Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together may be pulling you apart.

Is Your Relationship Really Over?

Scary words you'll want to avoid hearing from and saying to your partner

Many of you have read about, or personally experienced the signs that your relationship is in serious trouble. Here’s a few to jog your memory: 1. When your partner emotionally distances from you for an inordinate period of time; 2. when he/she starts fights or becomes agitated over relatively minor issues; 3. when the fighting goes from 0 to 60 in a few seconds; 4. when the fighting becomes chronic; 5. when your partner begins to make excuse after excuse not to have sex with you; and, 6. when he/she moves into another bedroom or requests a trial separation. “You know honey, I’m not saying I want a divorce…yet…but I just think we need a little time apart to sort things out.” When I hear these words in my clinical practice I shudder because it brings to mind that infamous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “You got your mind right, Luke?”

Indeed, some of these relationships are “lame ducks.” The initiating partner either isn’t quite ready to pull the plug, or is too concerned about hurting your feelings; some think you’ll go ballistic and would rather avoid violent fallout. Even with signs, however, it’s hard to tell for certain what the true prognosis of the relationship actually is. Most marriage counselors are reluctant to push a relationship one way or the other—preferring to let them run their course all the while clarifying and interpreting threatening comments. It’s the least we can do for the non-initiating spouse to help prevent shock if and when the hammer comes down.

In my opinion, however, there are words other than, “I’m done with you and I want a divorce,” that are an excellent indicator that your relationship may be truly over. I hope you’ve never heard—and never will hear this: “I love you, but I’m just not in love with you,” or some facsimile of. To me “loving someone” can be entirely different than “being in love” with them. You can love someone and cheat on them; you can even separate or divorce and love simultaneously: “I love you but I just can’t live with you.” Or, “I love you but I just can’t be married to you.” And one of my personal favorites: “Of course I love you…well…I don’t want anything to happen to you.” Ah, what’s the difference?

Anyway, in my experience when the words “I’m not in love with you” are uttered, particularly by a woman, it’s pretty much a done deal. In over 35 years of marriage counseling I’ve never seen a woman come back from this point—which I call “over the hump.” Men aren’t that easy to retrieve either, but it’s been my experience that women are much more ominous at this stage. Yes, once a partner is over the hump, it seems almost impossible to bring him/her back into the relationship. Some people try to hang in there and I admire their loyalty and tenacity, but it’s a very difficult process. I’m not recommending that people at this stage stop trying to do everything they can to save their relationship, but…

On the upside, it’s not that easy to reach the hump stage in a relationship—it takes a lot of dysfunctional work. I believe it was Balzac who once said something like “in every relationship there is a non-communicative partner and one who cannot read between the lines.” I’ve found this to be true. The initiator tends to simmer rather than clearly express his/her thoughts and feelings. By the hump stage, the initiator usually has so much anger and resentment built up that little if anything of the relationship can be salvaged. The so-called non-initiating partner appears blind to the initiator’s hurt and rage, even if hints of such have been dropped in his/her lap.

What to do? Well, I believe a case can be made for consistent nurturing and early intervention. Too many couples treat marriage counseling as a last resort. By this time the initiator may have at least one foot out the door. Partners must pay attention to their relationships and get help as soon as they even get a sniff of trouble. The objective is to keep your partner as far away from the hump as possible…always and forever. Don’t be too proud to tackle your relationship issues, or one day you could be told that you’re loved on par with your pet beagle…maybe less.

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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