Relationships will always run into troubles. They are an unavoidable outcome of two different personalities working together. Traditional wedding vows even come with that warning built in. When your commitment is supposed to be “in good times and in bad”, the implication is that bad times will exist. We all know this intuitively. But sometimes the bad times can overshadow the good times, threatening the relationship.
Think of your relationship as a bank account. A while back I posted something about a marriage box, but a bank account works better because it can hold a negative balance. All the good moments in your relationship are deposits into the “Relationship Satisfaction” account, while the bad moments are withdrawals.
Good times act as a buffer against bad times, and ideally your account “balance” always stays positive. During hard times your account may run into a negative balance, and it’s normal for this to happen occasionally. But if the account is in the negative for extended periods then some sort of action is required.
Maybe the account owners can take a good look at how they got there and come up with a plan to get out of the hole together. Maybe they want to get out of the hole but are having a hard time doing it so they need to bring in outside help to come up with a plan. But sometimes the only recourse seems to be declaring bankruptcy.
When your relationship is in a critical spot you may find yourself wondering if it’s possible to save the relationship, or if it’s too late. If this happens, it’s time for some serious reflection.
Before making any decisions it is a good idea to reflect on where you are and how you got there. The saying “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” is very true.
What are the problems? Can you identify the issues that are causing conflict for the two of you? Often the surface problems are really only symptoms of deeper issues, and it can be difficult to look at a situation impartially when you are emotionally invested in it.
If you are having difficulty identifying the issues then try to focus on the good. There has to be at least some good, or you wouldn’t be together. So what has been good? What have you learned? Is there anything that you would do differently if given the chance, and if so is it too late to do that?
One of the many challenges long term relationships face is that it is natural for people to drift apart over time. Caught early enough this can be an opportunity for a couple to throw out what hasn’t been working, and strengthen their bond for a better future. But sometimes it is caught too late and it marks the end of the relationship.
Things to think about
In addition to reflecting on the specifics of your relationship there are a few other things that are important to consider.
Statistically, first marriages are the most successful with divorce rates rising considerably for second and third marriages (I haven’t seen stats on non married long term relationships, but I suspect the numbers are similar).
I found this surprising. I expected people learning from their mistakes and wanting to “be better” next time to result in improved marital odds the second time around. So why is that not the case? The main reason is that a marriage is about more than just the two people in the relationship. They are the key players, but additional factors act as the glue holding a relationship together.
Children (if present) are the biggest one. But even in the absence of children there are things like families, joint friends and shared history. In leaving the relationship you are often leaving behind much more than just the other person, and that can be very difficult. Obviously the length of the relationship plays a big factor here, but in subsequent long term relationships this glue that holds people together is often weaker.
Another important point is, the reasons the first relationship failed often impact the success of future relationships. Frequently people who can’t make a first marriage succeed fail at future relationships because they are either looking for something that doesn’t exist, or they bring the same baggage that destroyed their first marriage into subsequent relationships.
Statistically speaking your first marriage is really your best shot, so it’s important to make it count.
If you decide to move on, it’s important that you understand why you are moving on. What do you hope to change? What do you hope will be different next time?
One thing I would strongly recommend is that you leave the relationship on it’s own merits (or lacktherof), and not because you already have another relationship lined up, or because you have started another relationship already. Too often people it seems people stay in a situation where they weren’t happy only because there is nothing better available, and then they leave when something “better” comes along.
There are countless stories of people who leave a relationship for something new only to wake up six months to a year later and realize they made a mistake. If you have entered another relationship or have one waiting in the wings, you can’t fairly judge your current situation.
Don’t expect the next relationship to be “better”. It may be, but chances are you contributed to the demise of your current. So take a look at yourself and see what you can do better next time, and use this as an opportunity to grow as a person. If you bring the same baggage in, you will often end up with a similar result.
When a relationship ends there are hurt feelings, and often a period of grieving is needed. It’s natural to need to vent and want to lash out, but try not to cast your ex in a negative light. Treat the relationship as a chapter in your life. You once cared deeply about each other, so try not to let the hurt override the fact that you did have good times.
And remember that giving up doesn’t mean you are weak. Sometimes it means that you are strong enough to let go.
In order to rebuild, both people have to truly want it. If two people still love each other then it’s never really too late to rebuild a relationship. Anything can be worked out. But rebuilding is often the hardest path.
If you need to rebuild, then there have obviously been issues that have put your relationship in jeopardy. But in order to move forward together, you have to let it go. This doesn’t mean you forget about something and pretend it never happened. You must address it, forgive, and be willing to start fresh.
I can’t recall where I found this passage, but it says it beautifully:
Forgiveness is the only way to heal your emotional wounds. Forgive those who hurt you no matter what they’ve done because you don’t want to hurt yourself every time you remember what they did. When you can touch a wound and it doesn’t hurt, then you know you have truly forgiven.
In rebuilding, you will need to redefine your relationship and the future will be different from the past. It has to be. Years of established patterns can be hard to break, so it is likely best to find a skilled counsellor to help you find a new path forward together.
Rebuilding is very difficult. But it can also be very rewarding to know that you were able to persevere and stick together when times were the hardest.
Making a decision
So when is it too late to save a relationship? There’s really no magic formula, and no right or wrong answer to that question.
The one thing I will say though is that if your relationship is at a crisis point, the worst thing you can do is nothing. If you recognize there is a serious problem you can’t just ignore it and hope that it will pass. Problems don’t solve themselves, and they don’t go away on their own. You need to either roll up your sleeves and go to work as a couple, or accept that the relationship has ended and move on with the process of healing.
Whatever decision you make, the fun part is that you will never know if it was the right one. But you can’t let yourself dwell on that. Don’t ask yourself if there was anything more that you could have done, because there always will be. Instead ask yourself if you have done enough.
Life will work out
Life is a journey, and most of us hope we can find that special someone to share our journey with. But your journey is exactly that, yours. It’s a personal journey, and there is no single correct path.
We can’t know the future, and there are no guarantees in life. You will never know if the decision you made was the “right” one or not. The only thing you can ever say is that it was the right one for you at the time that you made it.
In the words of James Mercer (of the Broken Bells):
But I’ve been turned around
I was upside down
I thought love would always find a way
But I know better now
Got it figured out
It’s a perfect world all the same
It IS a perfect world. It’s complicated, and broken, and perfect all at once. Life doesn’t always work out the way you expected it to, but that’s alright, because it WILL work out. You only have one life, so make the best of it.