6 Ways to Recreate, Not Just Salvage, Your Relationship

You can't forge a new bond without making changes. Start with these.

Posted Jan 28, 2015

In my previous post, I emphasized that merely salvaging a relationship can’t lead to the kind of long-lasting change that transforms it. I argued that the primary problem with such “relationship rescuing” is that its focus is mostly on “containing” the negatives between the two beleaguered partners. But when a couple is on the verge of separation, what’s really needed is for them to fully grasp the deeper dynamics of their relational distress. Then they can pinpoint not only what’s led their couplehood to go awry but also how they need to recreate their relationship into something far more conducive to mutual happiness and contentment.

I’d like to get more specific now and delineate six ways that couples can consciously co-create a relationship offering them the emotional and mental (not to mention, physical) intimacy that’s so sadly been lacking between them. (And I’ll request that you excuse the inevitable repetition and overlap, for many of these suggestions aren’t simply complementary but deeply, inextricably, intertwined.)

In any case, here are some fundamental do’s and don’ts—or rather, don’ts and do’s:

1. Don’t try to bury your relationship past—actively explore its hurts, disappointments, and misunderstandings.

Salvaging a relationship frequently implies agreeing to ignore, or forget about, painful incidents from the past. But the problem with such “planned amnesia” is that much of what took place earlier may still be festering within you, your partner, or both of you. Whether right on the surface, or somewhere beneath it, certain memories may still harbor substantial negative residue.

Recreating your relationship entails attending to, and scrupulously striving to comprehend, past hurts—but from a far more empathic and compassionate perspective: One where the goal isn’t to evaluate or judge but to sympathetically understand and forgive. Exploring these admittedly noxious scenarios in a healthier, more healing manner enables fresh insights to emerge and assists both parties in grasping the other’s motives as less spiteful or malicious than originally assumed. It also helps past issues to get resolved in a way that couldn’t have happened earlier because your communication may have been laden with accusations and counter-accusations, verbal aggression, or hostility.

2. Don’t suppress your negative thoughts and feelings—give vent to them, but tactfully.

If you can’t bring out in the open what may be core, unalterable differences between you, and then sincerely “agree to disagree” on them, any “truce” you may succeed in fabricating is unlikely to last.

On the other hand, recreating your relationship is about changing a variety of protective communication patterns that have seriously undermined feelings of affection, love, and security in the relationship. Rather than seeking to deny the things about your partner that have annoyed you—and for which, covertly, you may have punished them—you grant yourself permission to articulate these frustrations. But you also begin to challenge the assumptions behind past unfavorable assessments of your partner’s bothersome behavior and reevaluate these behaviors as either (1) the only way they’d known how to get their wants and needs met in the relationship, or (2) negative reactions that were actually retaliations against you, based on their interpretation of something that (however unknowingly) you said or did that was painful or offensive to them.

3. Don’t defensively, protect your ego—dare to make yourself vulnerable to your partner.

Frankly, salvaging your relationship can be more about safeguarding yourself from feelings of failure and rejection closely linked to divorce than about taking the risk of making yourself more emotionally accessible to your partner. And not just more open but also more vulnerable. But if you’re to bring back, or strengthen, the lost connection between you, staying in an emotionally distanced, self-protective mode won’t much help the relationship.

In contrast, recreating the original union between you involves establishing—or re-establishing—the intimacy that’s probably been missing for some time now. And recovering it necessitates your going out on a limb and making yourself more vulnerable to your partner. This is especially true because both of you have probably retreated from such emotional availability as feelings of safety between you deteriorated.

It’s been said that in an ideal relationship, each party serves as the guardian for the other’s vulnerability. This involves talking to your partner about your secret hopes and fears in the relationship: what you’ve wished the relationship could be, how susceptible you are to their criticism, how scared you might be about their reactions to you, your troublesome ponderings about how you might have failed them, and how your partner may actually have intensified old childhood doubts about yourself. And such courageous self-disclosure can be contagious: If you can admit your relational vulnerability, they may well be induced to do so also. And mutually confiding in one another—without self-righteous anger or recrimination—is almost guaranteed to bring you closer together.

4. Don’t labor, martyr-like, to tolerate your partner’s behavior—discover how to resolutely accept it.

Salvaging your relationship typically involves forcing yourself to better endure aspects of your partner that in the past have disturbed you to the point that you couldn’t help but criticize them for their errant ways—impatiently putting them down or outright degrading them. But consider that most of the time these behaviors aren’t inherently bad or maladaptive. It’s just that they vary so much from your own preferences or way of doing things. In short, they lie way outside your comfort zone. So (till now at least) they couldn’t help but exasperate you.

Still, if your goal is to recreate your relationship, you can work (and it really does take work) to re-perceive your partner’s behavior as totally reasonable and valid for them. As a result of viewing things sympathetically from their perspective, the tension embedded in your previously tolerating these “incorrect” behaviors will dissipate. Returning to the matter of respect discussed in my previous post, if you can genuinely honor their discrepant habits and inclinations as reflecting hard-core differences between you in native disposition, “programming,” priorities and values, the mutual acceptance and respect that’s absolutely vital to intimate relationships can be restored—maybe even enhanced.

5. Don’t hold onto an attitude of superior righteousness. Decide to see your partner as being as "right" as you are.

Salvaging a relationship generally implies continuing to think the position you’ve taken all along in the relationship remains warranted (and even blameless), yet trying to overlook this predominant sense of self-justification in the determined effort to “save” the connection—whether this be for personal convenience or simple face-saving. Such a stance can be seen as reflecting a kind of “bad faith." For you’re not really willing to look at your partner—or yourself—differently. You’re simply “bypassing” your righteous beliefs (or even your contempt for your partner) to prevent them from getting away.

On the contrary, recreating your relationship involves new openness to the idea that both of you are right from your own individual perspectives. You no longer assume that if one of you is right, the other must certainly be wrong. And you’re no longer threatened, or made to feel invalidated by, your partner’s contrasting viewpoint. I should add that here we’re not talking about disagreeing about something factual (like when a particular event took place) but about something far more subjective (like what a movie you’ve seen was really about, or the best way to deal with your in-laws).

6. Don’t begrudge your partner’s need for more dependence, or independence. Honor and support it.

Salvaging your relationship is about, however grumblingly, allowing your partner to be more dependent on you, though you may have strenuously resisted this dependency earlier (possibly for fear of being “engulfed” by them). On the other hand, hesitantly permitting them to become more relationally independent may also have led to much internal conflict (for granting them such autonomy might have brought up old fears of abandonment).

Recreating your relationship is something quite different. While maintaining your own limits and boundaries—that is, your personal integrity—you freely allow them either greater dependence on you or greater freedom to pursue, individually, interests outside of the relationship. And to achieve this crucial attitudinal shift, you’ll be required to look not at your partner but at yourself. You’ll need to identify, and resolve, issues you may have had with closeness in the past. Obviously, relationships work best when ways are found to accommodate the needs and wishes of both partners (unless, of course, the other’s needs are wildly exaggerated). So if you’re struggling with making reasonable accommodations for your partner—and whether this has to do with dependency or anything else—it’s crucial that you recognize the negative, defeatist meanings that till now you’ve ascribed to such accommodation.

No doubt there are additional ways to recreate—vs. salvage—you relationship. But the six outlined above should definitely get you off to a good start.

NOTE: I’ve written many other relationship-oriented posts for Psychology Today. In various ways they all complement, or add to, what I’ve endeavored to clarify here. For anyone interested in pursuing relational improvement further, here are their links: