Is your relationship worth saving?
Therapists will never tell you whether you should ditch your partner or stick it out. That’s up to you to decide. But they can tell pretty quickly if there are obstacles to getting your relationship back on track.
The opposite is true, as well. Experts can suss out if you’ll be able to re-establish your bond.
“A therapist will help you assess how bad the damage is,” says Sussman. “Some couples feel like the sky is falling, and then they come back the following week and tell me they had a really good weekend. And when one partner describes their weekend and I see the other person smile, that tells me there’s glue and the couple has something,” she adds.
You likely won’t make it if…
Being afraid of your partner is a sign of a damaged relationship, says Sussman. And all three experts agree that physical or emotional abuse are deal-breakers. “We can’t do couples therapy in cases like this, so I really focus on making sure that the person is safe,” says Louis.
And while McManus has seen some relationships recover from domestic violence, “first the couple will need to be separated so that each person can safely do their own individual work,” she says.
... there’s no respect
“It’s difficult to save a relationship is if one partner has completely lost respect or feels contempt for the other,” says McManus. “I rarely see this in couples therapy. Couples I see are usually frustrated and angry. But I suspect that the ones who have genuine contempt for one another mostly don’t make it as far as the therapist’s office.”
Trust is another issue – if partners can’t depend on each other, they’re more likely to break up, says Sussman.
... you play the blame game
“If a couple comes to me and they are 100 percent blaming the problems on the other person and they refuse to take any responsibility, I tend to think that relationship can’t be fixed,” says Sussman.
McManus agrees. “Some people just aren’t ready to look at the wounds that have led them to respond to challenges the way they do,” she says. “So then it’s much less likely they will be able to learn to communicate in a healthy way.”
But you have a good chance if… you fight a lot
You’d think that couples who bicker constantly are doomed. Not so. In fact, it could be an indication that you’re at least making the effort to communicate with each other, says Louis.
Plus, all that fighting may motivate you to change the dynamic precisely because it’s so distressing, says McManus.
... one of you holds out hope
Why is this a good sign for therapists? Because it means at least one half of the couple will work really hard, says Sussman. “I use the metaphor of a couple dancing on the dance floor and then one person walks away in the middle of the song. That other person has to change, too. They’re not going to just keep dancing by themselves,” she says. “So if one person’s changing, there’s hope that the other person can change, too.”
In fact, even seeing a therapist on your own will be good for the two of you. When your partner sees how much you’re getting out of it, they might decide to go on their own, says McManus. “Sometimes this is all that needs to happen – no actual couples therapy is necessary.”
... you refrain from name-calling
This is the flip side of the couple who has no respect for each other. If you aren’t constantly criticising your partner or saying really hurtful things on purpose, you probably are going to be more inclined to share your vulnerabilities with each other, says Louis. And doing that can bring you closer.
... you have kids
Couples tend to be more invested in fixing their relationship if there are children in the picture. This isn’t always true. But Sussman has known partners, especially men, who leave a relationship thinking the kids are going to be okay – and then they’re not. Or they find that they miss their children too much. “Then they come back,” she says. “And when they do, sometimes they’re more motivated to do the work.”
Women, on the other hand, tend to think through how their lives will be when they can’t see their kids every day, notes Sussman.
... you’re willing to work hard
That’s the bottom line: if both of you are willing to put in the work you can save the relationship. But you have to keep an open mind and own your piece in it, says Sussman. “When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, that’s how you really create intimacy in your relationship. And at least your partner understands why you’re doing what you’re doing and then has empathy for you,” she says.