Relationships can be tough, confronting, and for many intimidating, often bringing different beliefs, values, backgrounds, and histories together — and that’s before you throw in insecurities, betrayals, or a global pandemic.
Healthy couples work to find the wood through the trees in moments of crisis, taking the opportunity to use these times to work on the relationship, themselves, and try to understand each other better.
“That’s not easy,” says couple therapist Anjula Mutanda, “it may feel as though you’ve tried everything in your arsenal so far, but if you’re here it means you want to stay together. The starting point is the belief that this relationship is worth saving.”
Here are the next steps in how to save a failing relationship from a breakup, according to our experts.
Want to know how to fix a relationship? Start by talking about it. “You may think you’re the only one looking for answers,” says Mutanda, “but your partner is probably feeling it too. Help them by starting the conversation from a loving place.”
“We’ve watched enough rom-coms to know that “we need to talk” can be loaded, and can feel to the other person that they’re entering a negative space. Instead, begin by stating your positive intentions for the talk — that you think your relationship is worth saving and that you’d like to work on it together,” she says.
During tough times it’s common for couples to cast their relationship (and its history) in a negative light. To counter this, professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University, Dr. Jacqui Gabb, suggests taking your mind back to the beginning of your relationship and the qualities that drew you together.
“Ask yourself: what attracted me to this person in the first place? What qualities do I admire in them? Why do we work well together? We often take these attributes for granted, yet acknowledging our strengths as a couple has been proven to increase relationship satisfaction, as well as feelings of support, appreciation, and hope for the future,” she says.
When your relationship is struggling it may seem like all you want to do is cling to your partner to try and save your relationship from ending, but according to experts, it’s exactly during this time you need to do your own inner work.
“Research has shown that making time for and investing in yourself can have beneficial and lasting outcomes for your relationship, whether you're going through a tough time or not,” says Dr. Gabb.
“In order to save and improve a relationship that’s struggling, both partners need to do inner work on themselves, and reconnect with their own core values and strengths,” she says. “Only then will you be in the best position to work together as a team.”
Trust is an important and essential part of any relationship. But when your partner does harmful and hurtful things to you (be dishonest, cheat, deceive), that trust is broken and you will need to rebuild it. Is it possible to save a relationship after lying or other betrayals?
“Yes,” says Dr. Terri Orbuch, a relationship therapist and professor of sociology at Oakland University. “Trust can be rebuilt, but it takes a lot of work and commitment on both partners’ parts and takes a very long time,” she says.
“Ask yourselves: are you both open to soul-searching, listening, and healing? If so, then you and your partner, as a team, need to choose a specific time period (maybe six weeks or six months) during which both of you commit to working on the relationship.”
“In order for trust to be rebuilt, both partners must work to understand the other partner’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with their reasons or motivations or agree with what you hear, but understanding goes both ways,” says Orbuch.
If you’re apologizing, remember to say sorry and avoid making excuses. Have empathy for your partner’s feelings and validate their experience, giving them as much as much information as to why the indiscretion happened as possible.
If you’re on the receiving end of an apology, listen attentively to what your partner has to say. Avoid judgment or interruptions, and be open to what they say about what underpinned their action. It can be helpful to ask for clarification and repeat back what has been said, to check that you’ve understood and heard what they’re saying.
Sexual frequency ebbs and flows over the course of a relationship, and it’s not always a big cause for concern. What’s normal for you is likely to change over time, and each couple is different. Remember that media portrayals of sex are fiction and/or sensationalized, so don’t measure your sex life against something that isn’t real.
If you’d like more or different kinds of sex in your relationship, it can be helpful to write down how much sex you would like over the next month being specific about the sort of sexual activities you’d like to add — ask your partner to do the same.
“Working at sex can feel very unsexy, so acknowledge this discomfort,” says Dr. Gabb. “Reaching an agreement is about finding a routine and sexual practices that work for both of you.”
“While many happy couples – particularly those over 70 – may desire sex, health and other issues can intervene, making it impossible for one or both partners,” says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
But do they divorce or part ways? “No, because a deeper connection of life experiences and interdependence has created an unshakable connection that is more important than sex.”
According to Schwartz, if sex is not possible for some reason or other, being needed as an advisor and supporter has power all on its own. “Be the person who is most admired and most dependent on — and most importantly — most trusted in your partner's life,” she says.
While there is a correlation between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction, sex isn’t just intercourse and can mean different things to different people. For example, you may be satisfied with regular kisses and cuddles, while your partner might be looking for longer fondles once a week.
It’s important to be open, honest, and respectful about your desires and feelings. One person's desires cannot override another’s. Instead, both parties need to feel safe in expressing their sexual desires and that the topic of sex remains open for conversation.
“If you feel your relationship is about to break up or that your partner is pulling away, first take a look at your assumptions,” says couple therapist Judith Lask. “When we feel insecure, we have a heightened sensitivity to danger and this includes worrying about being left or abandoned.”
Lask suggests taking some time to reflect on any issues that are going on for you or causing you to be more sensitive.
"There may also be reasons why your partner is more introverted and less connected. These may include work stresses or physical or mental health issues,” she says.
If you still feel your partner is pulling away, next reflect on your own reactions and behavior that may be causing your partner to back off.
For example, you may be becoming angry or demanding, or find yourself turning away from your partner in order to protect yourself.
“You may think that this will demonstrate to your partner how you feel, but if your partner is also anxious they may read it as rejection rather than a seeking of closeness,” says Lask.
“Firstly, arguing, unless violent and leaving one person feeling harmed or overpowered, isn’t an indication that the relationship is over or not worth saving,” says couple therapist Martin Gill.
“It’s a sign that something difficult or unbalanced needs to change. Change is not easy. Getting help to identify strengths and new patterns of communication in your relationship can be the first step.”
According to Gill, if you feel like you’re always fighting in your relationship, you may need to change the focus of your arguments from “you” to “I” statements.
“Speaking from and for yourself — or ‘owning’ your feelings and needs — can help you to ‘unblend’ from you and your partner's struggles when it comes to conflict,” he says.
For example, instead of saying “You don’t care about me, if you did you would hold me,” you might say, “I’m feeling alone”, or “I’m experiencing myself wanting to be reached out to, but I’m also feeling overwhelmed. I need some space alone for 20 minutes. Is that possible? Maybe then we can talk about your needs, when I come back.”
Keeping a relationship fresh and alive is important. Happy couples can balance the day-to-day management of the home, job, and family with the novelty and excitement of trying new things.
Experts say that sharing new experiences together is a great way to save a relationship that has become boring — these will help reignite the passion, as well as encourage you to spend more quality time together.
Consider making a wish list of places to visit with your partner and mapping out date ideas to explore them over the next few months.
Studies show that for women, in particular, getting away is important. They feel more passionate when they’re away from the pressures of their lives.
At home, women have a tough time compartmentalizing things. They’re thinking about the laundry, lunch, paying the bills, cleaning the house, and checking things off their mental to-do list.
“If possible, get out of the house for at least one night and two days somewhere that interests both of you and create new memories together,” says Orbuch.
“You don’t have to go far from home or spend a lot of money, the point is you need to relax and enjoy some unpressured time together that will reignite the spark.”
Long-distance relationships can be tricky at the best of times, because when apart it’s easier to build a narrative or make assumptions. “Having a reunion to look forward to is an essential first step in saving a long-distance relationship from break up,” says Mutanda.
“Having this to look forward to will give you something to focus on as well as show you each that you’re willing to put in the effort to oil the machinery of the relationship and keep connected,” she says. “Once in each other’s presence, you can reset the relationship and figure out if this is what you still want.”
It can be hard to find time to talk these days, especially if you're living apart, and for many couples, the last thing they want to do is bring up negative feelings or concerns when they finally get a chance to speak.
“I suggest to my clients that they put their concerns down in an email,” says Mutanda, “doing so takes away the emotional charge of it; by writing it out, you can read what’s written and have more control over how it comes across.”
“Start positively — ‘I love you, I want this to work’ — then suggest a solution, for example, ‘I know it’s tricky to talk, but can we set up a weekly Zoom to stay connected?’”
Relationships require maintenance. Putting aside time for regular relationship check-ins in which you sit down together for a calm and honest conversation about how your relationship is doing is vital for your relationship health.
By addressing potential problems early on, you are able to fix them before they break, will deepen your knowledge of each other, and boost intimacy and connection at the same time.
Here at Paired, we understand the importance of making daily relationship care a habit. Download the Paired app to discover fun daily relationship questions and quizzes to answer with your partner that are scientifically proven to improve your relationship.
“If I had to summarize over 60 years of outstanding relationship science in one sentence, here it is,” says relationship expert and author of Love Factually, Dr. Duana Welch. “If you can find — and be someone who is — kind and respectful, your relationship will probably go well; and if you can’t, it definitely won’t.”
Learn about kindness and respect, says Welch. “Have a firm boundary that if your partner breaches those walls even once, the relationship is completely over. You deserve to have a happy love life, and with this boundary, you will!”