Over the course of my career as a couples therapist, I have noticed a pattern among the couples that walk through the (virtual) door of my therapy practice.
Most couples fall into one of two categories: distressed and non-distressed. I am fully aware that categorizing my clients may lead to inaccurate stereotypes, which is why I resist placing my couples into either one of those categories.
But, as I write this article, I feel justified, supported by my clinical experience and, most importantly, called to present my clinical experience to you, the reader. If what I have to say does one thing to save your relationship and keep you and your partner together, then I will have accomplished my goal as a writer, relationship advocate, and eternal optimist. So here goes.
In the following paragraphs, you’re going to get the best argument I can possibly give you that will hopefully elucidate why it is so important for you and your partner to:
1) keep trying in your relationship, and
2) not giving up on the possibility that you can have a better relationship.
How to Keep Your Relationship From Falling Apart
In all my experience working with hundreds of couples, the minute you stop working, trying, and making an effort, that is the moment you’ve lost your relationship. Now, for some people, that is okay. There are a lot of reasons why people choose to end their relationship – and I am not in the position to judge anyone, nor would I want to.
But, as my wife and I pass into another phase of life – yes, we’re firmly planted in middle age as I’m 43 and my wife is 39 – some of the friends around us whose weddings we attended are now slowly beginning to see their marriages come to an end. Both my wife and I find ourselves more frequently on the phone these days, lending support to our friends whose relationships are falling apart. Perhaps that has something to do with my vocation as a couples therapist and my wife’s natural ability to be more empathic than me.
Avoid These Three Little Words
Now, unfortunately, when it comes to relationships, it does not take two people to end a relationship, as it does to start one. That’s because, at any time, one partner can call it quits. The partner ending the relationship need not ask permission of the other. They simply need to utter the words, “I am done”. In my practice, I’ve witnessed the pain associated with those three little words and the tsunami-like ripple effect they cause.
Fortunately, for myself, I have never heard those words from my wife – although I’m sure at times she was close! I have a theory that has a lot to do with her upbringing, as she comes from an intact family that espouses strong family values and places a lot of emphasis on understanding and commitment. Sadly, my twice-divorced parents didn’t offer me such a positive example of till-death-do-us-part.
Okay, back to the impact that those three little words have on a person. Let me repeat them here. Perhaps you can utter them to yourself for me. Let’s say it together. Ready? One, two, three:
“I am done”
Profound little words, aren’t they?
You see, they are not just profound to the person who hears them. In fact, I would argue that they are more profound to the person who utters them.
What My Experience as a Couples Therapist Has Taught Me
Well, in all my experience as a couples therapist, of all the distressed clients that come to my office, without a doubt, one partner shares with me that they can remember, with absolute clarity, the moment that they realized to themselves that, when it came to their relationship, they were in fact DONE.
Yep, with absolute accuracy, to the very clothes they were wearing that day or the menu that comprised dinner, they can remember with extreme clarity the moment that they realized they were done.
Now, for those same partners, many of them waited weeks, months, and sometimes years before they uttered those words to their partner. But, when they finally had the courage to admit out loud that they were done, there is one thing that was strikingly eerie about the consequences of those words being said. When they were, in fact, uttered, there was very little the other partner could do to reverse the outcome.
My wife and I met online, through e-Harmony (which sounds positively antiquated in today’s world of Tinder!) and, after three short months, we were engaged. I knew she was the one after our second date. Now, our romance wasn’t always a fairy-tale. And, in fact, our marriage faces the same challenges as the next. I know that has a lot more to do with the circumstances and life stage we find ourselves in (raising two kids under 7). But, what I want to say is that we went through difficult times. We had to learn a whole lot about who we married AFTER we were married. In retrospect, we barely knew each other when we both said “I do” and it took years to fully know who we married. But, we kept at it. I tried a lot. And, my wife isn’t the kind to run when the going gets a little rocky.
And, that’s what happens with marriage (and relationships) a lot – they get rocky. It’s inevitable. But, what doesn’t have to happen is muttering those three little words. No one needs to say, “I’m done”. In fact, there is always a chance to turn things around. But, I will say, as a couples therapist, it is extremely difficult to do just that once those words rear their ugly head.
If you don’t possess the level of stubbornness that my wife and I have, then you’re going to need to work. You’re going to need to make an effort to make your relationship a success, long-term. But, so too will your partner. They need to make an equal effort as well.
Both of you have a responsibility to make things better because, if you don’t, then those three little words could signal the death knell for your relationship. It doesn’t take a scientist to prove that the odds of you coming out of couples therapy with an intact relationship decrease dramatically if you begin therapy as a distressed couple as opposed to when you come to therapy to work on your relationship as a non-distressed couple.
Distressed Versus Non-Distressed Couples
All that said, do you know my diagnostic criteria for categorizing distressed versus non-distressed couples? Well, it has to do with whether or not those three little words have been spoken out loud.
And that does mean that thinking about saying those words and saying them out loud are two VERY different things. I don’t know why, and I have no scientific evidence to reference when I say this, but those three little words – without a doubt – spell more endings for relationships than most other things I know.
I don’t need a peer-reviewed journal article to support this claim. I know that each and every one of my couples therapist peers who are reading this article are nodding their heads. They understand the struggle in helping their clients keep their relationships together after one of the partners has uttered those words.
Here’s what I suggest you do, should those words crop up in your daily thoughts. Before you give into them, before you give yourself and your relationship over to them, tell your partner that you’re thinking them. Yes, really.
Tell them that you’re scared that you’re seriously considering ending your relationship. Do it in a way that you’re not interjecting it into the middle of an argument as some kind of threat, ultimatum, or scare-tactic. Instead, sit your partner down and, with compassion, tell your partner that it’s time you really consider working on your relationship, before it’s too late. This can be done with a skilled couples therapist. Or you may reach out to your pastor, a friend, or another non-biased third-party. It doesn’t matter.
The bottom line is, make some effort to convey the seriousness of what you’re contemplating. If you can communicate with your partner that things are bad BUT that you still want to try, then you fall firmly in what I view as the “non-distressed” category of a couple. Wait much longer, and you may find yourself on the other side, struggling to find a reason to work on your relationship and therefore seeing it come to an end.