I recently met with a client who has been experiencing some marital difficulties for a couple of years. In session, I told him that one of the things for him to determine is whether this hard time is a "season" (something that will pass) or if it feels more permanent, like something that can't be saved (a stalemate). His question back to me was, "How can I tell if it's a season?" This is a valid question and one that anybody in a long-term relationship (let's consider long-term here 10+ years) will have to ask themselves at some point. All relationships, of any kind, go through tough times and it's more common than you think for people to contemplate throwing in the towel at least once. While every relationship is unique and it's up to each person in the relationship to decide what they can tolerate (and for how long), I thought it might be helpful to lay out how I help people determine whether their current relationship struggle is a season or a stalemate. First, let's start with three main signs of a season:
1. There's an end in sight.
This one may seem rather obvious and it doesn't apply to every situation, but this is one of the first questions I ask: is there an end date to this? For many couples, their difficult seasons are brought on by a significant life change. Think job changes, illnesses, moving, deployments or a long period of travel for work, family members moving in, etc. Something happens and the couple goes through stress and a lot of re-adjusting which understandably, leads to relationship strain. When you're in this and things get hard, it can be easy to start to think to yourself, "This is our new normal and I don't like it. I don't know if I can stay in this or if I like who I am/who my partner is because of it." Again, sometimes there's an end in sight and sometimes there's not. If there is, keep your sights set on that. Let's say the end date is 6 months from now: you know when your partner will be coming home, you know when your in-laws will be moving out, etc. In the grand scheme of things, this is a blip in your life. It may feel like an eternity, but it isn't when you look at the facts of it. This can bring huge relief to remind yourself that this won't last forever. Do you need to figure out what to do to survive this time the best you can? Absolutely. But is it worth giving up on the relationship because things may be tough for a few months, even up to a few years? Probably not.
2. You and your partner are talking about the problem.
I use "talking" as a relative term here because it may not always look that. Some days it may look like "arguing" about the problem, "crying" about the problem, or "yelling" about the problem. It may be really messy but that's not a bad thing. If you and your partner are on the same page about what's causing this hard time for you and you're making efforts to communicate about it somehow (even if it's not pretty), this shows that the two of you are attempting to work on it. This may be figuring out the logistics of a temporary difficult life situation like I talked about above or it may be something totally different (like a characteristic or behavior in your partner you don't like which seems to be causing this friction or something about you they don't like). The key here is for both of you to agree and face what's going on. This may look like your partner saying, "Yes, I know I need to start doing a better job of helping around the house" or you saying, "I understand why you want me home more; I don't know how to do that yet, but I get why you want me to." Change will not happen over night but it's more likely to be a "season" once you get on the same page about what the problem is in the first place.
3. You feel positive emotions thinking about the good times.
Sure, things are tough right now. There is hope though if you're able to think back on the good times you had together as a couple (or family, if you have children) and smile. You were able to create those good memories once; it may be harder to do that now, but that means there's potential to do this again. I believe that most relationships have some hope of surviving and getting through difficult times when you can reflect on the good memories and bring back a glimmer of what you felt then. Doing this reflecting together and talking about those memories makes this even more impactful than doing it by yourself. I'll discuss the alternative to this in the third sign of a stalemate.
These are the three main signs I see of a "stalemate" situation (one in which you both feel stuck and the relationship may not be salvageable any longer):
1. There have been "two steps forward and three steps back" repeatedly.
There's nothing more frustrating in a relationship than an issue that seems to get better temporarily only to get worse shortly after. While change is not a linear process (it takes time and setbacks and hard work), if you've experienced this time and time again in your relationship, chances are you've lost trust in your partner that things can get better. Some people wait years believing that this will be the time when the change actually sticks. While change can happen at any time, if you're stuck in this song and dance with your partner (especially on multiple issues), take a good, hard look at what this has done to your mental health. On the flipside of that, if you know that you haven't made some of the changes that your partner wants you to make that could benefit your relationship, think about the toll this is taking on the two of you. Though there are many things people can handle "on their own", a sign of a stalemate can be if your partner is not willing to talk with some kind of professional about what they're struggling with after multiple failed attempts at change. Really think hard about how much longer you can do this for and if your life would be better without a "will they or won't they" worry hanging over you.
On the flipside of #2 above where both people are making attempts to talk about what's wrong (even if it leads to fights or disagreements), denial typically looks like silence. You try to talk about the problem with your partner and they shut down. Maybe you don't even bring it up at all, either because you've tried so many times before or you don't even know where to start. When I hear about a couple arguing about a problem, I think to myself that that is far better than the couple who isn't talking about the problem at all. One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is one in which both people try to understand the other person's point of view and accept responsibility. Both of these things can take time and can be preceded by disagreements, meaning it's not easy. But if you've been trying to get through to your partner (and if others have too) without success, the problem becomes something that can't be worked on. Both people have to be on board with trying to fix what's broken. If one person doesn't think it's broken in the first place, you can't move forward.
3. Feeling numb.
Remember #3 above about being able to look back at good memories and still feel positive, even if things aren't good now? One of the signs that a relationship is on its way out is if you look back at those good times, times when you really felt happy together, and now you just feel...numb. A feeling of being numb is highly concerning in a relationship. Feeling anger, disappointment, or sadness related to your partner is far better than feeling numb because it means you're still feeling something. Numb implies that hopelessness has set in and there's a sense of apathy or not caring going on. If one or both of you are here, it's possible that you can come back from this, but that will likely only happen with seeing a therapist. This is a huge sign that the relationship is not well and likely hasn't been for some time.
While there could be many more signs to help distinguish whether something is a season or stalemate in a relationship, if you can identify with two out of three in each category, that sends a pretty clear message with whether things can get better or worse moving forward. If you're in a stalemate situation, seek the help of a therapist as soon as you can, either on your own (or with your partner if they're willing). This will help you better determine if your relationship has any hope of being saved. If you're in a season, hang in there. Life and relationships will always have seasons. Do the messy work of being vulnerable and honest with your partner so the two of you can weather this storm together and come out stronger on the other side.