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Personally, I’ve contributed to a daily blog called “Ask the Therapist” for nearly 10 years.  Each month, around 2,500 questions are submitted by people all across the world. The problems submitted deal with a wide variety of issues, some extremely heartbreaking.  I’ve had questions from a young woman in the middle east whose parents set up an arranged marriage, and she didn’t know how to get out of it. A young mother in Canada found intimate texts on her husband’s phone—sent to another woman.  The questions are deep, intimate, and personal. For the person seeking help, their story can be complex, emotionally charged, and overwhelming.

I have responded to over 1500 of these personal, challenging questions.  The majority of the questions I have answered have dealt with discouraging relationships and ways to improve the quality of them.  What surprises me the most, though, is the number of questions that have the answer within them.

If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes

When these questions are asked, I am sure to point out that in working toward a better life, you must put an end to unproductive behavior.  For example, you’ll have a hard time breaking yourself of abusing substances if you’re in a relationship with someone using. Same with having a husband who cheats and lies—why are you still with him?

These answers may seem evident to most, but it can be hard for some to realize that we are contributing to our own pain.  If you want to see positive change in your life, it starts with stopping, changing, or limiting unsuccessful behaviors. Yet why is this so challenging?

There are researchers who study self-defeating behavior—why we do things that aren’t good for us—and they’ve found that many of us ignore risks and apparent problems to seek immediate pleasure or short-lived relief.  Maybe your significant other, or the drug you’re using feels good in the moment, but in the long run it becomes a cruel, dangerous cycle. When we fail to self-regulate toward a long-term goal, frustration keeps us drawn to what brings immediate relief—and if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Determine the Viability of a Relationship: 3 Steps

Many people stay in broken relationships in hopes that they’ll change for the better.  They hold onto the few and far between occurrences of joy, love, or happiness scattered amidst their time together.  To put it frankly, they hang on to the potential of what the relationship could’ve been, not the reality of what it truly is or was.

If something’s been off for a decent amount of time, a pattern becomes present.  Once that happens, we tend to conform to that pattern. When this happens, it’s important to be honest with yourself, and maybe turn to an outside opinion.  Are you contributing to the pattern? Or, as Thomas Merton has cautioned, are you settling for too little?

There are typically three steps in determining the viability of a relationship:  

  1. Ask yourself the ever-important decisive question. Step 1 tends to be difficult, and it requires an honest assessment.  You must truly assess the quality of how the relationship makes you feel.  In order to help with this process, there are surveys you can take, meditation exercises you can do, but when all is said and done, you must work to be truly and totally honest with yourself.  The decisive question you must answer: Am I happy enough in this relationship to remain in it?  Is your answer yes?  If so, stay in the relationship, but assess it from time to time.  In doing so, hopefully you and your partner can work together to build on what you have together.  However, if the answer is no, it’s time to take the second step.
  2. Establish all of your frustrations and disappointments with your partner. If you don’t feel comfortable or capable to do this on your own, that’s okay!  Reaching out to a couple’s counselor can be a great tool. This step may require you to speak up for yourself more than you ever have and set limits where maybe none have been set before.  This step requires confrontation and conflict mediation, which can be very difficult. People frequently get stuck here and make justifications about why they won’t do it. Some of these that I have heard are:  “My kids are really young, I couldn’t imagine leaving our home,” “I don’t think I can make it on my own,” “It’s not THAT bad,” “I am not financially stable,” or the worst of all, “Maybe things will change.”This assessment allows you to try and make a (hopefully) positive change.  However, maybe your partner can’t or won’t make the change. This creates a moment of truth for you.  The crucial question here is whether or not you can accept the relationship the way it is. Maybe the answer is yes; if so, it’s time for self-care and lowering your expectations of things getting much better.  Use this time to take great care of yourself. Taking time for yourself is good for you no matter where you are in life, however, it is imperative if you are in a relationship that provides you with little positive energy.
  3. Make it clear that your relationship, as is, isn’t working. Maybe you’ve tried to input changes, and it’s not working.  Step 3 is to make it evident that the relationship is not working.  It’s time for a change. This will more times than not send your partner into a whirlwind in attempts to change drastically.  This can be extremely confusing, but it’s important to set in place a time limit. Sadly, most times these changes are short-lived.

If you have decided to take a step away from the relationship, support from a therapist is not a bad idea.  These changes can be so hard, and even though you have support from your loved ones, they tend to be biased and not far enough removed from the situation.  While the transformations may be difficult they will move your life forward. Most importantly, they will keep you from settling for too little.

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