When is a Relationship (Romance, Friendship, Whatever) Worth Saving?A few weeks ago I was given a spreadsheet showing which of my online blogs and articles (on numerous websites) have gotten the most views. And no matter the website, the postings that topped the charts almost always dealt on some level with relationships and intimate emotional connections. And why not? After all, relationships help us to feel understood, loved, and part of – all of which are deeply important human needs. It’s only natural that people would be interested in this topic.

As I examined the aforementioned readership chart, I also noticed that the vast majority of my articles dealing with relationships looked at the downside – intimacy gone wrong and why that sometimes happens. So today I find myself asking: What about the flipside? Why don’t I spend more time writing about on the positive aspects of relationships? And I realize that the answer to this is relatively simple and straightforward: As a psychotherapist specializing in sexual disorders and intimacy issues, I am presented with relationship problems much more often than relationship successes, and I therefore tend to write more about the negatives than the positives.

Nevertheless, after more than two decades spent helping individuals and couples identify and overcome their problems with connection and intimacy, I know that relationship difficulties can be transformed into successes, and that relationship crises, when overcome, often result in healthier, stronger and more fulfilling intimate bonds. I also know that this process typically starts with an evaluation of whether the relationship (be it a romance, a friendship, a family tie or anything else) is worth saving. Following that decision, the therapeutic process can move forward into either ending the relationship and healthfully processing its demise or resolving relationship conflicts and strengthening the connection.

When clients are unsure if a current relationship is worth saving, I typically pose a series of relationship-related questions, discussed below. Certainly there is no cut-and-dried formula for deciding whether to keep or leave a relationship, but honest answers to these queries nearly always provides some degree of clarity – especially when supplemented by honest, empathetic and impartial therapeutic feedback. The questions are as follows:

  1. Do you enjoy spending time together? If a client has, over time, come to genuinely dislike or to no longer appreciate the other person, that’s an obvious red flag. Whether the relationship is a romantic entanglement or a friendship, a negative answer to this question might be enough reason to end it. With family connections the situation is different, of course, possibly requiring negotiation more than exit. Regardless, clients need to understand that one of the primary reasons to be in a relationship is that it’s fun and enjoyable at least some of the time. If being with another person is consistently boring or stressful – if it feels like a chore – it might be time to move on, or at least to give the situation a good healthy shake to see what happens.
  2. Do you trust the other person? Trust is a key element in healthy relationships. (Nobody is more aware of this than psychotherapists!) If two people trust each other, if they know that they have each other’s backs no matter what, that’s a solid relationship foundation. If a relationship is open-minded, honest and nonjudgmental enough for both parties to feel comfortable expressing their needs, desires and goals, and both parties consistently value and maintain the commitments they make to one another, then that relationship is likely worth saving. If, however, one person is keeping secrets and/or telling lies, or consistently not keeping commitments, then it may be time to call it off (or at least bring it to therapy).
  3. Do you play well together? When people in a relationship have at least a few common interests and hobbies they can enjoy together, that’s a strong sign of relationship health, especially if those interests/hobbies are important elements of life for one or preferably both parties. (Raising children together counts!) If both people find the other’s activities, recreational interests and anecdotes enjoyable and entertaining (or at least not too boring), then they probably enjoy being together. However, if one person feels trapped or dragged along on an uninteresting ride, then that bodes poorly for long-term relationship health.
  4. Do you enjoy shared values and beliefs? Admittedly, no two people are going to agree on everything, but if there is at least a little common ground regarding religion, politics, finances, education, having kids, monogamy and the like, then there is a solid foundation to build upon. Conversely, relationship health is greatly diminished if/when one person feels forced into a certain belief system or one person is living a double life and hiding important issues from the other because he or she fears rejection. Which brings us to the next question…
  5. Is it OK for the two of you to disagree? In all relationships, conflicts are inevitable. When a relationship is healthy, petty arguments and disagreements offer a growth opportunity – learning patience, learning empathy, learning something new, etc. However, when a relationship is not healthy, even the smallest issue can become a smoldering resentment (possibly tied to much deeper and more enduring concerns). If two people can agree to amicably disagree once in a while, perhaps around less important issues (to them), then their relationship can likely survive the occasional differing opinion.
  6. Are you free to have your own life? Admittedly, good relationships are built on commonality. But too much closeness can feel smothering and enmeshed to one or both parties. If a person does not feel OK about having his or her own interests, friends and activities, or does not want the other person to have any kind of separate life, this a sure sign of a fear-based relationship that likely needs some help. On the other hand, if each person is free to have goals and interests of his or her own, this creates (much needed) breathing room for both people. At the very least, people in a relationship need space outside the relationship in which to discuss (and maybe vent about) the relationship. In short, the best relationships involve separate people with separate identities, where each person is thinking and acting as he or she sees fit. It is important to note that relationships vary greatly when it comes to autonomy. Some pairs want to spend as much time together as possible and to be on the same page as much as possible, while others are fine with having much more separate lives. There is no right or wrong here, so long as neither person feels smothered or overly enmeshed.
  7. Is there mutual respect in your relationship? If both parties bring something worthwhile to the table (it doesn’t have to be the same thing), then it is easier to respect one another’s contributions, opinions, beliefs, etc. When the footing is drastically unequal, one person typically feels shamed and/or dismissed, and this is not a sign of relationship health. In healthy relationships, both people respect the other person as he or she truly is, valuing the give and take. This is not to say there can’t be an imbalance of power in various aspects of healthy relationships. In fact, there can be and for some people that is even the best option – provided both parties are aware of and OK with this, neither party feels exploited or unappreciated, and the lines of communication are open for change and growth.
  8. Does the other person turn you on? This is obviously more important in romantic relationships than in friendships. Certainly no romantically involved couple can expect the “puppy love” stage of a new relationship to last forever, but long-term romantic relationships do best when there is some continuing spark of physical attraction. As Dr. Charlotte Kasl writes in her terrific book, If the Buddha Dated, if someone isn’t at least a 7 on your 1 to 10 scale of physical attraction, then you probably shouldn’t start a physically intimate relationship with that person. In short, a romance is not likely to work out without at least some degree of initial physical attraction that can be maintained over time. (Keep in mind, this is your personal 1 to 10 scale, not society’s scale, or your best friend’s scale, or your mother’s scale. Who cares what they think? This is your relationship, not theirs.)
  9. Do you support each other? If a client feels that the other person is not there for him or her when the going gets tough, or that the other person expresses jealousy, negativity or indifference toward the client’s thoughts, beliefs, goals, desires and/or activities, that’s not a great sign. Conversely, when each individual in a relationship works to help the other succeed, and feels joy when that happens, then the relationship is almost certainly strong enough to survive most conflicts. In other words, healthy relationships occur when two people value, validate and support the other person as he or she truly is.
  10. Does your relationship roll with the punches? Human connections are not stagnant. People change and grow as individuals, and relationships must also change and grow. When growth occurs and that growth is accepted (even lauded) by both parties, then relationship intimacy will also grow. For instance, if a spouse decides to go back to school or to stop working to care for the couple’s home and children, there needs to be a mutual value and respect for that, even though one person’s life priorities have clearly changed. The more resistance to change there is, the more challenges a relationship will face.
  11. Are your expectations realistic? No person or relationship is perfect. If one person in a relationship expects the other to consistently look and act a certain way (i.e., perfectly), then disappointment is inevitable and disaster likely looms. It is incredibly important to understand that in healthy relationships both partners must accept and respect one another, warts and all. No person can consistently live up to another person’s fantasy of perfection, and expecting someone to do so is a recipe for disaster.
  12. Are you both invested in the relationship? It takes two to tango. If a client wants to keep a relationship alive but the other person seems to not care very much, it may be time to move on. It is also important to understand that “keeping a relationship alive” means different things to different people. That said, no matter how much one individual wants to be part of a particular relationship, the relationship will fail if the other person is not also fully vested. In other words, if the desire for a relationship is unrequited, then there is no actual relationship to save, and it’s time to grieve and process this fact.

Once again, there are no set rules for determining when a relationship is worth saving, and clients must ultimately decide this matter for themselves. As therapists, our job is to help them understand that healthy relationships are based on enjoyment, shared interests, common values, honesty, trust and mutual support. If these elements are present to some degree most of the time, then the relationship is probably worth saving. In such cases, whatever problems there are, the client and the other person can likely work through them – perhaps with therapeutic assistance. And when they do so, they will almost certainly find that they have a stronger and more fulfilling relationship as a result.

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