When Does A Relationship Need Help?

Your relationship with a car that’s important to you is not so very different from your relationship with a person who’s important to you.

Especially when it comes to maintenance, repairs and the willingness to notice and invest what is needed, when it’s needed.

My husband Mark tells a great story about a friend; a car; and that wonderful state of denial we can all get into.

************

It snowed in Seattle in the 1970s. Epic years. Mark and his friend (let’s call him “Steve”) were skiers. On this particular day, several more feet of snow had fallen in the mountains and the lads needed to get up there.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 6.53.22 AMFor reasons Mark no longer remembers, Steve took his father’s car for the trip without checking in with his folks. A nice, newer model Toyota Crown with a great heater, ski rack and winter tires. The oil pressure light was out, but other than that this was a great, reliable car.

[Yeah, sometimes you know you ought to spend money to fix a small thing, but hey – you can remember to top up the oil. No big deal.]

Apparently neither Steve nor Mark noticed a small slip of paper fall from the dash board and out onto the garage floor….

[Sometimes we miss those important memos, caught up in the momentum of our days.]

Excited for the powder they set off East on Highway 2. Music blaring.

They got gas at a service station at Monroe, but didn’t check any of the other fluids. No warning lights? No problem!

[That “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude, right?]

Not long after, they began to hear a click, click, click.

They kept driving.

[What do you mean we’ve got to talk?]

Which progressed fairly quickly into a clunk, clunk, clunk.

They kept driving.

[Sure, things might not be perfect, but I’m going to keep my foot on the gas and just keep hoping that s/he will be fine / get over it / change / shut-up / be happy again. It’s worked in the past.]

Then a Bang! Bang! Bang!

They kept driving.

[Now things are so loud I’m frightened it might be serious. Certainly don’t want to know about that – gotta ski!]

Then three things happened in quick succession.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 3.04.15 PM

  • Smoke began to pour out from under the hood;
  • Steve pulled over
  • The car died.

Steve flipped the hood release and the lads peeped into the engine.

Mark takes over: “So there we are looking in. It’s all steam and heat and burning smells. I look down into the heart of the engine just in time to see a molten piece of metal drip onto the snow beneath. Literally – the engine is so burnt up it’s melting! And Steve turns to me and asks – incredulously – “Hey Mark, do you think it’s serious?”

That moment, right there ~ you need help!

 Not (only) because your engine / relationship is broken probably beyond repair.

But because you might, finally, be sufficiently motivated to ask.

However, if you’ve been reading between the lines, you’ll have noticed that there are all sorts of other moments, long before the death of your car / relationship when a peep under the hood and some proactive attention, service and repair could have saved the situation from ruin.

Here’s a checklist for you.

If any one of these relationship tools is weakened or outright broken, I highly recommend you get some professional help.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 2.05.29 PMYOUR INTERNAL SENSORS

 Like that oil pressure sensor in the Toyota, you have on-board sensors that can fall silent.

You may need professional help if your emotions (anger, resentment, frustration etc) are disconnected from the possible causes of these emotions. Put another way, if you’re walking around with a stew pot of feelings and no idea why – your sensors are off.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 2.43.26 PMYOUR FEEDBACK SYSTEM

Is the light on your dashboard burnt out?

Even if you can figure out what is making you angry or jealous or disappointed, if you can’t find a way to bring this feedback to the person who most needs to hear it, your relationship is at serious risk.

As a family therapist I can state this is perhaps THE most common reason relationships fail. Once one or both parties stop bringing useful feedback into the system, the system begins to decay.

There are lots of reasons why folks stop speaking up for what they feel, need and want, and if you are one of these folks this is a great reason to seek professional help.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 2.47.22 PMYOUR COMMUNICATIONS

When Steve and Mark took off skiing, they did not notice as a small memo fell out of the car. Steve’s dad had left it on the dashboard. It read:

“Add 3 quarts of oil before driving.”

Had they seen this (and acted upon it), the car would not have ended up on the scrap heap.

In this case, Steve’s dad simply did not make sure his note would be seen. Maybe he should have taped it to the window; or made an announcement over dinner the night before.

So, it’s all very well to have inner sensors and prompt and timely feedback, but if the way this feedback is communicated is ineffective, the car may still end up in the junk heap.

Think about it. Are you too vague, too hostile, or too late with the feedback you give? Do you dissipate your truth in gossip to all the wrong people?

“Problems communicating” is the number #1 reason couples give for why they seek help and a little coaching here can go a long way.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 2.30.26 PM YOUR REGULAR CHECK UPS

Had the lads been curious about the overall health of the car, a simple dip-stick oil check at the Monroe service station would have given them a clue about the car’s oil crisis.

Relationships get heavy wear and tear, especially in long term partnerships involving kids, pets, houses, mortgages, savings, elderly relations, a business etc.

  • There’s a reason that cars have scheduled service checks ups.
  • There’s a reason our bodies get wellness check ups.
  • There are many good reasons for why it would be a good idea to stay curious and open to noticing if your emotional relationships are happy and healthy, or could use some tune ups.

To paraphrase:    “Just because it don’t seem broke don’t mean it ain’t.”

If you are not sure about the health of your relationship, ask your partner.

And… see below.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 2.39.26 PMYOUR ABILITY TO ATTEND TO SMALL WARNINGS

Right at that “click, click, click” stage, had Steve pulled over, diagnosed a lack of oil and added some, the car might still have been saved.

By all means stay curious (see above) but  definitely get more curious if you begin to sense some warning signals.

Is anything less enjoyable or happy than before? Is silence replacing communication? Is one of you getting extra busy, or staying away?  Might your physical symptoms have an emotional cause?

If you can no longer have a honest heart-to-heart  (what my daughter calls a “D & M” for deep-and-meaningful) conversation,  it would be wise to schedule a session for you both with a professional just to see what’s under the hood.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 2.59.25 PMYOUR ABILITY TO TAKE ACTION

Remember the “clunk, clunk, clunk” stage? It still might not have been too late to stop, take stock, and solve the problem.

But, those lads kept right on driving. It’s so wonderfully, understandably human to put the blinkers on and hope that s/he will be fine / get over it / change / shut-up / be happy again. However, if you want to keep the relationship alive, prompt and “just right” action is needed.

Question is, what action?

Often this is where the affair, drinking binge, show-down-fight, new baby, or “mid-life crisis” becomes the action-of-choice.

If you are at the stage of wanting to do something – anything – to take care of your emotional pain, make an appointment with a good relationship therapist, pronto!

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 3.02.00 PMYOUR ABILITY TO OVERCOME YOUR FEAR

Still stuck like a deer in the headlights? Is your head pounding or your heart thumping like that poor, straining engine in its last revs?  Are you too frightened to admit there is a problem, and too clueless as to what to do?

Meet FEAR. Utter, paralyzing terrifying fear.

It’s emergency room time folks.

Before you hit the “I’m outta here ~ this relationship is dead” button, make an appointment. Alone. Together. It does not matter at this point. Remember, you are by the roadside. Your engine is near dead. It’s time for the experts to give an honest opinion and offer some solutions.

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 3.11.39 PMYOUR ABILITY TO LEARN FROM PAST MISTAKES AND MOVE ON

When Mark and Steve look at that engine dripping its molten metal onto the snowy roadside and Steve asks “Hey Mark, do you think it’s serious?” we all know the truth, right?

That engine has died.

Too much damage has been done.

Too many opportunities to make small repairs have come and gone.

This happens with relationships too.

There can come a time when what was once a robust, lively vibrant family car / relationship is now unrecognizable and beyond hope of revival.

It can still be a good time to get some help grieving, and learning how things could be different “next time.” Especially if this is not the first car you’re wrecked. Or the first once-wonderful relationship that has burned up before your eyes.

END NOTE

What did Steve and Mark do?

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 12.39.06 PMAccurately appraising the situation — “Well, the car’s not going anywhere now!” — they grabbed their ski gear, locked the car and hitched up to the ski area. After an epic day they hitched down to town, got a towing company to move the car to a nearby gas station off the road, and confessed to Steve’s dad.

This is perhaps the most surreal part of the story. Astonishingly he was not mad! He took responsibility for his part in the communication break down. They were down one car for a while, and then the family bought another car, which they still let Steve drive!

FIRST TIME HERE?

This is the eighth article in a year-long series about the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-did.”

Click the box for the full list →    →    → Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, here are links to  previous articles, with #1 being the first and #7 the article before this.

  1. My Top 12 Relationship Skills
  2. Part of Me Wants . . .
  3. Little Miss Sunshine
  4. The Purpose Driven Life
  5. Report The News – Don’t Act it Out
  6. Happy Families
  7. Self Leadership

Join me for the whole series. You can sign up at the top of this page, on the right.

NEXT WEEK?

In March I’m exploring the third in my Top 12 Relationship Skills series.  For January and February we’ve been focusing on only 50% of any given relationship ~ YOU.

In March we’ll talk about the skills you need when handling the other 50% ~ THE OTHER PERSON.

How can you take all you’ve learned in January and February and use it to understand other people?  Ready for a little primer in how to think like a therapist?

43 thoughts on “When Does A Relationship Need Help?

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