When it comes to relationships, there are some obvious deal-breakers: you’re sweeping for dust bunnies and find a small cache of weapons under his bed; he bets on every GAME of chance from Pick Six to ponies; he spends more on porn than on groceries. And there are times when relationships simply run their course—one morning you both wake up and realize you’ve lost that loving feeling. Then there’s the murky area where many dwell. After chugging along for awhile, maybe your relationship has started to sputter or maybe you’ve just had your first big fight. And you wonder: Is this fixable? Is it him? Is it me? Or is it the relationship?
If you’re ready to take an honest look at the dynamics of your relationship, here are some tips to help you find some answers.
All About Me
Although it’s never fun to list your own shortcomings or innumerate your contributions to the relationship unrest, it’s important to hold up a mirror, particularly when your relationship is on life support. Rob Scuka, executive director of the National Institute for Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda, Md., says to ask yourself some hard questions: Am I constantly blaming him? Am I taking an honest inventory of my own contributions to what is going on? Do I have a lot of negative judgments about him? Am I open to my partner’s feelings and concerns, or am I insisting that things be my way? If the honest answer to any of those questions is “Yes,” Scuka says, you might be contributing to a corrosive dynamic in the relationship.
Now, look at your relationship pattern. Is this the fourth boyfriend who has accused you of fibbing, cheating, or being selfish? “Is the issue your partner is having with you something I’ve heard from other people? And have you heard this same complaint from your brother-in-law, or other people with whom you aren’t romantically involved?” says Dennis Palumbo, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles. Most issues don’t exist in a vacuum, so if growing list of people in your life keep flagging something, it may be time to admit it: your relationship has a problem and that problem is you. Time to pull yourself together, cut through your denial and take responsibility for your own behavior.
Taking His Measure
Of course, it’s not always you. And if you have a tendency to blame yourself, know this—refusing to call him on his issues won’t help your relationship run more smoothly. You’ll just become a doormat, and that’s never pretty.
First and foremost, flag any expressions of contempt coming from your partner. It sounds like this: Your cooking sucks. That idea is really dumb. “These subtle (and not so subtle) snipes can have an insidious effect,” says Palumbo. “The thing that keeps couples happy and healthy over time is the sense that your feelings matter to your partner,” says Palumbo. A litany of putdowns will destabilize you and quickly erode your sense of well-being.
Also, watch how the relationship is making you feel physically because that can be a sign that your partner is generating strife, says Dr. Michael Aronoff, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center and a co-host of Doctor Radio on Sirius.
“If your blood pressure starts to go up, you have difficulty sleeping, or see a dramatic change in your appetite, that might mean the other person is really taking a toll on you,” he says. Note the quality of your interactions. Are you sharing true intimacy or just sharing an apartment and a few meals? Look at the emotional undercurrents. Is your partner talking to you about his life? His fears? His dreams? Do you feel the door is open to share yours with him? Or are you essentially roommates who have sex every once in a while? Most importantly, says Palumbo, “has he stopped replenishing the fuel you need to be intimate?” If so, it may be time for a frank talk with him—and a serious assessment of whether his behaviors will change or whether you should move on.
Two to Tango
Scuka, who’s seen dozens of couples come through his office, says sometimes couples need to work on a relationship individually and together. Telltale signs that the issues are shared ones? “If both of you don’t feel satisfied and understood by the other person, you both feel that your emotions aren’t being taken seriously,” he says.
So when should you pull the plug? It turns out when the Beatles sang, “All You Need is Love” they weren’t talking about thriving, healthy, mutually satisfying relationships.
Dr. Aronoff says the first step is to look at the glue—trust, shared values, and attraction—that holds intimate relationships together. “If those aren’t there, it’s to think about making big changes or moving on,” he says.
Palumbo says he hears the death knell in a relationship when one half of a couple has grown in a new direction and the other isn’t ready to accept those changes. “I tell people to ask themselves: ‘Is my partner interested in me growing and changing?’ If you’ve found a new passion, does your husband not want you to change careers?” Relationships have to grow and change, he says, or they become hollow.
Even if you didn’t “start” the problem, there’s good incentive to try and fix it (if the relationship is worth fixing). Studies show that people in satisfying, mutually respectful relationships are healthier, live longer, and are more economically secure. True connection is also one of life’s great pleasures. It’s not easy to get there and the path is not always clear. Be honest about yourself. Be honest about him. Go with your gut. And be ready and willing to get professional help when the going gets rough. “It’s you, the person in the relationship, who has to determine (where a relationship will go),” says Palumbo, “You have to have regard for your own feelings. That’s the only way you’ll be able to determine if it’s time to stay and work it out or move on.”