This article is for those in a long term relationship that has been toxic for a long time, who just can’t get it to work and are desperate for change.
Almost all of us have experienced bad relationships and the pain they cause. It seems like you’ve tried everything, and nothing will work. Eventually, it feels like the walls are closing in around you.
Maybe your friends have already told you to end it, maybe you’ve even talked about divorce with your spouse.
But you just don’t want to end it. You’ve worked so hard to get to this point.
Some advice from counselors is fairly predictable, but today I’m going to suggest you flip your thinking on its head. It can save your marriage.
Here’s what you do: Decide when to end your marriage. And decide what has to be different in order to stay.
Pick a specific date and specific criteria. Example: If my wife and I can’t have one day without fights by June 1st next year, then I’m ending it.
Here’s the part where you might say, “You’ve lost your mind, how can that possibly help?”
I’m glad you asked. There are three important principles at play. The first is:
The deadline creates an end point
Human brains think in stories. And all stories have an end point.
The problem with living in miserable circumstances for a long time, is that without you knowing, your brain has created its own end point.
It’s decided that things will be this way until you die.
If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t seem to shake out of misery lately, this is why. If you’ve noticed that you can’t seem to act like you care about your spouse, that’s why. That constant lack of energy? The feeling of numbness? Your brain has assumed the misery will last forever, and it’s now just waiting to die, because that’s the end of the story.
By creating the deadline, you have decided a definite, different end point to the story. You decide that at that time, the misery will change because you will force it to change.
Now that you’ve changed the end point, the brain has much less reason to slip into depression, because you’ve signaled that this will end or change. You create space for hope, since the pain will at least change drastically at that time.
That’s why the simple act of deciding the deadline will automatically reduce some of the stress.
So let’s go to principle number 2:
Empowerment is preferable to victimhood
You have now decided there WILL be change. It either gets better, or it ends. If you’re in a relationship gone bad, this may be the first real decision you’ve made in a long time.
Humans can very easily slide into feelings of victimhood if we’re not paying attention, so most people in struggling relationships live in victimhood for years.
By rejecting that mentality, by deciding there will be action of some type, you move yourself from a victim mindset to an action/problem-solving mindset. Now you’re an active agent again.
Making the decision that you might end the relationship puts you in a strange spot between two bad choices. You either leave it alone and live in misery, or you end it and temporarily increase the misery until it can get better.
But here’s a secret: by actively choosing your deadline, by increasing your own empowerment in the situation, you give yourself a great gift.
You give yourself the third option, which might actually save the marriage. The option of increasing your own growth, and using that to help the marriage.
That’s why it’s always better to be the hero of your own story, rather than the victim of your story.
And finally, principle number 3:
You encourage rapid growth in yourself
How long did you give yourself? Six months? A year? How many years worth of problems you do you have to get solved in that time?
If you have one year to solve ten years worth of resentments, now you have to really get moving! No more sitting around and moping. Massive change is required immediately, and not just massive change for your marriage.
You have to change too.
What criteria did you pick? Maybe it’s “less fighting”. Well, now you have to learn how to stop fights, probably before they start. What do you need to do that? Do you need books, videos, advice from a counselor? Do you have to resolve your own anger problems, or set better boundaries?
You’re now on the clock, and you have to make the changes in yourself that are needed in order to save the marriage.
Bonus principle #1: When you sustain growth for a while, your spouse will tend to grow with you.
The beauty of how this works is that you MIGHT be able to fix your marriage without even talking about it.
When your behaviors change, your spouse will notice. If you are being kinder and more nurturing, they will notice. If you stop yelling/fighting, your spouse will notice.
They won’t notice at first, or if they do, they won’t trust that the change will stick. So don’t expect applause if you buy flowers one time. Don’t act like your partner should shower you with affection because you picked up one or two extra chores.
When you grow as a person, when you work on the relationship, there is only one word that matters: Consistency.
Only when you have sustained your own changes for a long time (usually months, minimum) will your partner assume it’s for real.
Once they believe its for real, that’s when they might choose to grow too.
Bonus Principle #2: Words are nothing, actions are everything.
Don’t bother talking about this at first. The whole point of this exercise is to create the opportunity for growth within YOU.
There is nothing to be gained by saying “Hi honey, I just wanted to let you know that in nine months if we can’t get through one date without fighting, I’m leaving you.”
The idea of setting the deadline is to help move the brain to a place of change. Talking about it too soon just strains the relationship and possibly breaks it.
The same is true of any changes you are going to make. To save the relationship, are you going to stop drinking? Or be nicer? Have date nights?
Great! Say nothing.
When you declare your intentions to your partner (who might not believe you anyway), they’ll probably assume you want applause for “trying”. And you invite them to criticize anytime you slip. Worse, if you do slip on what you said and you’re in a rocky relationship, your spouse will probably be pretty unforgiving.
So make your changes, start working toward saving the relationship, and working fast.
But say nothing.
Let your actions speak for themselves.
The most important thing
Notice who I’m not suggesting you try to change. Your spouse.
That’s because they’re not reading this.
If you follow the outline I have suggested, you will begin ACTIVELY trying things to save the relationship. You might even become the best version of yourself that has been seen in years.
You’ll start gaining knowledge, either from a counselor or from other sources. You’ll implement ideas, you’ll try things that can encourage love, intimacy, and nurturing. When something doesn’t work, you’ll either keep on with it or try something else.
And that means one of three things will happen:
- You’ll pass your deadline and your marriage will have made it, and can now continue to grow into the loving relationship you wanted. What often happens is that when you grow, your spouse sees it, sees your efforts for the relationship, and starts working hard with you. This is the best case scenario, and has happened many times when my clients enact this idea.
- You’ll pass your deadline and your marriage will have improved some, but not where you wanted. If this happens, you might want to give it a little longer. Simply choose to set a new deadline. This is a perfectly valid choice, especially if there has been some growth in the marriage, and there is clearly hope.
- Or, at the worst case, you’ll have tried hard, made your own personal growth, and the relationship has not changed. In which case, you might choose to leave. It is sad when this happens, but remember that you decided on your deadline for a reason, so that misery doesn’t last forever.
I know it’s harsh to put all of the responsibility on you, but the only thing you can control is your own actions. You can’t change your spouse by asking, begging, bribing, manipulating, or threatening. You’ve tried at least some of those already, and they didn’t work.
You can only change yourself, your thoughts and your actions. Doing so is the most powerful invitation you can make to your partner.
So decide your end point, and start taking massive action. When you reach your deadline, you’ll know you did your absolute best, whether the relationship gets to continue or not.
Some people can take this kind of action on their own. For those who need help in taking action, resolving their issues, or learning relationship skills, we recommend working with a skilled counselor as your personal change mentor.