Is your relationship or marriage just, well, so-so? Maybe you’re not sure if you still love or ever loved your partner? Maybe he or she has many good traits – is kind, or generous, funny, or the sex is great. She’s gorgeous, or he showers you with kindness – but something is missing. Maybe your parents or friends think that he or she is great – that they would give their eyeteeth for such a relationship. How do you decide what’s the right thing to do?
You tell your friends that you want a soul mate. They say you’re unrealistic. You say the romance is gone. They tell you romance doesn’t last. You want someone to connect with physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. You’re told your expectations are too high, that you’re lucky if you get one, or “He doesn’t hit you or drink. He has a job.” But you’re restless, or feel a vacuum instead of connection.
Take these steps:
- Make an inventory. Assess your needs and prioritize them. Think of the four above categories and add financial, social, and more. This is very individual. To a feeling-type individual, sharing emotions is number one. Someone else values intellectual conversation, while another, shared interests, a travel companion, or financial stability. This is why no one can tell you what you should do.
- Consider which needs are your responsibility to yourself and not your partner’s obligation to fill for you. Make sure you’re not blaming your partner for your own unhappiness. You are responsible for your own self-esteem. A survey showed that men are happy if their marriage is 50 percent okay, but women are disappointed if it isn’t 80 percent okay. One reason women expect more from their relationships may be because they look to their partner as a means of financial security or personal fulfillment. Men generally look to their careers to satisfy that their need for fulfillment. More than men, women’s brains are wired for relating emotionally, and many women lack the self-efficacy and motivation to succeed professionally.
- If you’re stressed because of work or depressed for some reason, the relationship will suffer. You may not feel like getting close or able to enjoy anything. Take responsibility for your mood. Seek counseling if you need more support and can’t get it from your partner. You can expect short-term support from him or her, but not help with a persistent, chronic problem or grief that continues beyond six months to a year. Your mood, not your partner may be stressing the relationship.
- Pay attention to exactly how your insides feel around your partner. A key question is how you feel about yourself when you’re together. This is more important than how much he or she loves you. Love and attention will always make you feel better, but that are not the best predictors of long term happiness. Particularly women often don’t trust their gut instincts. Instead they rationalize staying in a unhappy marriage or relationship because the man loves her or is successful. When men are unhappy, they usually tune out their feelings and withdraw from the relationship emotionally, pouring their energy into work, hobbies, our an addiction. Both may seek sex or intimacy outside the marriage. Instead, listen to how your body feels.
Once you get clearer about your needs and feelings, plan a quiet time when you and your partner can have a conversation.
- Speak honestly to your partner about what is missing for you.
- Explain that you’re “unhappy because of ______.” Be specific about what behavior he or she is doing and how it makes you feel. Don’t label your partner (e.g., mean, cold, self-centered), which puts the other person on the defensive, rather than engaging him or her in the conversation.
- Then state why it (the missing element) is important for the benefit of the relationship. Describe how this behavior or problem affects your feelings about your partner. Don’t blame, but share your feelings and let the other person know the impact that his or her behavior has on you and your feelings towards them.
- Ask for what you want in the relationship. Specifically describe the behaviors you’d like to see. Don’t just say what you don’t want. When you complain, and say, “You didn’t (or worse, “never”) do X,” you sound like a victim, and the listener will feel criticized and tune out. It’s more powerful and effective to state what you do want. Make it concrete and visual.
- Don’t expect your mate to read your mind. Some women object and say, “If I have to tell him, it doesn’t mean anything.” Think again. Isn’t it wonderful that he cares enough to be willing listen to you and make you happy?
- Then let your mate know that if he or she does what you’re asking how you’ll feel. This gives him or her incentive. Tell him how loving (happy, grateful, impressed) you’ll be when he or she makes the change you want. Reassure your partner that you know he or she can. Give examples of changes in the past, or the way he or she treats others, or accomplishes goals.
You may not be able to define what’s wrong or “what’s missing.” It may be a feeling of connectedness achieved through greater emotional intimacy. That’s not the same as romance, but more honest and deep. It may take a skilled therapist to help you find it together. If you decide the relationship is worth trying to save, consider couples/marriage counseling, before walking away.
Copyright Darlene Lancer 2010
Darlene Lancer is an expert in relationships and codependency. She’s the author of Codependency for Dummies, reflecting 28 years of counseling individuals and couples. Learn more about couples counseling.