After her husband died, I watched my 80-year-old next door neighbor live out halfhearted days in quiet sobs. During one of my visits to her home, she confessed that she spent equal parts of her marriage frustrated as she did happy. “There were times when I wanted to pack my things and just leave him,” she said as her eyes swelled with new tears, “but I never did.”
My neighbor braved the typical (sometimes extreme) ups and downs of a relationship for a full 60 years. Her pride was not in that she had found a relationship, but in that she had kept it for so long. And the only secret to an everlasting marriage, she revealed, was this: “Hold your spouse closer to your heart than you hold your own ego.”
Nowadays, we believe that people are exchangeable. Quick are we to think, “He’s no good, I’ll dump him and find someone else.” And quicker are we to find a new lover who displays the exact same — if not worse — tendencies as the one we just left. We are taught to be independent, and this is an incredible discipline; we are self-made and self-sustainable. But taken to the extreme, this attitude is guaranteed to interfere in our relationships. No one can be exchanged for anyone else. Your partner is not a pair of pants you picked up at Macy’s. Your partner was placed in your life for a greater reason in divine timing. He or she is a human being brimming with flaws and awful failings… but also abounding with potential integrity. Beware of abandoning someone just because they require a bit of inner repair work. You do, too. This is not to say that you should ever settle for an unhealthy situation, but a successful relationship entails honest work and the payoff can be extraordinarily rewarding in terms of not just finding, but keeping, long-term love.
If you believe you can sift through people until you find the perfect package, you will remain highly disappointed throughout your relationships. You may find someone different, perhaps a bit better, but who will still need “fixing.” We enter a new relationship bearing the open wounds of our former experiences, hungry for healing and emotional nourishment from our partner. And each person we encounter will test our capacity for sacrifice, compromise, patience, and tolerance. A real relationship that endures through time is one in which you have poured forth more love and understanding than you ever thought possible of you.
It’s admirable to believe in the unique power of your relationship, and even wiser to realize that no, you won’t magically stumble upon a fairytale romance. If you currently find yourself in a relationship that’s weak, broken, or on the brink of collapse, but that you believe deserves your effort, don’t give up. Consider these seven ways to save your struggling relationship:
1. Re-evaluate the reasons you’re together.
Go back to the beginning. Ask yourself: What drew me to this person to begin with? What qualities did they possess that I found valuable? What made them so amazing? And are they still? Reevaluating the reasons you came together reminds you of the reasons to stay together, and this strengthens your already-existing foundation. Ask your partner what they love and don’t love about you; be open to constructive criticism and self-improvement.
There is a right way and a wrong way to communicate. The right way is asking your partner a relevant question, listening to their response, then offering your opinion. The wrong way is overwhelming your partner with your irritations and worries as soon as they walk in from a particularly long workday. Practice effective speech by engaging your loved one in a conversation of their interest. Ask questions that matter to them; people open up when you inquire about their day, an important project, their feelings, etc. Once you’ve listened to what they have to say, offer your side of the story. Stay away from heavy conversations in stressful times, and especially in the heat of emotion. Calm down, then approach the topic again. Don’t just sound off with your concerns; delve to the core of the matter by drawing your partner into the dialogue first.
3. Do something special together.
Perhaps you two have a favorite restaurant you haven’t visited in ages, or you can return to the place where you first fell in love? Being in a physical space where you have powerful memories of strong attachment can reignite passion. Or, you can try something you’ve never tried before. The excitement of something new produces serotonin and dopamine in our brains. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary; even sitting on a park bench watching the children play as you hold hands can be magical if love exists. The important thing is that you stop talking about taking that vacation, or trying that new spot, and follow through on your intention to reconnect together.
4. Cut out external influences.
Often it is outside voices that seep into our private relationships and brew toxicity. Understand who’s playing a less-than-positive role in your relationship and commit to keeping that person’s energy out! Keep your relationship as private as possible and divulge as little details as you can. Don’t automatically admit your love woes to others. Chances are they don’t hold the answers to your problems. Open up the gateways of communication instead and confess your concerns to your partner.
5. Forgive each other.
To forgive is to detach — from the bitterness, anger, and animosity holding you back from progress with your partner. Forgo the negative emotions keeping you from true forgiveness. Remind yourself that whatever happened, happened, and that there is no reason to drag the past into your future. Lingering on hurtful memories only perpetuates them. Be mindful that forgiveness is a process, not a result, so perform small, daily acts that are reflective of your intent to pardon.
6. Come clean about one thing.
We all hold a few secrets that would deeply hurt others if they found out. This is normal. Certain things should simply be kept to ourselves. But honesty can trigger wonders in your partner’s opinion of you. Admitting one secret or mistake to your partner may make them want to open up, too.
7. Set boundaries with each other.
And keep your word! If you set a rule for your partner, set a similar one for yourself as well. This means that if your partner promises not to stay out late on a Saturday, you should abide by the same principle. A relationship is a two-way street. Tell your partner honestly what you would like them to do (or not do), then be prepared to accept the boundaries they set for you, too. Maintaining a relationship within comfortable bounds avoids arguments, explosions, and setbacks. It aids mutual growth if both partners are respectful toward the other’s wishes. It also promotes a sense of security and trust that each is acting in good faith.
While we should never remain in a relationship that jeopardizes our well-being, all relationships will require our earnest effort and compliance with our partner’s needs. Not giving up on someone and trying our very best to make it work are honorable tasks to undertake. Use my seven ways to save your struggling relationship and reap the benefits of an unbreakable loving bond.