Do you know that moment when you realize that for some time you are no longer happy in the relationship you are in, and yet you do not know what to do next? The moment you figure out what works and what doesn't, when you ask your heart how it feels and it answers “I don’t know!”?
In my role as a psychotherapist, I saw this moment as a dialogue between the rational side that says, "Where is the one I fell in love with?" Or "Why don't I feel understood anymore?", "What's going on with us?", and the emotional part that feels abandoned for some time, that feels the loneliness in the couple, but is still longing for affection.
This continuous inner dialogue fueled by quarrels and conflicts, by words that hurt you, by silences on both sides, make you think you are with your relationship somewhere in the basement, as a client said, that you have nothing to do, how to get out of there. However, with specialized help accompanied by the motivation of both partners, I saw it is possible to get out of the basement and even revive the feeling of joy of being with your loved one.
I believe that moments of unhappiness in a relationship are important because they serve a purpose: they are an indicator that you need to evaluate the current relationship and to compare it with the ideal one you imagined, to ask yourself what works well and what you should improve in the relationship to be as close as possible to what you want?
When couples who ask themselves such questions come to therapy, it often means that they have spent some time with these thoughts and don’t see a solution, or seek support to put into practice the solutions they found. And this could lead either to the improvement of the relationship or to its closure. They turn to therapy because they feel more prepared to face reality. And that requires courage and self-awareness.
Dealing with such issues in couples has led me to research the specialised literature. Thus, I discovered we are talking about an entire process that a partner or both goes through over time, and which has three phases: pre-contemplation, contemplation, and post-contemplation.
Pre-contemplation is the time when you notice that there are more and more quarrels between you, maybe a bigger quarrel from time to time, or you realize that you no longer communicate as before, that you move away from each other, or maybe one partner starts to solve problems with someone outside (colleague, friend), instead of solving the situation inside the relationship. However, you still share many enjoyable moments, you have common interests, so the danger is not so big.
I often see couples in this phase, in which both partners want to work on improving the relationship. And I think it's a good time to clarify things and to prevent the situation from getting worse. During therapy, we could identify situations that were not disclosed to the partner, but which had a major impact on mutual trust. Or we could work on improving communication between partners, identify and change those behaviors that are not healthy for the relationship.
Contemplation is the stage in which a partner possibly considers a separation, but needs more information to be sure. It is a very confusing period, in which you think for a few days that you’re done, you want to break up, and next week you say no! we can still save the relationship.
Usually only one partner comes to therapy to clarify his/her feelings, but I’ve also seen couples, in which both wanted to give themselves another chance to save the relationship, before deciding on a separation or divorce. From experience, in this phase there were already some "stones in the shoes" as John Gottman says, meaning many resentments built up on both sides. Or it could be a betrayal from one partner, one person has changed, and the other has not, or even the passage of time has affected the dynamics between the two. Some couples have been for a long time exposed to stressors such as a partner suffering from an addiction, financial issues, children leaving home, the illness of one partner. In this stage, the success of therapy can also mean an ending with an amicable divorce, in more friendly terms.
Post-contemplation, the third phase, is the most difficult of all. One or both partners have concluded that the relationship is over, but they convinced themselves that it is better to stay in the relationship, anyway. They assume some compromises either for the sake of the children, lack of financial security, or because religion or culture do otherwise allow them.
Others come to the idea of separation, but the partner does not agree. In this category, it is most difficult to work with couples and it often involves helping one partner to understand that the relationship is over. Usually, if both partners come to therapy, one tries to "help" the other to accept the situation and to agree to the separation.
And a third category, “purgatory” as a client called it, is the period of time where you still wonder what to do because you haven't reached a solution. You can't leave, but you can't stay because you are not happy. High moral values "I do not leave my family" or cultural ones have a relatively high impact on one’s decision. Often partners in these couples are still friendly with each other, but there is a lack of intimacy and affection.
As a therapist, I found this "classification" to be very helpful, especially for acknowledging the motivation that each of the partners brings in the therapy process. Therapy is more likely to be successful when both partners are equally motivated to stay or to break up. They have a common goal. But there are also cases, as I mentioned before, in which one partner did not know what the intentions of his partner were and as a result, the therapeutic process is much more difficult. Here I rather use the concept of individual therapy in the partner's presence, to help the one left behind to accept the reality and to move on.
There is no magic solution. Unfortunately, the relationships are too complex to have an all-in-one solution. The changes that partners go through, each partner's type of attachment, the passage of time, outside influences, all leave their mark on a relationship.
With a step-by-step approach, at the right time, there is hope to work on improving a relationship if both partners want it. When separation is an option, it is good to know that there is still life afterward and most of the time people will return to normality. In time, they realize it was the right decision.
I believe that above all, we have a duty to ourselves to live this one life and not to regret later decisions that we did not take. Also, those who are parents have an additional responsibility to model a healthy relationship in front of their children, based on love and affection. Because if not from parents, from whom could kids learn?
Give yourself time to contemplate your relationship and ask yourself: am I okay where I am now?
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