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Are We Going Through A Bad Phase Or Are We Broken?

This is the question many couples ask in their first session as they sit down on my office couch. This question either starts the sessions or follows a brief introduction and history of their relationship as well as reasons why they are in my office at this particular time. They or at least one of them look at me, anxiously, awaiting my “expert” verdict.

It really is difficult to quickly assess the relationship and its status quickly, but usually by the end of the first or second session I have an idea.

Most couples come to couples therapy with complaint of “communication problems”. This can mean many different things, but usually it means that there is continuous and rather predictable cycle of conflict, escalation and eventually, (hopefully), temporary estrangement or anger which makes both feel alone, fearful and, sometimes, hopeless. Eventually the argument subsides, gets swept under the proverbial rug and all is well until the next time. However, when there is a commitment and caring, combined with willingness to change and be more open and vulnerable, this cycle can change. While this is not exactly a phase, it does not mean the relationship is broken.

Sometimes couples experience a conflict over a particular issue, like in-laws or finances or something else and they hit a wall. This, also, is fixable and natural in all relationships. With patience, empathy and exploration, a couple can come to a place of acceptance and move forward or learn to deal with the differences. Again, there has to be commitment, caring and a basic solid connection.

Even sex and romance issues can be improved with willingness to be open and put energy, time and effort with guidance of a therapist.

However, when a couple is in a midst of one partner having an affair and feeling “in love” with another person, or feeling like the affair opened him or her up to another level of aliveness, or realization that the current relationship has run its course, there is a serious break in attachment and desire or in some cases ability to press on and find a different, deeper connection. This is very painful for the couple and for me to be present for and work with.

There is another situation which can signify that the relationship is broken. It involves a profound disappointment and lack of respect for the partner which makes it impossible to care and stay connected. There are many examples of this, one of which is trust, but also it can involve discovering a personality or character trait, unknown before, which is so shocking and upsetting that things can not be put together again in any kind of real way.

Another sign of a “broken” relationship is when the estrangement, disconnection, resentment have been for so long, that the partners moved too far away and one or both feel that it is easier and more realistic to start over then try to overcome the solid wall that exists between them.

It is always better to address problems earlier on before they partners find other coping ways to deal with chronic unhappiness.