Six Practical Strategies for Unhappy but Committed Couples

This post is aimed at people who, for whatever reason, are committed to staying in their relationship despite longstanding unhappiness.   It’s not aimed at couples with major problems (e.g., violence), but rather those people who’ve fallen out of love, and who have made unsuccessful attempts to change each other.

1. How do you perceive your partner is holding you back?

When people are unhappy in a relationship they often have a sense that their partner is holding them back.  This can be in minor ways or more major ones. 

Minor example –  you’re frustrated your partner is so messy.  You don’t see the point of tidying up if they’re going to leave dishes in the sink for two days.

Major example – you’d like your partner to get on the same page as you financially. You want to invest and get ahead but they’re unmotivated.

Solution:  Think about how you’d act if you were single and could make all your own decisions.   How would you be acting if your partner wasn’t there? Sometimes the ways we think our partner is holding us back are partially imaginary.  Is this true for you at all?  What are you blaming your partner for when it’s also you holding yourself back? 

Many times it’s emotional exhaustion from misery and arguing that’s actually the culprit for why people in unhappy relationships don’t pursue their individual goals.

2. The boring reasons for staying in a relationship still count.

There are many reasons people stay in relationships with people they don’t feel particularly in love with.  Some of these include financial stability, household help, not wanting to be alone, and raising children together.   You may feel embarrassed if these are your reasons.  Don’t be.  They’re still valid reasons. 

When people stay in relationships it’s because the positives outweigh the negatives.  It can actually help you relieve tension in your relationship if you acknowledge the positives you get from it.  Include seemingly basic points, like not having to manage every aspect of running a household by yourself. 

Also consider that perhaps you and your partner are bad at supporting each other in general, but you still know they’d be there for you in certain important circumstances, like if you’ve had a really bad day at work, you experience a health scare, or if your car breaks down and you need picking up.

Solution: What are the positives you’re getting from staying?  Does your partner know you value those things?  Try genuinely telling them what you appreciate about their presence in your life.   Choose your wording carefully so it will definitely sound like a positive comment to them! 

3. Stop beating yourself up over feelings of regret.

If you’re unhappy in your relationship and feeling stuck, you probably have a feeling of regret about your partner choice, including ruminations like “Why did I make this choice?  What was I thinking?  How did I get this so wrong?”

Sometimes a partner is a good fit for you at one point in your life and becomes less of a good fit over time. You perhaps didn’t make a poor choice of partner at the time you made it. 

Humans are less-than-fantastic at knowing what’s going to make them happen in the future.  Lots of people make partner choices they later regret.  It’s not like you have some major character flaw when it comes to your romantic decision making that other people are immune from.  You’re a member of a big club!

Solution: Self-compassion.  You can learn this skill if you don’t currently have it.  There are many great resources out there, including right here at PT.

4.  Try some perspective taking.

What does your behavior look like from your partner’s point of view?  Can you understand their reactions better if you think about their perspective?   For example are you caught in a cycle of one person feeling frustrated and acting demanding, and the other person feeling constantly attacked and criticized?

Solution:  Spend a couple of minutes describing (to yourself) your partner’s perspective on your main area of tension.  Speak it out loud when you can do so in private.  You only need to spend 1-2 minutes doing this.

5.  What are the best choices to make in the situation you’re in?

If you’ve decided you’re staying in your relationship, what’s the best way to interact with each other?  How can you and your partner each be the most happy you can be when fundamentally you irritate each other?

There’s a balance to be struck here between hope and and giving up / acceptance. 

You can accept that your partner’s nature isn’t going to fundamentally change.  For example, if they seem to lack “get up and go” and have always been like this, then that’s not likely to change.   

On the other hand, it’s reasonable to feel hopeful that when you do things that will make you happier as an individual, you’ll get on better with your partner, cooperate more, and feel less antagonized in the relationship.  This gets back to point #1 in this article.  Identify any ways you blame your partner for holding you back where it’s really the exhaustion from relationship unhappiness that is causing your stuckness, and you can do more of what you want.

It’s also reasonable to expect that your feelings of emotional engagement with each other will go up and down.  If you’re currently at a major low, it won’t always be like that as the nature of emotions is that they change in response to events, thoughts, and behaviors.

Solution:  As much as possible, practice do unto others in how you interact with each other, and make sure you’re not blaming your partner for your own stuckness.

6. Reality check your “This is not what I signed up for” thoughts.

Many times we have our own life goals we want to pursue and an internal expectation of the role a partner will play in supporting the pursuit of those goals.  However, these are often unsaid assumptions.   Consequently you may perceive that, by being in a relationship with you, your partner has promised you certain types of support and cooperation when in their mind they never did that.

Solution: It can be helpful to understand any repetitive thoughts you have that are based on assumptions or inaccurate thinking.  For example, you may perceive your partner as having changed when they’ve mostly always been that way.  Or, you might’ve assumed your partner would want the same things as you and have the same priorities when they don’t.  You may see your priorities as the best/most important priorities because they’re your priorities.

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