By the time most couples come to my office for marriage counseling, they have tried everything they can on their own to work through the difficulties they’re encountering.
Now they’ve run into a wall that is either caused by accumulated sorrows, a significant crisis, or both.
They’re depleted; their internal resources and energy are dangerously low. Often feeling bruised and defeated, they come to counseling with a desperate plea for direction and advice.
Their eyes beg the question: Should we learn how to fix a broken relationship and try to create a better one, take some time away from each other to reformulate, or just give up?
Before you can fix a relationship, you have to identify whether or not it is truly broken.
3 signs of a broken relationship
1. It’s become a one-sided relationship.
It could be that there is no reciprocation in the relationship anymore. In other words, you may scratch your partner’s back, but when you can’t reach an itch, they couldn’t care less.
2. There’s a lack of intimacy.
Intimacy is something every relationship needs, so if you aren’t getting that anymore, the relationship is broken.
3. There’s no trust anymore.
Trust is the foundation of all relationships, so without it, your relationship is in trouble.
Those are just a few. The list could go on, but if your gut is telling you that something is not right in your relationship, it’s time to take ownership and work on fixing it.
This begs the question …
Can you fix a broken relationship?
Relationship coaches and therapists can help you determine if your broken relationship is worth fixing.
Some couples can repair what’s broken in their marriages or long-term relationships. So in that first critical session, we must make the tentative decision together as to whether or not there is hope for regeneration.
The answers to these six questions can help you determine whether healing your relationship is possible:
1. Do both of you want the same thing?
2. Is there enough energy left in the relationship to provide the fuel needed to repair and recommit?
3. Have you resolved traumas from the past, or are they buried and showing up in repetitive patterns don’t serve you?
4. Do one or both of you run away before giving resolution a chance?
5. Are there underlying, hidden issues that are sabotaging your chances to reconnect?
6. Do you both still want to try?
In the next few crucial hours of therapy, we often search for those answers amidst a storm of hostility, hurt, injustice, or the need to justify winning.
Sometimes, one partner has the role of the injured party, and the other is remorseful and humiliated.
At other times, they are two people who have been building up relationship conflicts that have never been resolved and have now become emotional cancers out of control, now finding a voice because of a current crisis. They have an exaggerated and helpless style of battling, and they are unable to hear the other among the din of their own pain.
Other couples are in a war of silence; the first to speak with any attachment to connect loses power.
As we process what has brought them into therapy and identify the origins of their distress and the negative patterns they’ve rehearsed, I look for nine qualities in how couples interact with one another that signify whether they will be able to work toward making real progress in overcoming their obstacles. These key indicators reveal to me — and them — that hope exists.
Despite the most terrible of betrayals, the most anguishing of hurtful behaviors, and the most discouraging disappointments, these subtle but crucial revelations can predict the outcome of whether or not they can find their way back to the love they once knew.
Important note: Unhealthy or abusive relationships are not the same as broken relationships, because if there is abuse — of any kind — it is not a relationship. In such cases, I recommend leaving and focusing on your mental health.
How to fix a broken relationship
If the answers to the questions above lead you to believe your relationship can be saved, try the following nine tips to find healing.
1. Be attentive to what your partner is saying.
When one partner is speaking, whatever their tone of voice, the other partner is looking and listening to them. Even if there is disagreement, it is evident that what the other has to say is still important. Listen to your partner’s feelings intently.
The partners may have a history of interruption, over-talking, dismissing, or minimizing, but will stop those behaviors when I ask them to and redirect their attention to what the other is saying. If I ask either of them to repeat what the other partner has communicated, they genuinely try.
When I ask them what they think the other is feeling or meaning, they want to learn to tell me. When either partner begins to cry or can’t talk, the other stops the interaction until that distressed partner can resume. I see that both are capable of stopping their own drives to be the “righteous one” and remembering that there are two of them in the room.
2. Show concern and compassion for one another.
Couples who have lost each other’s trust and support, whether just recently or over a long period of time, may still show concern when expressing authentic heartbreak.
Suppose they are not able to use soothing words or gestures, especially if being blamed. In the moment, they can try to show consideration for their partner’s distress by their body language or facial expression.
It is as if they know the breaking point and do not want to go there. Compassion rules over dominance when the other partner drops into a genuine place of heartache.
3. Remember times that make you both laugh.
There are times when I’ve been with a distressed couple where it appears that the hostility between them has taken over the relationship. They are arguing about the way they are arguing. They are unable to find anything in the other worthwhile to listen to. They are interrupting, invalidating, and yelling at one another. I feel like a referee in a professional emotional boxing match.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one of them refers to an experience they’ve shared in the past or something that is happening between them, and they both start to laugh. The tension is immediately gone, even for just a moment, and both look at one another as if they are really just good friends playing at hating each other.
Even if the fight resumes, it is evident that what they are talking about is not all of who they are, and I know I can get them down under their self-destructive interactions.
4. De-escalate conflict.
Every couple knows how far is too far. Sadly, that underlying knowledge does not always keep them from walking too close to that cliff, and many relationships end because of that sacrilege.
I can gauge the capacity for de-escalation when I see a couple recognizing they are too close to saying or doing something that the other cannot get past.
Seemingly out of nowhere, and certainly out of character, one or both stop the interaction or take it to a more caring place. They have a shared knowledge that certain words or ways of being may hurt too much to ever heal from, or some actions from the past cut too deeply.
It is clear that they have an invisible pact that keeps them from going over the edge.
5. Don’t bring up issues from the past.
It is natural for most people to use the past or other people to add clout to whatever they point out as valid in the moment. That is especially true when one partner feels they are losing the argument and feels that fortifying it with examples from the past or endorsements from other significant people will bolster its effectiveness.
Couples who are good communicators stay with one issue at a time and talk about what they need from each other in the present. They don’t try to persuade the other of a position that will satisfy them at the expense of the other.
If one of them begins to falter, the other brings them back to the problem at hand, and that tactic is not only accepted, but appreciated. Talk one problem out at a time, and when you have reached an end, forgive your partner and move on to move forward.
6. Re-establish a basic level of trust.
No matter how angry, hurt, or vengeful a couple acts toward each other in that first session, I can see that their distress with the situation in no way suggests that their partners are fundamentally flawed or damaged people incapable of change, redemption, and acceptance.
Challenges of acts of behavior are very different from character assassinations.
The issue at hand may have sorely undermined the relationship in their current crisis or long-term distance, but they would never state that the other person was unworthy of their love or basic respect.
Rebuilding trust, though extremely hard, is not impossible. It may take a long time, but if couples stick to their plan, trust can be rebuilt.
7. Be accountable for your actions rather than blaming one another.
Pointing fingers as to who is to blame is a power play and can quickly turn into emotional abuse. There is a bad guy who must be apprehended, and the good-guy victor wins the battle — but loses the war.
So many fights between couples sink in this assignment of accountability and whatever “appropriate” consequences result from them.
There is that magical moment in therapy when both partners realize that they’ll play a winning game when each owns their individual contribution to what has gone wrong. It sometimes takes some skill-building, but it is unmistakably remarkable to witness when the interaction turns in that direction, and then to one of working as a team.
They are no longer fighting against each other, but for each other.
8. Turn your negative energy into something loving and constructive.
There is no hope where there is no life. I’ll take a passionate, angry, upset couple any time over two people who sit in the room wishing they could be anywhere else and disappearing into two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
The door to the outside office might as well be made of concrete and bars; instead of the room I regard as a haven, it becomes like a prison.
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9. Spend quality time together.
Attention is one way to bring a broken relationship out of the grave. By focusing on each other, couples start to feel special and needed in the relationship again.
Schedule regular date nights and clean up and get dressed up for each other. On the date, practice some physical touch, such as holding hands or hugging. Put a lot of effort into making sure you have one-on-one time together every week.
Having time to talk is also important. Talk to your partner about your day and what issues you have going on. Spending time with each other reminds you that you are not alone in this world and there is someone who will always be there who you can share your problems with and come up with solutions together.
Sometimes, it is hard to visualize an angry or wounded couple showing any of these nine rays of hope in the midst of their anguishing conflicts.
But if you don’t overlook them, they are often just under the surface, waiting and wanting to emerge.
I know that a couple wants to get beyond their distress when they’re excited about those “a-ha” moments when I identify them. This bolsters each one of them with the confidence in themselves and their relationship to immediately desire to commit to replacing their old behaviors with new ones.
In order the heal a relationship, couples need to realize that those repeated negative patterns are the culprits that have gotten them in trouble, and they both need to work to be rid of them.
The couple that is capable of this has a strong fighting chance at finding their love again and knows what they now need to do to regain their stability as a team when they identify and challenge those negative patterns.
Though it may take many new moments and a long time to leave the darkness behind, the light is on.
You don’t need therapy to identify and initiate these responses in your own relationship. You can find these rays of hope if you are willing to put yourself aside and make your relationship more important than your need to prove who’s right.
But if you do feel lost and unable to identify them on your own, don’t hesitate to find a competent observer to help you find your way.
Find a way, and you will get there.
Dr. Randi Gunther is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor, as well as the author of the newsletter Heroic Love.