will know what you want.

This is the time to hold nothing back and to openly talk to one another about the relationship’s resources and options. Fairness, decency, kindness, integrity, are all crucial emotional stances to give you the best chance to make this happen.

Step Six–Seek Professional Help

Once deeply-committed partners who have become rigidified, antiquated, and boring people to one another cannot easily navigate the regeneration process by themselves. Just the process of learning how to communicate effectively, how to get to the core of heartbreaks, understanding what each partner needs beyond what he or she is asking for, staying calm and hopeful in the process, are just slivers of what it takes to turn a fossilized relationship into a vibrant one again.

A qualified professional separates out the variables, clarifies the steps, and helps each partner through the frustrating process of giving without the security of knowing those sacrifices will be returned.

Each partner must have individual trust in the therapist and know that both will be fairly represented, supported, and understood. The therapist’s “patient” is the relationship and he or she holds the faith that the partnership can regenerate even when the partners, themselves, may not yet be able to do that.

If you decide to reach out for professional help, be certain to choose a therapist who believes that a relationship that is struggling can not only be brought back but can come out of its darkness better than it ever was before. When you are having a hard time believing in that possibility, you need to be in the hands of someone who holds that promise for you until you can make it happen yourselves.

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