Feeling Stuck in Your in Relationship? How to Know If You Should Save It - or Split Up

A new study says that many couples stay together even when they're in a rut—here's how to get out of it

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In a 2020 study of people in relationships in the journal Family Relations, one word kept coming up: “Stuck.” While surveying interviews about participants’ relationship, the study’s authors found more than a third of participants originally interviewed reported having felt a sense of “felt constraint” holding them to their partner—though they weren’t sure they truly wanted to be in the relationship.

This year, that “stuck” feeling may be more prevalent than ever; after all, we’re literally all confined to our spaces, and dating prospects are difficult. But even in non-pandemic times, that “stuck” feeling in a relationship is surprisingly common, for a number of reasons.

Among them: you’re ambivalent about how you and your significant other have changed since first getting together; you feel you can’t afford to move out on your own or are exhausted by the messy process of splitting up your lives; or you just simply don’t want to believe that the years put into a partnership were all for naught.

Plus, it can sometimes be hard to know the difference between when that feeling means that it’s time to move forward in your relationship—or time to move on. If you’re in a rut and wondering how to escape it read on for the expert tips to helping you get “unstuck”—whether or not you decide to stay together.


Take a gut check

A period of boredom and frustration doesn’t have to signify the end for a couple, says Dr. Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist in Folsom, Calif. “Relationships are difficult,” he says. “They invariably involve sacrifice, adjustments, forgiveness, compassion, disappointment, and more.”

Stay together long enough, and these things can take their toll. He says, “As a result, most people will then have moments where the seeds of regret begin to form. They need not, however, take root.”

There are a few questions that may help you pinpoint whether you’re just in a phase or the relationship is in real trouble, according to Dr. Talley.

He suggests asking yourselves: “Have some fundamental agreements (i.e. to be faithful, to be an equal provider, to end up marrying and having children) been violated?” and “Has the relationship changed, or have I become bored due to some other factors?”

Dr. Supriya Blair, licensed clinical psychologist, adds a couple of her own. She suggests asking “Do I feel I am fully able to be myself in our relationship?” and “What are all the reasons I think I should be in this relationship?” Once you’ve answered those questions, then imagine how you’d feel if the bonds keeping you tied together —like an interconnected friend group, or mingled finances— went away. If that changed tomorrow, would you still want to stay?

Being brutally honest with your answers can help you start to sort out next steps. If you conclude that your compatibility is intact, you might be able to turn things around with some hard work and possibly the help of a therapist (more on that later). But if you are finding that you’re no longer on the same path or your life together no longer fits your needs, it could be time to move on.


Try something new together

If you’re feeling like you and your partner are no longer connecting as you once did, it’s time to put a totally new activity on your joint calendar. It might be a little harder than usual in the pandemic but signing up for a virtual language class or sushi making session could go a long way.

Trying a new task together “not only shakes up established habits that may not be working for you anymore, but it also gives you an experience of shared vulnerability,” explains Sara Stanizai, licensed marriage and family therapist in Long Beach, Calif. “When both of you are a little uncomfortable, you have a chance to practice supporting each other and being supported by your partner.”

Dr. Blair also sees this as an opportunity to make “relationship deposits” by, she says, “making plans to spend quality time together and show interest in the other’s personal world of dreams, ideas, hobbies, and goals.” Like a bank account, the more you “invest” by making an effort for each other, the richer you both may feel overall in your partnership.

Reminisce about happier times

When you’re feeling frustrated with your partner, Dr. Talley suggests switching your focus from his or her failings and instead going back and remembering the things that made you fall in love in the first place. “By intentionally spending time thinking of happier times, one pushes back against [negative] thinking ... You just may once again glimpse the qualities of the person with whom you first fell in love.”

The key here is to try to zero in on those things that initially drew you to them that still exist or have only grown stronger; Dr. Blair warns that focusing on changes here can have the opposite effect.

“One common regret people voice is...comparing their current image of their partner to who their partner was when they first got together,” she warns. So don’t fall in the “he/she used to...” trap here. Instead try to focus on the more steadfast qualities.


End the argument cycle

Do you feel like you have some variation of the same argument almost daily? Dr. Blair explains that some experts call this cycle “relationship gridlock,” explaining “Couples might have the same fight over and over again, though the language might shift slightly.”

Stanizai has a few suggestions for breaking the monotony: “One of my favorite statements is, ‘Tell me why this is so important to you.’ That takes the argument out of the present conflict—’Are we really fighting about cleaning the house?’—and reveals what the true issue is.”

For example, she says, “It could be important because the person grew up in a chaotic household and cleanliness means control or order, or it could be important because that's how they learned to show respect to their home and family growing up.” Figuring out why your partner feels so strongly about whatever you’re disagreeing about will help root your conversation in understanding.

Dr. Blair also suggests you try to take a step back and map out the actual pattern happening (“If I say this, then you do this, then I react this way, then you shut down” and so on.). She says, “Zooming out [to observe] what is actually going on helps introduce the potential for couples to be more objective about why they’re fighting versus what they’re fighting about.”


See a therapist

When in doubt—and there tends to be a lot of that in a “stuck” relationship—see if your partner will agree to counseling, says Stanizai. A therapist can talk you through different communication techniques that may help break down barriers that are holding you both back. Plus, she says, “If you've gone back and forth on this for a while, having a third party can help you see things you didn't see before. People don't know what they don't know, so having an outside perspective—even for a short time—can help get more clarity.”

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