By the time partners seek couples counseling, many are emotionally and physically weary of repeated and unresolvable conflicts. Devoid of energy and disillusioned, they are out of options. Their responses to each other have become predictable and boring. They are stuck in a predictable and uninspiring relationship.
Most of these partnerships were once alive and connected. When the couple first chose each other, they were filled with hope that they could, and would, build a beautiful and successful life together. Now, though still figuratively bonded, they are like ghosts of a lost past, held in a heavy-hearted, lifeless partnership by familial obligations, social ties, financial limitations, religious promises, or fear of the unknown.
Yet, because they have come into therapy, hoping still that they can make it work, or, at least, part without acrimony. Sometimes with anger or, at other times, in grief, they turn to me to help them make that decision. Would it be worth it to invest the time, energy, and money to try to thrive again, are or the patterns too set, their hearts too broken, or too much damage done?
There are many ways to effectively assess those legitimate questions and for a couple to get the answers they need. The first step, no matter how painful, is for the couple to stand back and take a good look at where they are and what their potential is for a successful transformation.
If you are suffering from a Groundhog Day stuck relationship, this is the way to begin.
Go over the next eight descriptions of your relationship and score each 1 to 10, 1 being the best score, and 10 being the worst. Then add up your total score and find the category that best describes where your relationship stands.
- 8-20 = You’re in pretty good shape, but probably need to recommit to who you once were and want to be again.
- 21-35 = You’re not likely investing much energy or prime time in each other and letting other priorities take precedence.
- 36-50 = You’re in potential trouble, living more parallel rather than intertwined and being your most successful self elsewhere.
- 51-65 = You’re sharing only the logistics of maintaining your partnership, responding to each other with worn-out phrases and behaviors that take almost no thought or emotion.
- 66-80 = You are on a dangerous trajectory of becoming totally unimportant to one another and need an emotional and physical transfusion to avoid lasting damage.
1. Repeated Unsuccessful Phrases and Behaviors
Are your verbal and non-verbal interactions so repetitive, that both of you could easily predict them in advance? Do you feel like you’re in an emotional trance-like state, largely unaware of the impact of what you’re saying or doing on the other partner? Is your body language, voice intonations, facial expressions, and rhythms so predictable that you’ve ceased to even notice or react to them?
Sadly, when your relationship was new, you meant those things you said and did, and there were reasons that both of you understood. But, as time went on, they became meaningless connections, and may even have elicited frustration and discouragement.
When words and behaviors are endlessly repeated and unaltered, many partners are no longer able to authentically connect. Now, instead of reaching to talk to each other, they talk at each other, uninterested and unchallenged by the responses.
2. Low Energy
If wonderful relationships are full of emotional color, same old-same old relationships are monochromatic. It is as if all of the moments between the couple are pre-scripted. Being with a low-energy couple is like watching a movie that you’ve seen many times before.
Do you and your partner feel like actors playing worn-out roles? Are most of your conversations now just about logistics or outside news from family and friends? Even if you sometimes talk about controversial subjects that provide current drama, do you truly care what the other feels about what is being said?
Are either of you noticeably animated around other people in dramatic contrast to your boredom with each other? Given the hypothetical question, would you date each other again if you had the opportunity today?
3. Emotional Reactivity
When interest, excitement, and energy fades in a relationship, some couples increase the drama between them to substitute for their lost intimacy. At a trigger point of bored desperation, they are easily set off.
How do you react to each other when you are frustrated, in pain, or feeling abandoned when you need the other? When you do respond negatively to each other, is there any resolution?
Checking out the intensity, duration, and frequency of the negative reactions happening to you, would you say they are getting worse? Do you feel so allergic to each other that even the slightest irritations are now causing major reactions?
4. Declining Affection
The partners in stuck relationships rarely touch each other, either by kind words or physical connection.
Are your emotional and physical needs being met? Do you find yourself reaching out to your partner when he or she is distressed, or turning away to deal with your own unmet hungers? And what about your sexual connection? Are you still making love, or just interacting to get the job done?
When affection is gone, so is empathy. It is common to see one partner ignoring the other’s expressions of vulnerability or need as if waiting for the emotion to dispel without the need to respond anymore.
5. Evaporated Dreams
All relationships must continually regenerate, transform, and reach for new ways to be. In contrast, stuck relationships have essentially come to a halt. They have stopped creating new possibilities and are weighed down with unresolved burdens. Whatever mutual dreams the partners once had are no longer shared or encouraged.
Do you still talk about your dreams with each other? Do you still support each other’s wishes for the future? Or, are you hardened to things staying the way they are because the dreams you once shared never seemed to materialize? Does it seem as if new possibilities just can’t happen and that your willingness to strive for more doesn’t seem realistic?
6. Parallel Existence
The partners in quality relationships continuously play three intertwined and crucial roles: they search and explore their own internal and external growth and conflicts. They live in the hearts and minds of their partners. And they stand side-by-side in commitment to the ethics they have chosen to mutually honor.
How well does each of you make certain that you’re recognized and honored in each role? Do you make certain that you’re honoring one another in all three roles, that you take care of yourself, track the other’s needs and worries, and maintain your mutual commitment to what you both believe is the right way to be in a relationship? Or, are you just living in a parallel existence, no longer living in each other’s minds and hearts?
When crises strike, couples who are deeply connected help each other shore each other up and reach to go beyond the sorrows they are encountering.
Are you still able to grow beyond your limitations, or has life’s challenges struck so often that your resources are too minimal to regenerate? Have you lost joy in your interactions with each other, humorless and minimal in your contributions to positive outcomes? Have you lost the light-hearted hope that you once had together that there is a better future awaiting?
Relationship partners who are stuck in same-old, same-old relationships stop looking to each other for that regeneration. They have lost hope that the other can, or cares to, help, and cannot provide the motivations and energy on their own to overcome the lethargy.
8. Core Trust Gone
There are many ways that couples show their trust in each other, but there is one special way that is crucial to the relationship’s success, especially when times are hard and resources are scant.
That core of trust is the criss-cross relationship of mutual symbolic parent/child havens. Each partner can count on the other partner to care, protect, and nurture him or her when maturity defies and needs feel they come from a young place.
They are fully aware that they cannot make up for lost nurturing in each other’s childhoods, but they recognize that a need for a non-judgmental haven must be met when needed, and there is no hesitation to provide it.
Sadly, when a relationship’s resources have dwindled and demands have increased, the partners are more likely to move towards self-protection and self-survival. Even legitimate pleas for comfort no longer are able to evoke a nurturing response from the other partner. Instead, they may both experience the other as a symbolic “tired, unresponsive, and burdened” parent.
After you score your answers, you will be able to assess at what level you feel stuck or still able to grow beyond your current limitations. If you are unable to successfully do that by yourself, it may be time to reach out to a qualified professional. Very often, just the re-infusion of a new perspective will be enough to help you regain the motivation and commitment you’ve lost.