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When to Hold On and When to Let Go

couple opposite on bed

As a couples therapist, I've seen many clients with a variety of issues in their relationship(s). Some are seeking counseling to address problems that are fairly new, while others are coming in to talk about long standing issues that they haven't been able to shake. One of the biggest questions we couples therapists' often ask ourselves (and so do our clients from time-to-time) is when should you hang up the towel on your relationship or marriage? Ultimately we don't have a crystal ball to accurately predict your relationship future, but here are some consistent and long standing signs you and your partner should be on the look out for:

The Four Horsemen

Some of the best predictors of relationship success or demise comes from The Gottman Institute and their work with couples on identifying four key components that are likely to tear down relationships over time. These horsemen include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Let's review them all.

  1. Criticism: If you and your partner are critical of each other this doesn't necessarily mean your relationship won't last. However, persistent criticism over an extended period of time can make the partner on the receiving end feel less than and rejected in the relationship.

  2. Contempt: A form of mockery and sarcasm. Contempt goes beyond criticism by taking on a role of superiority in your relationship. According to Gottamn's research, couples that demonstrate contemptuous behavior are more likely to fall physical ill from colds or flus due to weakened immune systems. Yes, that's right your immune system can be affected by persistent negative mental health! This particular horsemen was also noted to be the greatest single predictor of divorce according to Gottman.

  3. Defensiveness: Anyone whose been in a long term relationship can also attest to being defensive at times. When we feel accused our walls of armor go up! Defensive behavior and communication often results in blame and excuse making. If we are unwilling to make amends and apologize for our defensive behavior, this can result in grudge building and further communication blocks between you and your partner.

  4. Stonewalling: The last and final horseman is stonewalling. This behavior is characterized by withdrawing from interactions and shutting down emotionally. So instead of confronting your partner about an issue, individuals engaged in stonewalling often turn away and avoid problems.

How to Overcome the Four Horsemen or When to Call It?

If you have read the above factors that contribute to unhealthy relationships and feel that you and your partner(s) are engaged in these behaviors, there is hope to working on these problems. For starters, attending couples counseling to address some of the core issues you both or those involved are facing in your relationship(s) to develop a communication treatment plan can be a first step. Reincorporating appreciation, respect, taking responsibility for actions and words, and learning how to take a break and come back to the issue are also important pieces in healing your relationship.

If you've been to couples counseling for a healthy period of time (~months or even years), and have been unable to move beyond some of the problematic pieces it might be time to ask yourselves the following questions:

"Other than loving my partner, what else is keeping me in this relationship?"

Although love is an important glue in your relationship, it isn't the binding factor that will keep you in a healthy relationship long term. Is it obligation, duty to my role as a parent, spouse, or partner keeping me here? If you find yourself leaning towards obligation to be with your spouse or partner because of finances, parental role, religious or cultural obligation you may need to speak with your partner honestly about where you see your relationship(s) going.

"Am I feeling scared to consider a separation, break up, or divorce because we've just been together so long?"

Break ups and divorces are hardly easy. The longer you've been together too can also solidify a sense of resistance to the idea, as many couples often feel that 'we've been through so much already, we HAVE to get through this!' As much as you've already been through, if you haven't been able to move past the horsemen with no resolve, simply having time invested doesn't determine healthy longevity.

"Do we see ourselves continuing to make goals together as a couple beyond obligation and responsibility? Or are we living day-to-day and trying to get by?"

Many couples conflate daily routine with long term goals. Long term goals as a couple can include fun activities you want to pursue together, financial planning, and/or hobbies you each routinely enjoy that promote bonding. Simply creating a goal without investing communication work to address core issues is like putting a band aid on a bleeding wound. So if the idea of purchasing a house together or having a child comes to mind as a relationship 'fix,' then you might have bigger problems to address.

If you feel that you and your partner are struggling in your relationship(s) and want to give counseling a start, please reach out to our therapists at Identity! We offer expert insight and knowledge about relationship issues and intimacy related concerns.

Author: Devin Pinkston, MA, LPC (she/her)

Owner, trans-affirming and couples therapist has many years experience working with individuals and couples in monogamous and non-monogamous relationship dynamics. Call us today to inquire about a consultation at 970-644-2392

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