5 make-or-break relationship stuck moments

| July 14, 2014
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Oh, relationships! When they’re great, they’re really, really great. And even when they’re not, they still give us good things — someone to share our day with, to nod sympathetically, to have our back in a tough situation — so we find reasons to stick with them, warts and all. We’re grateful for what we have and we hope that, with work and time, things will get better.

But, sometimes, warts are signs of something more problematic, and taking a step back is the best way to move forward — both for your own happiness and your partner’s. To find what separates an ordinary obstacle from a relationship red flag, we sought out two different types of relationship experts to offer advice on five frequent stuck moments.

Coming from a clinical perspective, Dr. Jennifer Harman is an associate professor of social psychology and director of the Harman Close Relationships Lab at Colorado State University. Her research focuses on the science of interpersonal relationships, and she is an editor and contributor to The Science of Relationships, an online relationship science resource.

Amy Spencer, on the other hand, is a “dating optimist” whose upbeat approach to dating and relationships focuses on positive affirmation, hopefulness, and self-fulfillment. She’s the author of Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match.

Though Dr. Harman’s advice leads from the objectively reasoning head and Amy Spencer’s from the hopeful human heart, often their insights overlapped. Apply their ideas as a litmus test to decide what to do about your own relationship stuck moments.

If you do decide that calling it off is the best option for both your sakes, our printable tip card offers four break up rules to help you do it in the best possible way.

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Stuck moment #1. We’re stuck in a constant state of conflict. Without realizing it, I’ll do something that sets him off. We’re always picking at each other.

The social psychologist says:
“When people are in a state of conflict and using negative communication strategies — contempt, coercion, interrogating each other, or one person isn’t acknowledging the other’s experience — it can offset positive communication. The less negativity, the more positive people feel.”

The dating optimist says:
“The underlying issue can be a power struggle. You’re both trying to stand your ground in different ways. You’re both picking to try to change the other person, to make them the way you want them to be.”

What to do:

The social psychologist says:
“Listen and be responsive to your partner, even if you don’t agree. Laughter, physical affection, warmth and support are really important — because then the other person feels supported.”

The dating optimist says:
“Do the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Instead of picking, compliment each other. Start treating each other like you’re on the first date. Your heart has been hardening toward your partner. You have to figure out how to soften it up.”

Is breaking up the better option? If so, download this printable tip card: How to call it off and not be the bad guy

* * *

Stuck moment #2. My partner can’t get his life figured out, and it’s bringing me down. I want to leave him but I’m afraid he’ll go into a negative spiral if I do.

The social psychologist says:
“Is there a mismatch in goals in terms of what each partner wants? The Michelangelo phenomenon is a process by which partners shape each other’s goals. If there’s a mismatch in terms of what of what each partner wants, there can be conflict and a lack of satisfaction.”

The dating optimist says:
“As much as we wish we could, we can never make someone else change their life.”

What to do:

The social psychologist says:
“You have to figure out your own long-term goal for the relationship. Weigh the costs and benefits of the situation. If it’s a codependent relationship, find ways to decrease dependence so that it’s easier to exit. Get some kind of couple’s counseling so that at least the other person has some kind of support there.”

The dating optimist says:
“Step back and focus on your own life. And if that does lead to ending the relationship, we can’t be responsible for someone else’s reaction to a situation. Tell that person’s support network that you’re passing it off.“

Is breaking up the better option? If so, download this printable tip card: How to call it off and not be the bad guy

* * *

Stuck moment #3. We barely speak to each other any more. The day-in, day-out lack of communication feels like disrespect and disinterest.

The social psychologist says:
“The way we feel close to each other is self-disclosure. So when people aren’t doing that — sharing physical and emotional affection — they’re going to feel a lack of intimacy.”

The dating optimist says:
“The underlying issue is the utter dullness of their life routine. You’re officially bored with your 9-to-5 relationship, with doing what you have to but not what you want to. Clearly, both sides have fallen back a bit.”

What to do:

The social psychologist says:
“Do new things as a couple. Going on a double date can increase attraction; self-disclosing to another couple can make your current partner understand you better.”

The dating optimist says:
“Get out of your element. If you can find the time and money for a vacation, go for it. Or do a weekend away. Put yourself in a situation where you have to communicate about things that you don’t usually talk about.”

Is breaking up the better option? If so, download this printable tip card: How to call it off and not be the bad guy

* * *

Stuck moment #4. I’m lonely and tired and unfulfilled in this relationship. I want passion and intimate connection.

The social psychologist says:
A destiny belief is that, if the person isn’t meeting your ideals, it’s just not meant to be. But if you have a growth belief, a problem is an opportunity to grow and learn about each other.”

The dating optimist says:
“The underlying issue is ultimately a disconnection. Your couple glue is becoming unsticky. To get it back, you have to do something that fills intimacy.”

What to do:

The social psychologist says:
“Try to reignite the connection with the other person. But, if you’re young, you may not know that other types of relationships are possible. Personal growth will teach you over time what you want, and what will make you happy.”

The dating optimist says:
“Introduce new things into the relationship. Dive into the softest, gooiest part of your partner’s heart. Take a dance class where you have to learn together. Or have an intimate picnic in bed where you share your most embarrassing and painful experiences. The sharing between you is what can lead to a connection.”

Is breaking up the better option? If so, download this printable tip card: How to call it off and not be the bad guy

* * *

Stuck moment #5. I feel like I do everything, and I can’t get my partner to help around the house. I have no time for myself.

The social psychologist says:
“The feeling of being overwhelmed can make it really difficult to see how much the other person is contributing. And people’s perceptions of fairness in housework varies.”

The dating optimist says:
“It’s like the see-saw of the relationship is lopsided and all the pressure is weighing on one of you.”

What to do:

The social psychologist says:
“Make it a chore inventory: “Here’s an outline of what needs to be done around the house, and the time and hours it takes to do that.” Express that you’re feeling overwhelmed vs. pointing fingers. But it’s hard to change power dynamics if one partner has more traditional beliefs about gender roles.”

The dating optimist says:
“Make a pronouncement. Announce what it is that you need. You don’t want to open up space for negotiation when you’re not willing to negotiate. You need to take care of your own emotional needs. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not of use to your family.”

Is breaking up the better option? If so, download this printable tip card: How to call it off and not be the bad guy

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