Whenever I tell someone that they don’t have to wait for their partner to commit to saving their relationship, I always get a quizzical look and sometimes downright scepticism: Doesn’t it take two people to make a relationship work? Let’s be clear, in over twenty-five years, working as a marital and sex therapist, I’ve yet to meet a couple where the responsibility for getting into a mess is not pretty evenly spread. Six of one and half a dozen of the other. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who’re worried that this involves taking all the blame. It doesn’t.
Just taking responsibility for your half. Instead of sitting around passively waiting or begging your partner to get with the programme, you can take control and break the deadlock. What’s more, by changing your behaviour you will be changing the whole dynamic in your relationship. Instead of the current downward spiral – where one nasty action sparks another – you can set up a positive circle (where one kind one sparks another). In other words, you might start saving your marriage on your own but pretty soon, your partner will notice the difference, soften and become more open to change.
Here are five ways to move forward:
Look at your own contribution to the problem
It is much easier to complain about our partner’s failings than look at our own. So step back and take a long look at what’s been going on. When you cut away all the justifications, what do you regret doing?
Make a fulsome apology
I expect you’ve said ‘sorry’ many times before. Unfortunately, ‘sorry’ can become a knee-jerk reaction or a way of buying peace (even if you don’t really mean it). A fulsome apology is different. It acknowledges both the unhelpful behaviour and the impact on the other person. For example: ‘I wish to apologise that I haven’t done more about around the house. It must have been exhausting for you and made you feel taken for granted.’ Don’t add an explanation (for example: ‘I’ve had a lot of work on) as this sounds like justification and lessens the power of the fulsome apology.
Ask yourself what you would like to change?
Hopefully your fulsome apology will have drawn a line in the sand and maybe even sparked a matching one from your partner. Don’t worry if your partner thinks you’re just trying to sweet talk him or her or remains sceptical. Imagine for a second, your partner has said: ‘Let’s try again’ or ‘Let’s work on our relationship’. What would do differently this time round? Instead of waiting for your partner, make those changes today. For example, listen more, help out more with the children or approach problems more calmly.
Challenge your interpretation of what’s happening between you.
We imagine there is a straightforward link between events and feelings. Your partner does not text and you feel unloved. However, it is more complex than that. Our reaction depends on our interpretation. For example, ‘he didn’t text because he doesn’t care.’ No wonder, you get upset. However, if the interpretation is ‘he didn’t text because his battery is flat.’ The feelings might be irritation that he forgot to charge it. Equally, if your partner does not seem to have noticed your added efforts – challenge your interpretation. If it is ‘she truly doesn’t really love me’ the response will be despair. If it ‘she is worried that I might slip back into the old ways’ then the reaction might be to redouble your efforts. If you’re not certain why partner behaved in a particular way, ask him or her rather than making assumptions.
Control your panic
In my experience more relationships fail after a declaration of ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you’ or infidelity because of the panic of the partner on the receiving end rather than the person who has fallen out of love. So when you’re feeling anxious, don’t push for reassurance (as this only pushes your partner away) but go for a run, phone a friend or do some deep breathing exercises.