“We’re not in a good place and haven’t been for some time. My partner doesn’t want the relationship to end and is willing to work harder at it. Will it be enough for me to stay?” Relationships suffer from a prolonged lack of attention. Despair morphs into disillusion. Walls of self-protection are constructed slowly and methodically over years. Every disappointment, hurt, rejection, or betrayal is another brick to insulate the heart from future pain. Co-existing behind walls is not ideal, but for many it is functional. The family is intact but they keep each other at a distance. Yet the absence of connection and the yearning to feel safe and loved remains a deep personal need for distant partners. Leaving is one way to break out of the fog of confusion. But is it the right choice? “My partner wants doesn’t want to end the marriage. He or she wants to work on the relationship. I hear ownership, a commitment to change, an openness to do things differently. Is it real? Will it last? And—will the outcome be enough for me to stay?” These are 3 familiar questions I hear from couples contemplating restoring an unhappy marriage. Friends, family, or co-workers may offer advice based on their own experiences. Some may be helpful especially when they help you look at it from both perspectives. Others can be jaded based upon personal experience. Deciding to work on an unhappy marriage in the end, is up to you. Staying to give it a try will have some challenges. Leaving has challenges too. So, my answer to the 3 questions is: “Some time will tell.” Notice I underscore some. Let me explain what I mean as you read on. 3 things need to happen during this time period.
#1: Honesty needs to happen
If change is going to be real you need to be honest with yourself and each other. You have to speak the truth to your partner about what has happened and how you feel. Honesty will hurt. Especially when you are confronted with the truth about what you’ve done and how your partner feels in the relationship. Let’s talk about ownership. If you or your spouse cannot honestly own your faults without excuses then you might as well end the relationship now. Don’t delay the agony of staying together under false pretenses any longer. Let’s talk about commitment to change. You also need to be honest with yourself and your partner if you are committed to working on changing yourself. Are you doing this for yourself or to save the marriage? If you’re doing it to save the marriage it is probably not going to last. It’s more like a short term solution to a long term problem, but you’re not getting to the core. If you are committed to change for yourself regardless of the outcome of your marriage, you will work harder and potentially  have lasting results. People who are truly honest will put in the hard work and not give up even when faced with resistance. They prove their honesty in the early phase and throughout because they want permanent change. By the way, if you can’t do the work because you’re tired and too much has happened, you need to be honest with yourself and your partner that it is over. It’s time to move on. Do not delay the inevitable. It will only make it harder.
#2: Openness to work together needs to happen
If your partner is out from behind the wall and making the effort, you can’t hide behind the wall waiting for proof. The act of stepping out from behind the wall is initial evidence. You will need to take a step outside your wall too. Openness to work together requires some vulnerability on your part. You will have to give some consideration for a period of time that the words and actions of your partner are honest and sincere. Your alarm system will go off warning you to dismiss the actions as lies or an act. This is normal. The key is to remain open to the effort of your partner by showing some form of acknowledgment. “I can see you are trying” is acknowledgment. “I’m not yet convinced by your actions but I am open to consider it.” Reciprocity of effort is important during this time period. Positive acknowledgment of positive effort is likely to bring more, thus establishing a pattern of behavior in the relationship that is honest and respectful. This pattern promotes healing.
#3: Willingness to rebuild trust needs to happen
Trust involves risk. Is is real? Will it last? Is it enough for me to say today I trust you? Honesty and openness fosters a willingness to rebuild trust. Consistent effort over time builds trust. If over the course of a few months this honest and respectful interaction is ongoing, trust has the opportunity to be rebuilt. You have to be willing to give trust a try again. Dispensing trust in a moment by moment, day by day, response to trustworthy behavior is an effort that works. Here’s my formula for trust. Trust = behavior over time. If the behavior is consistent in the short term, you can extend it for a few more months. If it remains consistent, give it more time. After one year of sustained effort the probability for lasting change is high.

2 Likely Outcomes to This Approach

Over some time the answer to your 3 questions will be clear. It will generate one of two outcomes:
  1. You stayed and it worked out over a period of time.
  2. You stayed and after a short period of time you realized it wasn’t going to work and you decided to end.
Listen, you don’t have to be trapped in an unhappy relationship. Nor are you are not destined to co-exist behind walls of self-protection. You can find an answer to these questions in the short term. A year or less is likely going to give you an answer.