By the time we’re adults, most of us learn that even the best relationships take work to maintain. Unfortunately, it often takes a bit longer to learn that there are also some relationships no amount of effort can save. Is your relationship worth saving? Here are four questions that can help you figure out if you’ve just hit a rough patch, or whether it’s all downhill from here.
1. Are your troubles temporary?
This might seem like a no-brainer, but when you’re spending every day with someone, a temporary situation can start to seem permanent. And while we idealize resilience and being able to make the best out of any situation, the truth is that certain circumstances will bring out the worst in people. For example, if your partner is someone who places high value on their career, a sudden bout of unemployment can throw them into listlessness and depression. Rather than focus on their mood as a problem in your relationship, it would probably be more productive to focus on helping them return to work, and to their normal selves.
Of course, there are caveats. If your partner flies off the handle at more mundane disruptions, or if your life together is marked by constant crises, that’s a long-term problem, not a temporary one. The question to ask is whether you foresee yourselves facing a similar situation again next month, or next year.
2. Do you argue well?
It’s easy to become caught up in what you’re fighting about, but the more crucial factor here might be in how you argue. If you are both able to keep the argument focused on the issue at hand and to communicate your own feelings and needs openly, that is a positive sign even if you are unable to reach agreement.
The key is to avoid falling into unconstructive patterns that damage the very fabric of the relationship. These include: shutting down emotionally, keeping mental score of past arguments to bring up during unrelated spats, trying to convince your partner that their feelings are invalid, being more invested in proving yourself right than finding a workable solution, or attributing any action you’re unhappy with to malicious intent or a deep personality flaw (“you always do this because you’re just ___”)
If you find yourself or your partner doing any of these things, your problems go deeper than whatever particular argument you’re having at the moment.
3. Do you have a future together?
Couples don’t always go through a checklist of future plans when they first become involved, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
One or both of you may change your minds or encounter unexpected developments, and a relationship does not have to last forever to be rewarding and worthwhile. But if these things are already uncertain, a major conflict may be a good time to reassess whether continuing makes sense for either of you.
This is not to say you should use the threat of a breakup to try to win the argument. Rather, separate the two issues in your mind, and think about what the emotional effort or sacrifice needed to resolve the conflict is worth to you.
If it’s something you’re generously willing to give, the bigger questions can wait. But if you see it as an investment towards building a better relationship, it makes sense to check how stable the foundation is.
4. Is there something worth saving?
This question is the most obvious, and perhaps the most difficult to answer clearly when things seem to be on the rocks. But putting current troubles aside, can you vividly recall what it is you find worthwhile about your relationship?
Rather than your partner’s abstract qualities such as looks or intelligence, think about how you usually feel when you spend time together. Do your conversations and interactions flow easily and freely? Are your favorite activities enhanced by having your partner with you? Do you feel warmth and comfort in their presence? Is the romantic attraction still there?
If you have trouble answering several of these questions, it’s possible that your relationship has been running mainly on inertia, and the conflict you’re experiencing now may be the wake-up call you need.
In the end, many of us will go with our gut instinct in deciding whether enough is really enough. But having questions like these in mind can help direct that instinct, or form the basis for deeper consideration with the help of a relationship professional.