“You can’t have a real relationship until you’re willing to not have a relationship.”
Susan Pease Gadoua, a marriage and relationship expert and the co-author of “The New I Do,” says this is one of her favorite quotes, one that guides her through her work as a therapist.
She offered it to me in context: years ago, a woman came to her on the brink of serving her husband divorce papers. She had been married for years, had six kids, and was completely and totally fed up with how she had been treated. Susan coached her to speak her truth to her husband, to share how unhappy she was.
It was that brutal honesty that turned the tides for the couple, who are still together today. Once her client was able to be honest about how she really felt — once she was willing to put “divorce” on the table—her husband wanted to make changes. Their relationship not only held together, but it got better because one of them was willing to risk not having it at all.
In her years as a therapist, Susan says there are trends like these that she sees amongst couples.
A lot of it is counterintuitive, but Susan says that there’s somewhat of a pattern between relationships that work and relationships that do not. She calls these “workability” factors.
We know that just like no two people are exactly the same, no two couples are, either. Susan says that the mission of her work is certainly not to function with an agenda — she is not here to keep people together or drive them apart. Rather, her objective is to help them understand their most authentic selves and desires and to see if they will be able to meet those authentic needs.
How can you tell whether or not your relationship will last long-term?
Susan breaks this down using a form of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She explains that couples who are functioning on the lowest level — survival— often stay together out of necessity. Couples functioning at the highest level— actualization—are not only making one another happy, but also helping each other grow in the right direction, so they tend to stay together, too.
The issues come in between those, most significantly through problems with safety, love, and esteem.
1. Are you staying to pursue love, or avoid pain?
Susan says this is one of the biggest giveaways regarding whether or not a relationship will work: what’s the force that’s holding you?
People who stay because they are afraid to be alone or to go through the humiliation of divorced tend to be in less sustainable relationships. People who stay through tough times because they have a mutual goal of building a happy family together have a better chance of persevering.
2. Do you have enough “workability” factors?
She then breaks down the health of a relationship into what she calls “workability factors,” or elements that need to be present to resolve conflict and move forward together.
For example, every relationship has certain love needs. This means that to make a relationship work, you need the following workability factors: Mutual love, shared interests, commitment on both sides, fidelity. It also means that the presence of any of the following makes a relationship more unlikely to sustain: Absence of mutual love, infidelity, no shared interests, one or both are uncommitted to the marriage.
However, the important part of workability factors is that it’s an active thing: if both partners are willing to work on the foundation of their mutual love, fidelity, create shared interests, redevelop their roles in one another’s lives, and so on, they’ll be able to make it work.
Here’s the entirety of the “workability quiz,” if you want to learn more.
3. Can you speak your truth?
Like her favorite quote, Susan says that though this is counterintuitive at times, couples who are more confrontational are typically healthier and happier.
Can you say your truth? Can you risk losing the relationship? The more you can say ‘I am unhappy,’ the happier you can be.
This is because the more honest you can be about your needs, the more you’re giving your partner a chance to understand and adapt to them. When your primary goal is to sustain the relationship because you’re afraid to lose it, you’re more inclined to stay quiet and small, even though you feel disrespected or neglected.
This is really where couples run into trouble. It’s why you hear stories of one partner being served with divorce papers “out of the blue.” The truth is that these issues are accumulating over time, and every couple — no matter how healthy or compatible—will have them.
So the question is not do you have problems now and again? The question is do you address them in real-time, or do you avoid them, pretend to be happy, while slowly being pushed away until you break?
4. Instead of trying to control the outcome, can you figure out what you want?
For relationship counseling and reconciliation to be truly effective, you need to focus first on what your authentic truth is, and what needs have to be met for you to feel fulfilled.
Instead of trying to manipulate yourself, or a situation, in order to get one outcome that you’re most comfortable with, can you instead begin to consider what your authentic truth is? From there, you can find a way to perhaps start being more transparent and vocal about it, so your needs can be met, either way.
The moral here is twofold: first, there’s no one right direction for your relationship to go. Whatever is going to be healthiest and happiest for both people involved is what’s best to do. Secondly, everyone goes through hard times. It’s not the presence of conflict or hardship that determines the workability of a relationship, it’s the commitment and willingness to grow.