Don’t Just Salvage Your Relationship—Recreate It!

Simply trying to be nicer isn’t a very effective way to improve a relationship.

Posted Dec 17, 2014

Positive connotations for the word salvage aren’t particularly favorable. Think about it. To salvage something typically involves rescuing or reclaiming it after it’s been all but lost or destroyed. So whatever is retrieved is probably damaged or disintegrating. It’s hardly in the best shape. It’s intriguing that the original meaning of the word relates to saving something from disaster—such as a fire or shipwreck. So, if you’re in a relationship that over time has seriously decayed, merely “saving” it from its final demise doesn’t indicate that you’ve made it significantly better. Maybe the two of you have made it good enough not to split up—but not much more than that.

Which is why, as a therapist, I’ve always winced at the word “salvage.” For unless the deeper issues accounting for why the relationship has long been at “death’s door” are understood—and scrupulously rectified—a couple’s simply trying to be nicer to each other never really succeeds in changing its basically negative “feeling tone.” Contriving to be more pleasant to one another generally involves little more than holding yourself back from expressing anger and resentment; as well as disciplining yourself to “perform” additional caring behaviors. And a lot of suggestions in mass consumer publications don’t go much beyond such superficial advice (e.g., take a shower together). But nothing essential to the relationship’s malaise can get healed when the various negatives in the relationship haven’t been adequately addressed. Ultimately, attempting somehow to “bypass” enduring relational frustrations is futile. Almost inevitably, the relationship will relapse back into crisis mode.

It’s ironic. Many therapists tell distressed couples that they need to focus more on the positives that initially brought them together (e.g., re-introduce “date nights” into their weekly regimen). To a certain extent, such suggestions can be useful. After all, some of the positives that brought them together in the first place do need to be recalled—and renewed. Still, couples need to consciously, deliberately, and proactively work on resolving the conflicts that for too long have undermined their relationship. In the end, focusing almost entirely on expanding its positives won’t do enough to strengthen the so-weakened bond between them. Methodically placing positives on top of all the disillusioning negatives may better conceal them, but it can’t disappear them either. The inevitable result is that they’re likely to resurface any time one partner (however inadvertently) provokes, or “triggers,” the other.

Consider that when a relationship is failing, it’s primarily because you’ve both become polarized in your thinking—which can best be characterized as self-righteous and critical. As a result, much of your respect for each other has atrophied. So can you perceive your partner in a fundamentally different (and far more positive) light? However hurtful or inconsiderate you may feel they’ve been to you, can you see them as essentially well-meaning—that their reactions to you may represent something other than unacceptable flaws in their character? For regaining respect for your partner is pivotal if your relationship is going to have a fresh chance at success. Your self-justifying perceptions of them degraded your respect for them in the first place. So is there a way you could more benignly reperceive their motives, so you might feel less animosity toward—or alienation from—them?

If your partner has hurt you, have they possibly been hurt by you as well? Or if they’ve been insensitive to your needs, have you really tried everything possible to explain such a shortcoming to them, and in a tactful way that could truly increase their awareness? That is, if out of frustration you turned on them critically, they may likely have gone into defensive, self-protective mode, and so not been able to get at a primal, visceral level how much pain their insensitivity caused you.

Additionally, if they have “unfinished business” from childhood, is it possible they’ve unknowingly “dumped” on you old, unmet dependency needs—incapable of appreciating that their expectations were excessive or unreasonable? Might you be able to broach the subject of their burdensome overdependency without enmity or rancor, even though it made you feel unfairly taken advantage of?

Plus, if they’ve been manipulative with you, might you consider that such “scheming” may in the past have been unwittingly rewarded by their parents, who were either too harsh with, or neglectful of, them? In other words, if you’ve seen them as exploitively “using” you, might there yet be a certain innocence in all their calculating behavior? If in growing up their underhandedness was actually adaptive, how much ought they to be blamed for it? For they may simply have become “programmed” to manipulate as the best possible strategy to get their (completely legitimate) childhood wants and needs met: Not because they’re—by nature—shrewd and duplicitous but because, deep down, they were unfortunately conditioned to act this way.

As I like to put it with the people I work with, our brains can be understood as biocomputers. And so not only can they be programmed to act in a particular way but, potentially, they can be both deprogrammed and reprogrammed. True, sometimes such “software redesign” can happen only through professional assistance. Still, if you’re able to discuss with your partner (i.e., with compassion and understanding) their no-longer-adaptive programming, such a dialog could be a major step toward their reconsidering—and altering—behavior that really hasn’t served either one of you.

Regardless of how aggravating their treatment of you may have come to feel, can you make every effort to sympathetically understand things from their point of view? For, in reality, they may not be all that different from the person you thought they were when you decided to commit to them originally (and if, in fact, they really are, then proceeding to the next step of breaking up may indeed be the wisest choice you can make).

Finally, might you both need to apologize to one another for not being sufficiently sensitive to the other’s needs? And can the two of you take responsibility for not communicating as clearly or emphatically as was necessary to get your partner to be more receptive to you? The problem with many (most?) couples is that they wait too long to share their grievances. And when they finally do, they’re so upset that they can’t help but erupt and attack their partner vehemently. Which rarely, if ever, prompts the other to respond with the empathy and understanding that might help bring the two of you closer together. Rather, it leads to an animated counter-attack, arch defensiveness, or even total withdrawal (mental, emotional, and physical).

Sadly, the diplomatic (read, non-blaming) skills requisite to productively sharing your frustrations when they’ve hit the ceiling are hardly common. So it takes substantial effort and knowledge to make your partner more sensitive to your complaints without at the same time overwhelming them, such that they react far more to your venom than to the message you so desperately need them to grasp.

But if you and your partner are willing to focus less on the pain caused you by their behavior, and more on what you yourself may have contributed to the relationship’s distress, you will have cleared the path for true reconciliation. And this “reuniting” could help re-establish the love and caring that earlier had you convinced that your partner was just the one you wanted to grow old with.

NOTE 1: My next post will offer six specific suggestions for “recreating”—vs. just “salvaging”—your relationship. It's entitled (and here's the link): "6 Ways to Recreate, Not Just Salvage, Your Relationship."

NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and think others might as well, kindly forward them its link. And if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today—on a broad range of topics—click here.

NOTE 3: Since I’ve written so many complementary posts on relationships, here are the titles, and links, to some that might interest you:

"Codependent or Simply Dependent: What's the Big Difference?"

“The Three Things You Should Never Say to Your Partner”

“Attention Couples: Here Are 5 Ways to ‘Get Crazy’ Together”

“Can You Give Your Spouse as Much Love as They Don’t Deserve?”

“Working on Your Relationship During Courtship—Really?!”

“In Relationships, Understanding—Not Agreement—Is Key. Why?”

“Is Your Marriage Fair?”

“One Marriage = Two Realities”

Giving to Get vs. Griping to Get”

How Rational Are ‘Rational’ Marriages?”

Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!”

4 Essential Rules for Approaching Couples Conflict”

Couples Agreeing to Disagree: What’s It Really About?”

“How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise”

Stop Criticizing Your Mate—Re-Learning What You Once Knew”

“Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands Down?” (in two parts)

In Families, Blood May Be Thicker . . . But Skin is Thinner” (Part 3 of “Why Criticism is So Hard to Take”)

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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