The Fragile Relationship

by Barbara Swenson, Ph.D., Director, THE COUPLE CENTER

I am frequently struck with sadness when I meet a couple whose relationship is dangling by a slowly fraying thread.  Typically this couple has been together for some time, often many years, while wounds and resentments have stacked up so high in one corner of their relationship that at least one of them seems to have already  ‘checked out’.

This partner appears distant, guarded and does not express much optimism that couple therapy can be of any help.  The other partner seems more hopeful and desperately wants the other not to give up. Since it takes two to heal a relationship, the therapist’s  job becomes that of determining whether the reluctant partner really is “done”,  or, if their distant, pessimistic stance is the way they are protecting themselves from further hurt and rejection.  This is not a question the therapist can pose early in a first session.   Each partner must begin to experience the therapist as fair, able to see both sides, and able to communicate some understanding of each of their points of view.

I have found the best way to determine whether ‘done’ is really “Done with a capital D,” might be a questions like… “So, do you think you’re just done; that you feel there is just not enough positive here for you to be willing to invest any more emotional energy in this relationship?  Or is it more like … it’s very hard for you to imagine things feeling good again ,  but if by some miracle it could, you would cautiously welcome that?”  In my experience, the reluctant partner of considerably more than half of these ‘fragile couples’ admit to feeling the latter.

It helps to explain how feelings we interpret as ‘I’ve stopped caring’ can really mean, ‘it’s too painful to care!’  or, ‘I care a lot, but I don’t think this person can ever be someone I can trust.’   Much like after not getting a promotion you really wanted you were to tell yourself,   “I didn’t really want that job anyway; it looked like a lot of work.”

If you aren’t sure whether you’re done with your relationship or whether you’re feeling too fragile to allow yourself to care and risk being hurt some more, be sure to find a therapist who can both support you in staying long enough to see if the relationship really can be healed and can also help you and your partner reduce the destructive, hurtful ways of communicating that have made the relationship feel so unsafe.  Reducing these destructive dialogues can open up space for connection.

If you’re really done, chances are you know it already. (Clearly, if you’re in an abusive, dangerous relationship that has few positive characteristics and a partner who takes no responsibility for any of the problems, gather some support to help you make the transition and leave.)  But if you’re on the fence, you owe it to yourself to determine whether your pull toward leaving is largely self-protective.  If you miss the positive times, have a partner who is taking some responsibility, and you’ve got a lot invested in the relationship (kids, in particular)  you just might be able to create something even better than you ever had.  Don’t always believe everything you feel.

If you need some help figuring out whether to go or stay in your relationship, we can help.  We have LOTS of experience here.

Call us:  510 277-3111

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