One of the most difficult decisions people make is when to try to repair something and when to give up on it. This is as true of relationships as it is of cars and houses. Sometimes we see a married couple who have lived together for many years in a kind of paralyzed unhappiness, and we wonder why they did not separate years ago and create happier lives for themselves. The habit of accepting a certain level of unhappiness can allow a person to accept a less than optimal life. It is sad to see the wasted potential and the unnecessary pain.
There are, however, situations where passing through a difficult time does not become a stuck point. Instead, a couple turns to each other and hashes out the situation itself and the difficulties between them. In those cases, the relationship becomes an environment of growth.
Once, in an airport, I met three couples who were taking a trip together. They were farm couples from southern Illinois, and they were celebrating 50 years of being married. They lived in the same community, and they had known each other all this time. I asked one of the women, “So what is the secret? How do you manage 50 years of marriage? Did you never want to leave?”
She answered, “Oh yes. All the time. But I had four kids and no money. Where was I going to go?” She laughed. “We got used to each other.”
Sometimes healing happens. There are moments of choice, and we decide whether to invest ourselves, become vulnerable, and open to the other person and when not to do that. It is not a science. Each person has free will, and we cannot know what the other person will choose. We can only make our best guess based on what we know.
Perhaps the indicator is based on the intentions of each person. However inept we may be at connecting with each other, it is our continuing intention to keep trying that ultimately communicates a valuing of the other person. We get disconnected, angry, or distant, we remember who we are with. We want to regenerate that connection and we move toward the other person. We try to understand that person.
It’s messy and uncertain. Like a tennis game, we hit the ball and our partner has to hit the ball back or there is no game. We cannot indefinitely try to connect if the other person is isolated in fear, rage, and pain. On the other hand, given a serious intention in both people, we can often use those bumps in the road as growth points.
We grow in relationships. We can earn secure attachment within long-term, ongoing commitments. Sometimes that happens in marriages. Sometimes that happens in therapy. Sometimes that could happen in other contexts. Mostly, though, there needs to be some kind of structure to hold the relationship together at moments of crisis. Then the repairs take place. Two people sigh with relief. And something concrete and powerful happens within each of them.