While it’s inevitable that couples experience ups and downs over the course of a long-term relationship, there are times when conflict can reach a critical point and the prospect of a breakup begins to feel more real. Deciding whether to stay or go can be tough. Often, the relationship can feel compromised due to a variety of concerns that have not been adequately addressed. While it can be challenging to identify the real issues and determine the best course of action, doing so may lead to clarity and confidence as you move toward a decision. It can also help you to honor the good in the relationship and amicably move forward in your separate lives.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I greatly appreciate the extensive body of research that Dr. John Gottman and his team contributed to the field of couples relationships. When couples enter therapy, I find it helpful to review some of his core findings about relationships in order to provide an overview of the qualities and attributes that will help them to be more effective with each other.
Here are some points to consider if you’ve been feeling conflicted about ending a long-term relationship:
1. Trust and Commitment
Perhaps there has been a rupture in the relationship and you find yourself wondering whether trust and commitment, two essentials, still exist in your relationship. Sometimes these two areas become so compromised that day-to-day life together starts to feel toxic. When this happens, it’s important to take inventory and understand each other’s perspective about what’s not working.
As a pro-relationship therapist, I believe there is value in working through relationship challenges. In exploring and sharing important feelings, individuals may begin to feel a sense of relief and a feeling of finally being understood—two important components involved in repairing damage and trust ruptures. When each person is able to identify their experience in their relationship, feel heard, and reach a mutual understanding about what needs to shift, couples are often able to move from feeling stuck to feeling more accepted by their partner. This shift in perspective often has a profound impact on a couple’s ability to nurture a more positive atmosphere with each other.
2. Friendship and Curiosity
Do you remember what it was like when you met your partner? Perhaps a thrilling sensation would pulse through your body when you knew you were getting together. You felt alive, curious, and desired at the same time! Everything was new and exciting—even a mundane afternoon together somehow felt like the most interesting day of the year. During the early stages of your relationship, you likely engaged your partner in a way that made them feel special, asking a lot of questions, eager to understand all the complexities that made up their unique way of navigating the world.
It is not uncommon for this level of curiosity to fade over the course of long-term relationships—you get into a routine, you know your person, so why bother asking questions anymore? This type of thinking can be detrimental to your friendship. A solid friendship allows couples to weather the inevitable ups and downs of their intimate relationship and to support each other as individuals separate from their partnership. When we stop being curious about our partner, the relationship may become stagnant.
3. Conflict Management
Do you find that you’re constantly at odds? If you’re able to repair arguments often, conflict might not be cause for concern. Research conducted by Dr. Gottman found that it’s not necessarily conflict or negative contact that is the issue in relationships, but rather that conflict in the absence of positivity and repair is predictive of instability. Gottman notes that when there is a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions, the relationship is likely to be stable. Positive interactions include not only the obvious but also more subtle gestures, such as a glance in your partner’s direction when they are making a point or a follow-up question to an expressed need. Positive interactions demonstrate that your partner is present and responsive to you and your needs.
A solid friendship allows couples to weather the inevitable ups and downs of their intimate relationship and to support each other as individuals separate from their partnership.
In times of conflict, if you find that you are not able to repair and that any attempts to repair or make light of a situation are met with cold indifference, anger, or hostility, you and your partner may benefit from exploring your experience of each other more in-depth. The ability to repair can include the following: taking some responsibility for what went wrong, accepting your partner’s influence, and demonstrating a willingness to participate in a conversation about what happened and what could be better.
When thinking about resolving conflict in your relationship, how can you nurture an atmosphere of positivity? If it’s typically difficult for you and your partner to make repair attempts, you may need to work on the underlying dynamics that prevent you from being more effective with each other.
4. Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems
In his research, Dr. Gottman emphasizes the importance of understanding the critical difference between relationship problems that are solvable and the ones that will always be there. I find this distinction to be incredibly hopeful. Couples often enter therapy in order to gain the clarity, skills, and confidence necessary to negotiate, on an ongoing basis, the many different points of contention unique to their relationship. In identifying which problems are which (solvable vs. perpetual), couples can begin to more effectively negotiate and compromise. For example, perhaps you have a contentious relationship with your partner’s best friend or an in-law. These situations can pose a big challenge for any couple; however, they are quite common and need to be addressed on an ongoing basis. For perpetual problems, the solution typically involves reaching a compromise.
Although spending time and energy on working through a relationship challenge may sound simple, it can sometimes be complicated due to past hurts or a lack of trust in a particular area, making it quite difficult for many people. If this area has been problematic for you and your partner, you may benefit from couples counseling in order to gain awareness, insight, and the skills necessary to negotiate important topics with greater ease.
5. Honoring Each Other’s Life Dreams
Do you sometimes wonder whether you and your partner want different things in life? You and your partner may have significant differences in your life goals, and that’s okay. The important thing to consider is whether you’re willing to support each other in accomplishing your respective life dreams. In thinking about ambitions, it’s helpful to consider them in categories. For example, what are some of your personal and professional goals?
For some people, it might be easy to define personal and professional life dreams. For others, it might involve more thought and soul-searching. If you are having trouble identifying these areas, start by considering what makes you feel happy, inspired, and joyful. Then think about your partner’s goals. Is your list similar in some ways? Are there significant differences? If so, what do you anticipate might be some of the challenges? Honoring the life dreams of a partner may involve some compromise, so it’s important to consider what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not. This is an area that is worthy of thoughtful discussion so you can be informed and on the same page about accomplishing your respective goals.
Over the life of any relationship, feeling disappointed and hurt at times is inevitable. And while a breakup is sometimes unavoidable, other times it’s possible to work through difficulties and achieve a closer connection. Whatever the situation, it can be helpful to spend time reflecting on the areas mentioned above to help you determine a thoughtful decision. If you are committed to your partner but are having difficulty engaging in these topics or moving through your unique relationship challenges, you may want to seek couples counseling to help you to improve the quality of your relationship.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.