You break a bone. The pain may be excruciating, or it may be a dull ache. The area of the break is likely to swell and bruise. You will lose function and know that something is wrong. You will most likely seek medical care. The doctors may put the bone back in place and cast it. They may put you on crutches. They will tell you to rest and ice and stay off it. They will tell you to give time to allow your body to heal.
And, most likely you pay attention and do what the doctors say. You dutifully wear the cast or splint as you hobble about. You may not be able to drive so you get help. You may not be able to grocery shop so you get groceries delivered or get help. You get help and you allow your body to heal. Six weeks or so later, hopefully the bone has healed and you can ease into regular activities.
Sadly, many couples don’t treat a fracture in their relationship the same way. Here is what I often see in my practice:
The relationship fractures. This can start in the most benign way imaginable. Take Stacy and Lacy, cohabitating partners for the past five years. Stacy was about to start a work zoom meeting when Lacy started listening to music full blast. Stacy was pissed off. She couldn’t get off her zoom meeting to tell Lacy in person to turn it down, so she texted her. Lacy had her phone turned off, and didn’t hear it ding. Stacy texted her five more times in the next five minutes. By this time she was livid. She gritted her teeth and bore it as she could. Finally the meeting ended and she stormed out of the room and went straight to where Lacy was obliviously listening to her music. “Lacy, what the f***?” she screamed. Lacy had no idea what Stacy was talking about. “You knew I had this work meeting!! Really? You had to turn up the music so loud? You are so inconsiderate!!” At this point, Lacy burst into tears, and Stacy, still livid, stormed back to her next meeting.
This kind of thing isn’t that unusual. Disconnection happens like this for many couples. What makes this fracture take hold is this: Stacy and Lacy don’t speak for three days. For three days, they are both miserable, each feeling wronged, profoundly disconnected, and wanting more than anything for the other to come make up. Their relationship is fractured.
A fracture will then get worse if not tended to. Let’s take a look at Stacy and Lacy again. On the third day of their rupture, Stacy reaches out to a friend for support. She pours her heart out and even weeps. The friend provides a listening ear for the naturally biased view and the two of them proceed to verbally bash Lacy. This makes Stacy feel better and more self righteous in her woundedness. She remembers all the times that Lacy has been oblivious. She wonders to herself whether the relationship should even continue. As the days of disconnection continue, Stacy finds more and more evidence of Lacy not being attuned to her needs. She begins to think she is done. She finds herself withdrawing more and more from Lacy. The fracture is now a true break.
Unless tended to, it will get even worse. Believe me, it will get worse.
I understand the pain here. I am a couples counselor. I sit with hurting couples all the time. Couples desperate for their partner to take responsibility, apologize, make amends. But who was in the wrong here? You might say Lacy, for being oblivious. You might say Stacy – anger harms, even if it’s righteous anger. But neither Lacy nor Stacy felt it was their fault.
The thing is this: if you are in a relationship, it is your primary job to tend to the relationship. Many couples don’t have this on their radar. It is your job to tend to your partner and make sure they’re okay. It doesn’t mean that you have to say you’re the one in the wrong, although it might. It doesn’t mean that you have to condone your partner’s behavior. It simply means that you are committing to looking out for your partner. It means that you are committing to keeping your relationship sound.
A broken bone seems so much more straightforward. You break a bone, you go to the doctor, you follow best medical practices for healing. What is the best medical practice here? Truly, there is really only one thing to do, which is to remember that your job is to tend to the relationship. That’s it!
It is your job to tend to the relationship.
Here’s how Stacy and Lacy could approach this:
After the screaming episode, one or the other could check back in with their partner, either in person, or by texting – Hey, that interaction didn’t go so well, can we talk about it?
If the other person doesn’t want to talk about it, they can say no – but if they say no, their job is to give an alternative. So let’s say Stacy was the one to text the above to Lacy, Lacy could reply, “I’m not ready to yet, how about in an hour?” There you go! And please don’t wait three days. Wait maybe an hour to check in. Don’t let a day go by without processing hurts.
There are many ways to process hurtful things. Learning how to do this is the essence of how I support relationships in couples counseling. So many people don’t know how, so they avoid it. So many individuals don’t talk to their partners about really important things, like their feelings, their needs, their hurts. But talking and processing is CRITICAL to the health of any relationship. Absolutely critical, much like a cast for a healing bone.
If you feel stuck in a fractured relationship, and recognize dynamics in play here, I urge you to take action before the break is permanent. Read a book (Stan Tatkin, Sue Johnson, and the Gottmans are great places to start) for more insight on couple dynamics and support in how to tend to the relationship. Reach out to a couples counselor (you can search psychologytoday.com by zipcode and specialty). Above all, do not ignore it.
Is your relationship fractured? Let me assure you: A fractured relationship is treatable. It is. I support couples with healing their relationship all the time. As long as you are willing to be part of the healing and committed to the process, a relationship, much like a broken bone, will end up stronger after care. It’s why I love my work so much.