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How Do You Know If You Should Keep Working At A Struggling Or Even Flatlining Relationship?

Posted Jun 20 2012 5:35pm
knowing when to work at your relationship - hand with tools on it.

Knowing when to work at a relationship is a bit of minefield. Should you stay? Should you go? If you stay, should you just wait to see if things get better in time? Should you try to get your partner to change? Should you keep talking about the issues in the hope that it triggers understanding, remorse, resolve to change, and subsequent action? Should you stay because it’s better than going back out there and starting over? Isn’t something better than nothing even if something brings your self-esteem to the floor? How do you know when to work at your relationship?

The decision is driven by a variety of motivations, with some of these actually being smokescreens for fear, plus you’d be surprised at how many people want to work at a relationship that they know on a fundamental level is actually not right for them, whether it’s down to conflicting values (incompatible), conflicting behaviours (eventually incompatible if not resolved), or unhealthy behaviour that’s staying unhealthy (still incompatible).

  • You might, for instance, decide to stay because you reason that you’ve been there for X years so it’s too late to turn back now – the whole not wanting to lose your ‘investment’.
  • You might decide to stay because you remember how things used to be and even if that time was a long time ago, you want to try to get it back.
  • You might decide to stay because something happened that dealt a blow to the other party which changed their behaviour. It hasn’t always been this way and there was a time when you had a pretty healthy relationship.
  • You might decide to stay because you realise that you’ve accepted something for so long (being casual, putting up with abuse, repeated cheating) that to leave would be like “Oh my God, I put up with [insert whatever it is) for X years!" and you don't want to face that outside of the relationship and may even wonder who will want you now.
  • You may feel like you're dependent on them and to start over would create, for example, an emotional and financial hole. Particularly if you feel like you're "too old" to start over, staying will seem attractive.
  • You might stay because you love them even if you don't love your relationship and how your life is very much.
  • You might stay because you think that this is all that you're worth.
  • You may have children together and worry about what leaving may do, or be afraid of being just like your own parents.
  • You may be afraid of 'failure' and feel like not continuing to work at it is an indelible black mark against you.

How do you know when to work at your relationship? When both parties are willing to work together and when you're willing to also address any issues you may personally have.

Working at your relationship involves working together to find a solution you can both positively live with - compromise. If your solution involves you losing yourself, that's not compromise - it's loss. 'Work' is also not waiting for the other person to change...

You know when you realise that someone doesn't share the same values as you and you try to get them to change to your values or what you think their values 'should' be? It creates distrust and communicates a lack of acceptance.

We trust people who share the same core values. If you push very hard for them to switch values, you're actually disrespecting them.

The answer to all relationship issues isn't to break up or threaten to - breaking up is what you do to end a relationship, not what you do to force through what you want. Sometimes stepping away helps to gain objectivity, but it's not the type of thing that should really be done more than once or a couple of times, after all, breaking up doesn't make problems go away - addressing problems addresses problems.

1. Having an already existing foundation to work from. If the relationship has lacked healthiness from the outset, it stands to reason that you're working to fix something that never worked in the first place. The true test of a relationship isn't how you weather the good times, but how you weather the inevitable difficulties in life.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they handle their problems in a relationship.

Do they avoid them or do they handle them? When someone avoids the existence or true nature of their problems, they'll blame you or everyone else, or they'll stonewall or make feigned attempts at addressing and then go back to their old ways, or they'll cheat/look for attention elsewhere. Just like breaking up doesn't make problems go away, neither does avoiding them - it's like hiding all of the bills you're not paying.
If the relationship is new and you have to work at it like a long term relationship, that's jacked up though - you're not that desperate.

Here's a foundation - mutual love, care, trust, and respect, or at the very least care, trust, and respect. If one or more of these areas are breached by your partner, you'll have to work with them to get past the issue.

2. The issues being identified and concerted effort to work at tackling the solutions. Maybe you can both figure it out together, but if you're like the blind leading the blind or things are pretty difficult, a neutral third party professional can help to navigate the issues. Go to one that's solutions and actions focused. Yeah you can talk but you also need to be doing.

If you mostly talk and you both keep reneging on doing the things to make your situation different, the window of opportunity for change will pass because you will both lose faith in your respective abilities to really do anything.

If one party has particular issues that greatly impact the relationship (maybe they're affected by a bereavement, career etc), depending on what they are, they need to be working at addressing these with you and will need your support. And vice versa if it's you that has issues.

3. Your boundaries, which are your personal electric fence and your personal code of what does and doesn't work for you, also play a large part. I've managed to squeeze in my fair share of working at shady relationships in my relatively short relationship history. Guess what? For me, it doesn't work to work at a relationship where there is mind effery, racism, alcoholism, drugs, and cheating. Fact.

4. The truth. I'm all for working at a relationship, but you cannot work at something and fix issues that one or both of you are in denial about. It's also pretty tricky to work at a relationship with a habitual liar and it's also difficult to work at something where they keep dripfeeding the truth or will beg, steal, borrow and lie to keep you in the relationship or to win you back, but then show little or no remorse and act like "Problem? What problem?" and guilt you into looking like a jackass for bringing up "Old sh*t" when actually, it's current because the problem still exists.

Remember: If a problem has existed for a long time, it may take a while to unravel.

Also remember: Some people spend their lives flip flapping over decisions and some people stick with decisions for the long-term that should have been reevaluated because what they originally made the decision on no longer stands - this is also something to consider.

One of the best things that you can do though if you're unsure of what to do, is make sure that you're actively nurturing you and working on your own self-esteem. Not only does it give you personal security, but it also gives you a balanced perspective where you won't blame you for 'everything' or make unnecessary changes based on panic and ego.

Ultimately, the decision and choice to work at a relationship is individual. Code amber and red behaviour is universal and yet every day people choose to be the exception f or their own reasons in spite of compelling reasons to take a different course of action. There's nothing wrong with wanting to give something a shot but don't do it based on fear - one day you'll look back and wish that you'd made a decision either way, based on love, even if that were loving yourself.

Your thoughts?




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Natalie Lue is the founder and writer of Baggage Reclaim and author of the books Mr Unavailable and the Fallback Girl, The No Contact Rule and more . Learn more about her here and you can also follow her on and Twitter - .
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