Feeling Stuck in Your Romantic Relationship?

Four ways to keep moving forward.

Posted Aug 25, 2020

People who are unhappy with love struggle with deciding when to call it quits. Their unhappiness tends to stem from some recurring conflict or pattern. They feel as if they can’t take it anymore, "I am done." Then, they run a mental calculus of the good and the bad then deduce they have already invested so much. Why not just stick it out? This back and forth neurosis can go on for months, years, and even decades in some cases. Now that we are in the middle of a pandemic many in this dilemma feel more stuck than ever before. Getting a divorce is complicated, moving out is complicated, and even if you are not married you may just feel profound guilt leaving your romantic partner in such an emotionally uncertain time or fear being alone yourself.

When feeling stuck, it is important to not give in to what psychologists term “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is when we fall into a victim mentality and believe there is no point in trying anymore because we aren’t going to get what we want anyway. It usually comes after feeling as if we are constantly failing at something so we have little hope we can ever succeed. Once learned helplessness sets in depression or low mood is quick to follow. We can even start to feel there is the point of life in general, not just the specific stressor at hand. 

Consider re-evaluating your beliefs around what you can control in your romantic relationship. Have you really tried to work at things, internally and/or with your partner, or have you essentially convinced yourself there is no point in trying and you just need to suck it up? Here are a few ways to keep moving forward in a stuck-in-a-bad-place relationship:

1.  Believe you can and will get what you want. A barrier to getting what we want is that we tell ourselves we can’t get it anyway. Why try? You may find you do this in your relationship. Something upsets you and then you convince yourself out of your upset and rationalize why you should not bring it up with your partner or why you should just get over it. You don’t deserve unhappiness. If you can’t even say out loud what you need to be happy, at least to yourself and ideally to your partner, then it will never come to be. Spend some time imagining what you want from your partner and instead of talking yourself out of it or telling yourself why it won’t happen, imagine the steps you need to take to get there.

2.  Use this time productively. The pandemic is hugely stressful and impacting the entire world. It is also a giant psychological reset. Some people are finding they have more time with their families or romantic partners. Couples who traveled before the pandemic or couples who had very busy weekend schedules find life is slower and that there is more time. As a result, all of the cobwebs that perhaps you have avoided or pushed away are now front and center. You may feel as if you can no longer deny what isn’t working in your relationship because it is staring you smack in the face.

Instead of feeling hopeless and stuck about this, use it as a way to start growing the relationship. If COVID hadn’t hit, you and your partner would be in the same unfulfilling dance. At least now you can actually look at what is unhealthy and see if things can grow and improve. Consider if you and your partner can utilize this time in a productive way to do a deep dive into your relationship difficulties. Remember we rarely grow without a new challenge, consider doing something different or bringing in some new ways of communicating, thinking, and behaving. Couples therapy, online workshops, and self-help books are all helpful in this regard. If you are staying together for now: See if you can both get somewhere with your problems.

3.  Challenge yourself to grow. When in a close relationship it is inevitable that we engage in psychological projection. Projection is a defense mechanism where we protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable by denying our feelings or inadequacies and attributing them to others. When we become intimate and close with a partner the lines become blurred. It can be hard to separate out what we struggle with versus what we are accusing them of struggling with. Accusing your partner that he/she “can’t communicate” may mean communicating is a challenge for you. Or, accusing your partner of not being open with you may mean that you struggle with closeness and intimacy as well. Take some time to consider how you need to grow as an individual to have a healthier relationship. Journal and write about what specific skill sets you need to improve and write down steps to get there. Even if your partner is not on board, you can still grow and try out what you are learning.

4. Don’t give up. Lack of zest and love for life can set in when we give up on believing things can improve. Take your feelings seriously. If you are struggling in your relationship, it matters. If you deny, ignore, or rationalize away these feelings then you may be setting yourself up for chronic unhappiness. Many couples struggle and do the work that will improve their relationships. It is okay to be hopeful and try. On the other hand, if you’ve done that work and find nothing has changed then it may be time to consider letting your partner go. Either way, don’t give up on the idea that you can and deserve to be in a mutually respectful, emotionally intimate, fulfilling relationship.

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