How to save the relationship? 9 questions to ask yourself

How to save the relationship - 9 questions

TEXT: KRISTIN HARALDSDÒTTIR ASPELUND, psychologist and couples therapist

Are you asking yourself the question of how you can save the relationship? 

An important step is to is to involve your partner in the uncertainty you feel. 

It is not uncommon for couples to come to therapy, where one person has been dealing with an insecurity for a long time, without involving their partner. 

Unfortunately, it may have gone so far that the decision has already been taken without the other party having had the opportunity to understand and meet needs, where there could have been hope of saving the relationship at an earlier stage.

Other times couples arrive where one or both have, over time and in desperation, tried to express their wishes and needs, without managing to get closer to each other. 

Do you want to save the relationship? Regardless of where you stand in the process, in this text we will suggest some important questions that you can ask yourself in order to get to know your own needs and your own contribution in the relationship better:

  • Am I willing to put in the time and effort to get closer to my partner?
  • Am I able to distinguish between what belongs to me and what belongs to my partner?
  • What do I need from myself to be able to openly check out what is going on inside my partner?
  • What do I need from my partner to dare to share more of my insecurities and vulnerabilities?
  • How do I look when I communicate my feelings, wants and needs?
  • Are my expectations realistic or am I living in the hope that my partner will be able to fulfill all my needs?
  • Has my boyfriend become like a family member to me?
  • What am I risking by sharing my wants and needs from a vulnerable place?
  • What good can I do for myself?

Am I willing to put in the time and effort to get closer to my partner?

These are prerequisites for being able to get along better at all! 

In order to be able to develop the relationship further or save the relationship, you need: 

  • time to be in touch
  • a desire to get closer to each other
  • a desire to understand both oneself and one's partner's feelings and needs in the relationship.

Am I able to distinguish between what belongs to me and what belongs to my partner?

This may be easier said than done! 

When you have gone through bad experiences of the relationship and yourself in the relationship over time, it is not always so easy to distinguish between your own interpretations of your partner's way of being and what actually lies behind your partner's way of relating to you. 

An example could be: "She is so controlling and bossy, must always know what I am doing". 

This statement is an assumption about the intention behind an action. The alternative could be: "When she asks lots of questions, I feel like I'm being controlled. Then I can feel trapped, get angry and sad and feel like pulling away".

However, the intention of the partner may be completely different from the effect it has on you. 

In this case, the partner can e.g. be driven by a fear of losing importance to the partner and make constant attempts to reassure oneself by knowing what the partner is doing in order to give meaning to the time priority. 

When we are able to distinguish between our own and other people's feelings, interpretation and intention, we are better equipped to openly check with our partner what drives them. 

What do I need from myself to be able to openly check out what is going on inside my partner?

In couples therapy, we often see examples where interpretations of the partner's behavior are more about one's own fears and own negative self-image in the relationship than what is really going on inside with the other. 

And it is difficult to intuitively understand each other when you have different ways of handling emotions in the relationship. Not infrequently, we also see that the party with a more evasive way of dealing with emotions may need more time to get in touch with and be able to express what is happening on the inside. 

The silence this requires can in many cases be the very trigger for the more active party, who then becomes so stressed and afraid that it is difficult to remain calm and listening. 

It can then be nice to know which ones self-soothing strategies which helps you. Examples can be:

  • to focus on long exhalations (which slows the heart rate and activates the calm part of our nervous system)
  • speak/move more slowly than you usually do (also for self-regulation)
  • get hold of the part inside you that is genuinely curious about your partner's inner world (what your partner thinks, feels, feels in his body and needs from you)
  • remind yourself of the good things about your partner and yourself when you are in the middle of a difficult time
  • remind yourself that the turmoil inside you is not dangerous and that you can be with it rather than act on it
  • imagine a door between you where your task now is to be with your partner in his room (you will get your chance later)
  • kindness inward in the form of friendly and supportive words to yourself
  • try to connect with the hurt in your partner's gaze when you have eye contact (looking into your partner's eyes can make it easier to follow)
  • remind yourself that your partner can also struggle and feel small
  • maintain eye contact to feel that you are in contact or take breaks from eye contact if you need this to regulate yourself etc. 

What do I need from my partner to dare to share more of my insecurities and vulnerabilities?

Having a need for comfort, reassurance and understanding when you feel vulnerable and insecure are healthy human needs. It is a sign that one can bond with another. 

A need is something different from a requirement. Nevertheless, it is not rare that in the couples therapy room we can hear the word "demanding" in the description of oneself when the need to be met with hurt feelings arises. 

And it is easy to feel demanding when the need for closeness is great, and the distance the same. Many may think that they have disproportionately strong, hurtful and childish feelings for adults. 

However, it is normal to feel like a two-year-old when the fear of breaking up tears. Its function is to protest against a breach of the attachment. 

When couples get closer to each other in couple conversations, it is often both clear and pronounced that the vast majority welcome the innermost feelings of their partner.

As a rule, the feelings first remain a problem in the relationship in the way they are expressed or not expressed. It can therefore be useful to have a so-called preliminary conversation together about what you need from each other to dare to open up more. Such an entry into conversation can contribute to both being more open and receptive to each other on the way to saving the relationship. 

An example could be: "When I have to explain to you how I feel, it would feel safer if you answered me and said something about what is happening inside you, rather than sitting quietly. The silence makes me scared and insecure and then it is difficult to keep calm".

Alternatively: "When I try to explain to you how I feel, it would be good if you gave me time, listened and asked open questions. If you are too quick to share your thoughts, it is as if I lose track of what I myself feel and think”.

How do I look when I communicate my feelings, wants and needs?

Body language can have a greater immediate effect on a recipient's nervous system and emotional activation than verbal language alone. Getting to know how you express yourself verbally and non-verbally when you communicate feelings and needs can be absolutely essential for the chances of saving the relationship.

Saying "I just want you close" are nice words. However, they may pass the other house if it is called out in an aggressive tone with a disappointing facial expression, rather than with a gentle voice and a reassuring look. You may risk getting the opposite of what you want. 

Just as a barking dog does not intuitively activate care for its fear but rather a fear response that enables us to fight, flee or freeze, a partner's body language will activate accordingly. 

In a positive sense, a friendly look, a gentle and confident smile, a warm hand, a loving hug or a good smell have a calming effect on the nervous system.

It is difficult to imagine one's own body language. This means that you can easily believe that you have conveyed something painful that can activate care when this is what is felt most strongly in your own body. 

To get to know better whether there is a match between what you know on the inside and what you convey on the outside, you can film yourself in an imaginary conversation with your partner. Then try, as best you can, to communicate in the way you normally would. Alternatively, you can also film yourself in a similar and imaginary conversation with a close, good friend/family member in whom you feel safe, and see if there is a different body language that emerges.

Are my expectations realistic or am I living in the hope that my partner will be able to fulfill all my needs?

If you are different in important areas for you, is this a grief you can take inside and remain in the relationship? Or are the differences so decisive for your well-being, for your identity, that it seems unbearable to remain? 

A partner cannot fulfill all our needs. Especially not if the expectation is that the partner will share the same enthusiasm for interests and needs that give you energy. 

If you love going out and your partner peace. Is it okay that most experiences are filled with friends? Find out which arenas are important to you in a relationship and which arenas you can have for yourself or together with others. In many cases, it is also possible to adapt the needs to something that both can enjoy. Personality also comes into play here. 

A well-known difference is the degree to which one is introverted or extroverted. An introvert typically needs alone time/recharge time/rest to be well present socially or to recover after a social event. 

An extrovert gets energy precisely from social meetings and can feel restless or empty when there is too much alone time. In order to save the relationship, it can then be useful to find out what both need in order to be able to meet different needs. 

For example, an introvert may want a close conversation, but also want to be well present and then need some charging time alone before a deeper conversation. 

Or, on some days it may be easier for an introvert to do something active together than to talk for long stretches (For example: exercise together, play board games together with something good in the glass, work together in the garden) than to talk, which can also satisfy the extrovert's need for contact and community. 

The extrovert can also thrive in peace and relaxation, as long as there is a sense of community. For example, lying face-to-face on the sofa with each a book, lying next to each other and listening to music, eating a shorter meal together and each going to their own armchair in the living room to do their own work. 

In order to adapt to the lasting differences you have in your relationship, it is important to be honest with yourself and your partner about what your needs are, and at the same time try to be flexible in looking at opportunities to meet the differences. 

Has my boyfriend become like a family member to me?

This is not a rare problem in a relationship, and may be about a form of perceived imbalance in the relationship. Often this experience is difficult to put into words for fear of hurting, and most often it is an instinctive dampener for sex drive. 

If you feel like this, it can be helpful to try to get hold of what gives you that familial feeling. What is it that you or your partner do or don't do that gives you this uncomfortable familial feeling? 

And important to remember: Your partner IS not a family member. This is how your brain has interpreted your experience, based on the way your partner relates to you or the role you play towards your partner, which gives a sense of something reminiscent of family. 

Your partner is still just your lover, and well-intentioned honesty can benefit the relationship, even if it can be painful. Rather, dare to see the honesty as an opportunity you give your partner and the relationship in letting him have a chance to feel like your lover again. 

It may be easier for your partner to accept if you first tell what you are afraid of by sharing and what you want to achieve for you by sharing. Have the conversation in a calm and collected moment, where you can get in touch with the empathy(s) you have for your partner.

What am I risking by sharing my wants and needs from a vulnerable place?

It's only when your partner knows how you really feel inside. That is, what feelings, fears, desires and unshared needs you have, that he or she has an opportunity to meet them. That's when you can save the relationship.

Or, from your side: it is only when you are in contact with and communicate how you really feel, that you have an opportunity to know if you are being met, and can make a decision on a real basis.

When it comes to emotional needs, there is often surprisingly little that is demanding about it. The most demanding thing is mostly the form in which our emotions are packaged. 

Expressing an emotional need is e.g. something other than demanding contact. What often stops us from openly sharing our feelings are our own perceptions about the feelings we have, which are mostly linked to our attachment experiences. 

We may have experienced that our feelings were not met at crucial moments in childhood and instead began to feel ashamed of completely natural and healthy emotional needs. 

Let's say that as a child you e.g. was plagued with constant nightmares and a fear of sleeping alone. When you ran into your parents and asked to sleep with them, they got angry that you were going to ruin their night's sleep and told you to go back to your own bed. 

Abandoned in fear and relegated to solitude. If these are repeated experiences, the body can remember this as "when I'm afraid others get angry" and make the conclusion "when I'm afraid I have to withdraw from others". 

Such experiences can sit in us almost unconsciously and make it difficult to dare to seek others when we need it most. 

If you feel that you are very ashamed of the feelings you have, or are afraid to seek out others when you are not feeling well, talking to an experienced psychologist can be helpful.

What good can I do for myself in the process of saving the relationship?

It is only when your partner knows how you really feel inside (for example: what feelings, fears, desires and needs you feel), that he has an opportunity to face it. Then you also have a better chance of being able to save the relationship.

Good self-esteem comes in handy in any relationship. 

If you feel good about yourself, it is easier to both feel good for others and communicate your own wishes and needs in ways that are easier to accept. 

If we feel starved to be seen in the relationship, we can also become too hung up on validation from our partner to feel good about ourselves. It can then be helpful to find out what you can do yourself to strengthen the good feeling about and with yourself, regardless of your partner. 

For example, get to know better which parts of yourself mark your identity or your core characteristics to the greatest extent. That is to say; the qualities you live out in a relationship or an activity when it feels good to be you.

What is it that is important for you to engage in, focus on, do, feel or be with in order to get in touch with the part of yourself that you enjoy being with? With a better feeling about yourself, it can also be easier to open up about vulnerabilities, take responsibility for your own contribution and acknowledge and apologize for your mistakes.

Saving the relationship - The way forward

For some, couples therapy will be a good option to save the relationship. You and others can read about couples therapy here.

Psykologvirke has brought together several couple therapists with expertise in Emotion-focused couple therapy which has proven to be one of the best treatment methods for challenges in relationships.

You can also check out NRK's podcast "Accident Commission". In this podcast, one of our couple therapists, Dimitrij Samoilow, and other panelists discuss break-ups in relationships and which processes may underlie the break-up.