Need to know
Many couples get to the painful point of questioning the future of their relationship. Perhaps you started your own current relationship with the conviction that ‘this is the one’, only to eventually find yourself pulling back emotionally and feeling hurt, angry, disappointed and lonely. Sometimes the problems build over months or years; sometimes a painful event or a new revelation by one’s partner suddenly threatens the safety, security and sanctity of the bond. In either case, one or both partners can come to feel unsure about whether to stay or go.
If you suspect that you have reached this place in your relationship, you are far from alone. It is a common experience for long-time couples to consider divorce or separation (in the United States, a third of ever-married adults over the age of 20 have been divorced), and about half of couples who seek therapy do so because of concerns about the future of their relationship. Surely, this is not what you expected when you and your partner planned a life together. But you should also know that there are things you can do to improve the situation. There are ways to explore whether your relationship has enough potential to warrant recommitting to a future with your partner. In my 30 years of working with what I’ve called ‘last-chance couples’, the change from feeling hopeless to hopeful can occur rather quickly, and often turns on developing some simple relationship skills and attitudes that many people just never learn in their childhood families or anywhere else.
First, consider some examples of ‘last-chance couples’ and see if they resemble your relationship in any way. Although some of the details of their stories will differ from your own, are there themes that seem familiar?
- Diana and Ted engaged in high levels of conflict almost from the start of their 16-year relationship. Whether the problems were big (financial challenges) or small (cleaning the kitchen), Diana would say: ‘We need to talk,’ and Ted would roll his eyes or walk out of the room. They would then criticise each other, often with a contemptuous tone, and withdraw to their own corners.
- With two children and increasingly demanding careers, Roger and Kim had seen sex and other sorts of intimacy fall by the wayside. Late one night, while Kim was asleep, Roger discovered a text message to Kim from her close colleague, who reminisced in detail about the sex they’d had on their last business outing. Roger shook Kim awake, confronting her with this evidence of an affair.
- Liza and Cathy met in college and fell in love. They shared a vision for their future that included having a child. But as both approached their late 30s, Cathy started being noncommittal about becoming a parent, wanting to establish herself in a new profession first. Liza became frustrated and resentful. The couple was at an impasse.
- Julie and Stephen, both in their mid-50s, had once had a satisfying sex life and engaged in a number of common avocational activities, but it had been years since they’d had sex or any sort of fun. Now, they often felt like ships passing in the night. Both reported that ‘the flame has gone out’.
What these couples have in common is that they came to me on the brink of divorce, announcing that seeing me was their last chance. (Their names, and some other identifying details, have been changed to preserve anonymity.) Challenges such as high levels of conflict, affairs or other violations of values or safety (eg, due to aggression or substance overuse), differences in goals for what to achieve together, and an absence of passionate connection can all propel couples to consider ending their relationship.
In some of these cases, both partners felt a strong urge to end things. In others, one partner led the charge to separate. All had tried couple therapy at least once before (Diana and Ted three times), without success. All reported that their previous couple therapists seemed nice enough, but had them spend session after session talking about the problems and asking about each one’s family history, without providing them with tools or other guidance to resolve their issues.
There is a way forward for many ‘last-chance couples’
A large body of research has highlighted behavioural patterns that are characteristic of distressed versus happy couples, and even patterns that are predictive of whether newlywed couples are headed toward a lifetime of relative happiness and stability. Research by Howard Markman and associates at the University of Denver, by John Gottman at the University of Washington, and by many others has demonstrated that the quality of communication is a major predictor of marital quality and stability. Specific problem patterns include escalation, withdrawal, invalidation and negative interpretations. In this Guide, you will learn more about what each of these patterns looks like – and what you and your partner can do to break them.
Couples that are stable and happy over time tend to engage in mutual soothing, make regular statements of appreciation and admiration for their partner, and accept influence from one another (avoiding power struggles). These couples also quickly repair ruptures in their bond and celebrate their success in overcoming difficult moments. When asked to narrate their history of ups and downs, better-functioning couples more frequently use the pronoun ‘we’ and have a greater sense of shared identity – whereas couples in distress tend to focus on you and me (or you versus me).
My work as a couple therapist has focused on developing effective strategies to help couples avert divorce (or dissolution in unmarried couples) – or at least to assess more carefully the relationship’s potential for growth and thereby make a more informed decision about its future. Not all last-chance couples make it, of course. And in cases where there have been serious violations of safety or values, the violating behaviours must end before healing can occur. (We’ll discuss this further in the ‘Learn More’ section.) But for most couples, systematically trying some new ways of being with each other offers a valuable chance to gather more information about their prospects for change and reconciliation.
My strong view is that, even if your relationship seems beyond repair, it’s worth trying the techniques that I will describe in this Guide. In case after case – including the four couples I introduced earlier – partners have been able to turn things around by learning new skills, resolving serious ruptures, avoiding behaviours that trigger old hurts, and rebuilding their sources of pleasure and intimacy.
What to do
Have a conversation about the possibility of change
As a first step, it is essential that you and your partner hear each other’s feelings about the relationship and your respective desires to maintain it, or thoughts about ending it. You can get the conversation going by taking a few deep breaths and saying to your partner something like: ‘Look, clearly, we’ve got some serious issues. Or at least, I think we do. I’ll be honest – I think we need to address them, or else I’m not sure I can stay in this relationship. But I’d like to try.’ I recommend inviting your partner to read about the exercises in this Guide along with you, and asking them: ‘Can we do this together?’
Next, you should agree to temporarily suspend discussion of the relationship’s future so as to create time and space to engage in what I call ‘nonbinding experiments in possibility’. These experiments involve new interaction patterns that might provide a renewed sense of hope. However, it’s important that you and your partner agree that these experiments will be ‘nonbinding’. This means that even if things improve markedly, a partner who is thinking of leaving may still wish to end things. This is essential to agree upon because, otherwise, the partner who has a desire to leave might fear that they will be trapped by progress. That is, they might fear that, if things start to improve, they will no longer have a strong enough case to insist on separating. As a result of this fear, they may engage only half-heartedly in change efforts.
Experimenting with changes – especially those designed to increase friendship and pleasure – can feel not only awkward at first, but emotionally irrational if you’ve been disconnected or angry with each other for a long time. And hopelessness may have left you with little motivation to try. The key to exploring the potential of a rigidly stuck relationship is to escape the pernicious effects of negative expectations, ignore your feelings of low motivation, and take some chances on trying new ways of being with one another to see if they produce some serendipitous surprises, some ‘accidental feelings of love’.
Recognise problematic patterns in your interactions
Consider the following descriptions of some corrosive communication patterns that researchers have identified. As you review these, ask yourself if you’ve noticed any of them showing up in your relationship:
Escalation: this is when one partner says something loaded with criticism, contempt or defensiveness, and the other responds in kind – and on and on. (Interestingly, research shows that couples who express anger directly, without contempt or defensiveness, do quite well. It is helpful to name the original hurt or sense of being injured/insulted that underlies your anger.) There are a few sub-flavours of escalation, including:
- The ‘summarising self’ syndrome: one partner states her point of view, the other states his, and on and on, with no real listening.
- Cross-complaining: one partner lodges a complaint in one domain (‘You didn’t clean the kitchen like you said you would!’) and, rather than addressing that complaint, the other partner lodges one in a different domain (‘Well, you didn’t call my mother to wish her a happy birthday, so we’re even!’)
- ‘Kitchen-sinking’: I also call this the ‘deli salad bar approach’, in which one partner lists all their complaints about the other, all at once – like piling one’s plate with 20 different foods from the salad bar.
- Globalising from specific complaints to generalities: this often takes the form of ‘character assassination’, in which a specific annoyance (eg, dirty clothing on the floor; a lack of attention) gives rise to a global assessment of the other’s character, as in ‘You’re a slob’ or ‘You just so self-involved and distracted.’ Another form of globalising is always/never statements (‘You never pick up your dirty laundry’ or ‘You’re always distracted when you come home’).
Withdrawal: one partner gives verbal or nonverbal signals that they’re pulling out of a conversation – a deep sigh, turning their head away, silently shrugging their shoulders, staring back expressionless (what Gottman calls ‘stonewalling’) – or literally getting up and leaving with an ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ The other partner tends to pursue, and you get into a classic negative spiral of withdrawal and pursuit.
Invalidation: this involves actively putting down or making light of a partner’s feelings or perspective, or simply responding with little or no interest to a partner’s attempts to have a conversation. Related to this pattern is how a partner responds to bids for attention. When one partner tries to engage, does the other put down the phone or other distractions and listen? Or does that person show minimal interest, ignore the partner altogether, or even angrily push them away (‘Don’t you see I’m busy?’ or ‘Not more stuff about your boss again’).
Negative interpretations: this is when one partner develops a ‘theory of mal-intent’ about the other’s behaviour. For example: ‘You’re late for dinner because you don’t want to spend time with me’ or ‘You don’t listen to my requests that you spend less money because you want me to feel like I have no control.’
Now that you have some terms to help identify various ways that you and your partner might engage in destructive interactions, you can try to catch yourself before launching into them. You can also try to break out of them, or prevent them altogether, by using the following techniques.
Practise taking a timeout
When things get heated during a conversation, the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ side) may ramp up its activity, and people can end up saying hurtful things that they regret. If you observe that you and your partner have started in on any of the problematic communication patterns I’ve described, agree to take a timeout to calm down. You can use the word ‘timeout’ or, even better, come up with your own, personalised verbal flag, and agree to use it to signal the need for a break. I’ve had couples use the terms ‘Too Hot’, ‘Red Balloon’, ‘Volcano’, ‘Escalator’ – one even used the phrase ‘Tuna Fish’ so that their three-year-old daughter wouldn’t suspect a problem.
If a short break isn’t enough, or it’s not a good time to talk further, set a time within 24 hours when you’ll come back to the conversation.
During your timeout, try to engage in some activities to activate the parasympathetic, calming side of the autonomic nervous system. For example, you might do some mindful breathing: breathe in through the nose to a count of five, noticing the coolness of the air; hold the breath for one second; then breathe out through the nose to a count of five, noticing the warmth of the air; hold the ‘empty’ – and repeat. You might also give qigong (similar to tai chi) a try – you can watch my qigong teacher, William Kaplanidis in New York, demonstrate a move called ‘Fusing Fire with Water’ that is excellent for calming the nervous system.
Other quick ways to calm down include taking a short walk, listening to some music, or mindfully drinking a glass of water or a cup of tea. One thing to avoid during the timeout is ruminating about how hurt and angry you are – try to let those feelings go so that you’re in a better place to talk, with greater skill.
Use the speaker/listener technique
When you are ready to initiate a deliberate conversation with your partner about a concern or problem – or to return to one after taking a timeout – try using the ‘speaker/listener technique’.
In this technique, one partner takes the role of Speaker and the other takes the role of the Listener. First, the Speaker talks for 10-15 seconds, using ‘I statements’. An ‘I statement’ expresses your thoughts and feelings, rather than a negative interpretation of your partner’s thoughts, feelings or motives.
To phrase your first ‘I statement’ when you are the Speaker, and to help you avoid the forms of globalising that I described earlier, use the XYZ format. Rather than saying: ‘You clearly don’t respect me, because, if you did, you wouldn’t always leave your stuff all over the place,’ you instead say something like: ‘When you leave your dirty clothes out (X = behaviour) around the bedroom (Y = situation), I feel annoyed and hurt (Z = emotion).’ Or, if you’re talking about a recently discovered affair, you might say: ‘I feel totally devastated that you’ve had a relationship with your colleague over these past months. I’m angry, and I’m in pain.’
After the Speaker has taken 10-15 seconds to talk, the Listener repeats back what they have heard from the Speaker. If they missed some or all of what was said, the Speaker says it again – until the Listener describes it correctly. Once that happens, the Speaker may go on to another statement on the same topic (eg, ‘After I found out about the affair, I was shocked, hurt and afraid for our relationship’), taking up to four or five turns on the topic.
Then, the Speaker gives the ‘floor’ to the other partner – they switch roles. The new Speaker then gets up to four or five turns on the same topic, with the new Listener repeating what they heard.
This continues until both partners have said all that they currently have to say on the topic. By encouraging shared attention to one particular issue, this technique can help both you and your partner get past tendencies such as a lack of listening, invalidating responses, unleashing various complaints at once (kitchen-sinking), or shifting evasively from one topic to another (cross-complaining).
After listening, turn to problem-solving
Once each person has had their say on a given topic, it may be clear how to move forward. For instance, that might include a simple apology and an agreement to avoid whatever the hurtful action was in the future. Alternatively, you may need to move to a more formal problem-solving sequence. This starts with setting the agenda for a discussion – what, specifically, are you trying to resolve? Then, you and your partner brainstorm possible solutions together and combine the best of your respective ideas – and/or agree to compromise as necessary. You can then set a specific plan to enact the resolution.
For instance, say you’ve been arguing about different approaches to parenting a challenging child who doesn’t do her homework, and one of you advocates giving her positive reinforcement for any effort to do it, while the other thinks she should be punished for not doing it. You might agree to combine those strategies: your daughter gets praise and a star on a chart when she does the homework, and loses time on her iPad when she doesn’t.
With more complex, disruptive issues, such as a partner’s excessive alcohol use, once the other partner has clearly stated their serious concerns and how these have put the future of the relationship into question, hopefully, the overusing partner will be motivated to make a major compromise. That could involve trying moderation and potentially seeking treatment, and, if that fails, abstinence and the support of a programme like AA. Both partners discuss this and agree on a plan together.
Try low-risk activities to increase pleasure and intimacy
One of the biggest mistakes distressed couples make – unfortunately, often encouraged by therapists – is to work only on resolving all their problems before trying to reignite their sense of pleasurable connection, mutual respect and appreciation. Yet when you met your partner-to-be, you didn’t gaze at them and think: There’s someone I can address life’s problems with effectively. Rather, we’re attracted to a possible mate physically, intellectually and spiritually. We find them amusing. We develop a close, supportive friendship with them. Couples on the brink of separation don’t just want to see that they can have less conflict – they want to see that there’s the prospect of regaining and building pleasure.
There are a number of low-risk, high-yield techniques that I regularly suggest to last-chance couples, even in a first session, to help them experiment with restoring their friendship, affection and shared pleasure, even as we work to resolve their differences. They often worry that it will feel awkward and false to do some of these things. I validate that feeling, but still encourage them to take action, knowing that any new behaviour initially feels awkward, especially when you’ve been in great distress. Here are some approaches to try:
- The 60-second pleasure point
Brainstorm with your partner all the fun, pleasurable and even sensual (if not sexual) activities you can do with each other in which the activity lasts one minute or less. These might include a short massage, holding hands, looking out the window at a squirrel scampering in a tree, a hug, feeding each other a piece of chocolate or a berry, smelling a flower or some incense; and, when physically apart, an affectionate or even sexy text, a funny commentary, a photo of something curious and interesting, a brief call to check in.
Then make six of these happen across the day: two in the morning when you’re still together, two when you’re apart, and two when you come back together in the evening, with each partner initiating one during each of the three time periods. These moments can create an arc of connection that is well worth the modest amount of time invested.
- The silent walk
Visit a park, forest, beach or neighbourhood where you’ve never been. Walk around, and silently point to things you notice. Couples often undervalue the power of silent togetherness and, given the risk (especially for high-conflict couples) that talking will lead to conflict, it can be helpful at first just to try being together, quietly, in a novel way.
- The daily relational vitamin
Once a day, preferably in the morning, make one statement of appreciation or admiration, or comment on one thing that you ‘get a kick out of’ about your partner. For instance, ‘I really appreciate how hard you work to support our family,’ ‘I admire how you’re able to juggle taking care of the kids during the day and running your business from home,’ ‘I always feel so proud when we’re at a party and you argue your political views so clearly,’ or, more intimately, ‘I love the way your face looks in the morning light when we wake up’ or ‘I love sniffing the top of your head – you smell so great!’
- The ‘How was your day, dear?’ conversation
Many couples forgo the daily ritual of checking in to hear about each other’s day. But, as I noted earlier, research shows that mutual soothing and compassion are essential for success in relationships. The key thing (special alert to cisgender heterosexual men here!) is not to offer solutions to your partner’s problems, but rather to just listen, ask questions, and make what I call ‘empathic murmurings’: ‘Wow, that sounds hard.’ ‘He really said that? Ugh!’ ‘That sounds really insane, honey! No wonder you’re upset.’
- Add to the menu
Couples who’ve been together for years also need to regularly rejuvenate their menu of pleasurable activities. If you’ve gotten into a routine of pizza and Netflix on a Saturday night (or, for that matter, bungee jumping off a bridge on a Sunday morning!), it has likely gotten boring. Switch things up by taking a class, reading a book together, or agreeing on another activity that interests both of you.
Attempting to restore a relationship on the brink takes effort, but it does not have to be approached with the dismal view that ‘marriage is hard work’. Better to approach your experiments in possibility with an attitude of creative play, just like a jazz group that is learning a new tune and improvising around the melody and chords. There is no guarantee that these exercises will definitely restore your love and compassion but, without new action, you’ll never know what could have been.
If your efforts on your own do not produce sufficient change, I advise that you consult with a competent couple therapist – but be sure that, rather than simply listening to your painful history, they are prepared to offer specific skills and tools to help you create change in your relationship.
Key points – How to save a romantic relationship
- It is common for couples to question their future together. Frequent conflict, affairs or other violations, differences in goals, and an absence of passionate connection can all push couples to the brink of separation.
- There is a way forward for many ‘last-chance couples’. Trying new ways of being together offers an opportunity to assess a relationship’s prospects – and, potentially, to repair and strengthen the bond.
- Have a conversation about the possibility of change. Agree to engage in some ‘nonbinding experiments’, to take some chances together despite any negative expectations or feelings of low motivation.
- Recognise problematic patterns in your interactions. These include escalating attacks, withdrawal from conversations, invalidation of a partner’s perspective, and overly negative interpretations of behaviour.
- Practise taking a timeout. When damaging communication patterns arise, agree to take a break, and use a reliable activity (such as mindful breathing) to help you calm down.
- Use the speaker/listener technique. Taking organised turns as Speaker and Listener on a single, difficult topic can help you avoid escalation and other negative patterns.
- After listening, turn to problem-solving. Sometimes the solution is straightforward (eg, an apology and commitment to change); other times, brainstorming and compromise are required.
- Try low-risk activities to increase pleasure and intimacy. Minute-long bursts of connection, daily words of appreciation, and even silent walks can start to restore shared joy.
When a partner has violated values or safety: violence, affairs, or substance overuse
If one partner has engaged in an affair or any extradyadic sexual or romantic relationship that the other hasn’t consented to, it can precipitate a trauma reaction in the partner whose trust has been violated. Likewise, ongoing intimidation, verbal or physical aggression, or substance overuse by one partner can result in trauma symptoms in the other partner.
I recommend that once the affair has been ended or a commitment to ending violence or substance overuse has been made – and ending these behaviours is a prerequisite for the possibility of healing – the person who violated a partner’s values or safety in these ways should engage in regular expressions of apology. One form this can take is a daily statement like this one: ‘I know that during the day, you might have thoughts, feelings and memories about what I did. I want to apologise for the effects of my behaviour on you, and say again that I am committed to rebuilding our relationship and not hurting you again.’
Apologising is a critical component of healing, as what typically happens is that the partner who has misbehaved wants to move on quickly, while the other partner is still vibrating with the trauma caused by the behaviour. A recurring apology helps to ensure that the offending partner takes responsibility and shares in the suffering of the other partner.
In the case of affairs, it is typical that, in order to potentially move on, one person wants to know more details about what the other partner did during the affair. This is often baffling to the one who had the affair, as they think it will only be upsetting to learn these details. But gathering more information is what the brain often needs to make sense of what happened and to settle down – and, often, what the enquiring partner imagines took place is worse than what actually occurred. Gathering more information can also be important because it may influence the decision about whether to stay in the relationship.
If a partner who’s been intimidating or violent refuses to take 100 per cent of the responsibility for their behaviour (for instance, if they say: ‘Well, you provoke me!’), or does not make a full and complete commitment to stopping this behaviour (as demonstrated over time, not only in an apology), it’s best to separate immediately, and the abused partner must seek safety. Please note that there is a wide range of behaviour on the continuum of intimidation, aggression and violence. Even if it’s a one-time event, and your partner has apologised, if you still feel threatened, be conservative and separate for the time being. In addition to the communication skills described earlier, the partner who’s been violent needs to develop anger management skills and, typically, requires more intensive individual psychotherapy to explore the reasons they’ve engaged in intimidation or violence. There are effective couple therapies for eliminating interpersonal violence: if you seek therapy together, make sure that the therapist you find knows specific theories and techniques for working with this problem.
Likewise, when a partner repeatedly engages in substance overuse and remains in denial about their behaviour and its impact, a separation may be needed while you seek professional, specialised help, both as a couple and for the substance-overusing partner. As noted earlier, this may involve intensive outpatient therapy, sometimes preceded by rehab, and the ongoing support of a 12-step programme (and Al-Anon for the other partner).
Only when these destructive, value- and safety-violating behaviours have stopped is it advisable to engage in the techniques I’ve offered for experimenting with the relationship’s potential for improvement.
Links & books
My latest book, Last Chance Couple Therapy: Bringing Relationships Back from the Brink (2023), is written mostly for couple therapists, and provides a comprehensive approach to working with last-chance couples, including the techniques described in this Guide and much more. I also wrote the article ‘Helping Couples on the Brink’ (2022), with a commentary by Erica Turner, for Psychotherapy Networker magazine, addressing many of the themes in the present Guide. Discussing a case study drawn from the book, this article focuses on a specific couple who experienced significant differences and conflicts that threatened the future of their relationship.
My earlier book, Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track (2011), focuses specifically on all the ways that couples experience conflict about time. These include differences in pace (fast or slow), punctuality, time perspective (a dominant focus on the present, past or future), daily and weekly rhythms, plans for their future, desires for how to allocate time, and work/relationship balance. It provides specific communication techniques and other tools to resolve these differences.
In some short videos created by the Ackerman Institute for the Family, I describe the primary problem-communication patterns and how to avoid them.
The brief book The Love Prescription: Seven Days to More Intimacy, Connection, and Joy (2022) by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman summarises decades of the Gottmans’ research-based guidance on how to improve a relationship.
The book Fighting for Your Marriage (3rd ed, 2010) by Howard J Markman, Scott M Stanley and Susan L Blumberg is based on the empirically supported Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP). It provides effective communication and problem-solving skills, explores broader ‘hidden issues’ such as power and control, closeness and caring, and respect and recognition, and provides tips to enhance fun, friendship and sexual intimacy.