My mother has never been frugal when it comes to doling out advice. In fact, sometimes she is generous to a fault. Through the years I have learned to wade through waves of wisdom, drinking in what I need, reserving excess for another day. One of her greatest pearls proved more valuable the older I got and have served me well as I navigate relationships. She’d say: “You never know what is happening behind someone’s bedroom door. What may seem like a dream could be a complete nightmare.”
And with that, I recognized that every couple hits rough patches in their relationships. Sometimes you just don’t see or hear about the ups and down that befall your favorite couples; be they celebrity or friends next door. I believe, realistically, even power duos like President Obama and First Lady Michelle as well as Prince William and Kate Middleton probably can’t tolerate one another every now and then. Trouble in paradise is a very democratic depiction. Still, as of this writing, those couples remain my paradigm for successful unions. Not because I think they are perfect, but because to the public eye they exude love and mutual respect.
Still, not every couple weathers life’s stormy moments adroitly. In an effort to understand why, I spoke to dozens of men and women who admit they took cover when the hail of discontent began to assault their seemingly “perfect” relationships. After the final “good-byes” each had professed to never look back. Some say they got tired of trying to preserve the unsalvageable. They grew weary of the arguments. Communication stalled. Infidelity destroyed many of the couples I interviewed for this piece. Resentment brought down the lives of others like a house of cards. Lydia admitted her boyfriend’s crippling drug habit destroyed their relationship. It’s as if at some point, the core values of these relationships fell apart and rather than examine why things were not working the only recourse was to split up. The common thread between most of the couples that spoke so candidly about their experience: by some twist of fate, or simply by design, these men and women found a reason to reconcile. Yet, what inspires couples so damaged to recover, reunite, and rebuild? And most importantly, what actions did they take in order to ensure love will be better (and last) the second time around?
I asked couples and individuals from various age groups, faiths and ethnic backgrounds to narrow down the reasons why, after making a decision to sever their relationships, they chose to conciliate. To say the journey back for most was hard won would be an understatement. For “Christina and Leroy” it took years before they met again on common ground. Those who have been successful with their reconciliation say once they began talking to one another, instead of at each other, the tone of the relationship became more amiable. However, that just set the stage; acting on this new found agreeability required patience, understanding, and above all trust. It was important for these couples to feel comfortable with one another again. They needed to reboot their expectations so that they were more compatible with one another. For others, a reboot was not enough. Couples had to reprogram the relationship’s entire operating system. The new, improved iteration wiped out past grievances, the old way of relating, and the stubborn attitudes that presented obstacles at every turn. This dramatic reconstruction is ongoing. There will never come a time when everything is perfect. Everyone who made a commitment to start over has accepted the fact their relationship is, and will always be a work in progress. The rebirth of my own union after a separation inspired me to delve deeper into the mechanics of reconciliation. I discovered that above all, it takes both people working in non-dysfunctional harmony to maintain the partnership.
Not all couples I interviewed are completely satisfied with the current state of their relationship. The ones struggling say they are back together for all the wrong reasons. They felt lonely or shared children together. Sadly, the kids became unwitting victims in a domestic war. A few couples confided that they did not believe they would find anyone else. At least three people (we’ll call them Nancy, Christian and Michelle for the sake of anonymity) said they had invested so much time in the relationship, they felt “obligated” to stay together. Where these couples contrast from the ones who are making inroads is, they have not explored or attempted to rectify the root of their issues. They jumped right back into an impaired cycle of unhappiness. Albert Einstein described insanity as “doing the same things over and over, and expecting different results”. While I draw the line at calling any of the people I spoke with insane, there is something to be said for an apparent lack of reason and planning ahead of their decision to reconcile. It is impossible to fix something if you have no idea what is wrong in the first place.
John, a Pastor from the Midwest, not only faced his issues head on, but he made the heart wrenching decision not to stay with a woman he’d been with for years. He tried a number of times to make it work, but the damage was too devastating. By moving on, he was able to heal. He tells me he found the willingness to open up his heart and life to God, trust women again and as a result he met his soul mate. Several women also made the same difficult choice. They endured as much pain and disappointment as possible and finally said enough is enough. Sometimes the act of reconciliation simply means making peace with yourself.
On average most of the couples I spoke with said they noticed an improvement after they reunited but admit it takes a lot of work. Below are the most common principles they say they apply in order to help them with their new lives together
5 Ways to Recover, Reunite, and Rebuild:
Communication (Stop believing your partner is a mind reader): Talking to one another is important if you want to maintain a healthy relationship after you’ve reconciled. More than half the couples I spoke with admitted to bottling up their feelings prior to the breakup. Too much pride and resentment dictated the tone of their already fractured relationship. Nothing productive was ever gained in these stand-offs. Many discovered that the other person either did not know, or fully understand why their significant other was angry or distant. When they finally did open up they discovered that, had they known half of what was revealed, they may not have walked away. Now that they are back together open and honest communication has become the foundation of their union. Aaron, who is in the process of rebuilding his relationship summed it up this way: “People need to spend more time planning the marriage then they do the wedding”. Talking about what split you up, and what will keep you together is more substantive than discussing where you will vacation to celebrate the reunion.
Trust (If you agree to forgive, promise to LET IT GO): No one I spoke to professed to be a saint. A lot of us find it very difficult to fully re-engage our hearts to someone who hurt us. Infidelity was a deal breaker for many of the people I spoke with. There was no turning back. For those who were able to confront the pain of a cheating mate, or a partner who became distant or had just plain “checked out” of the relationship, they resigned to leave the past, in the past. They used their experience to bridge the healing process between the break up and reconciliation. According to Cynthia L Wall, LSCW author of The Courage to Trust: A Guide to Building Deep and Lasting Relationships: “Trust is the heartbeat of any significant relationship, with yourself as well as with others. We still want to trust despite disappointments in the past. Nothing flows without trust and love has nowhere to grow.” If you are not ready to move on, you risk reverting back to the condition that touched off your break-up. Getting back together is not for everyone. Sometimes, the best way to recover and rebuild your lives is not to reunite.
Compromise (Not to be confused with change): As much as you would like to believe you were an innocent victim in your break-up that is just not the case. It takes two people to wreck a relationship. Just because someone does not always see things the way you do, or react how you would does not make them right or wrong; just different. Unless you are prepared to accept that the “my way or the highway” attitude is not effective, a reconciliation is doomed from the start. It’s not about reconstructing who you are, but being flexible in your thinking and actions. Be introspective. Examine exactly what you are willing to do in order to rebuild your relationship, share your conclusions with your partner and try to find a middle ground. As one woman I spoke to put it: “Change was more in my attitude and expectations about him, acknowledgement that there was no “right” way to be in the relationship”. There is a significant difference between asking a person to compromise, and insisting they change.
Be Yourself (Don’t identify with the other person so much you lose your identity): Who were you before you became a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband? Were you happy with that person? So why give up “You” to become “Us”? Your strengths, faults, desires, expectations; anything unique to you matters and must be encouraged. One of the most profound revelations that surfaced during my interviews came from Theresa, who said, “When you lose your voice, you may as well no longer exist in the relationship”. And I thought to myself, she’s right; if I don’t exist, then it’s not a relationship. When I made a conscious effort to embrace and own my own success, value, and contributions to the relationship, after the reconciliation, he and I became stronger. We merged our strengths and accomplishments and became a force to be reckoned with. Dr. Mark D White, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY Staten Island writes: A relationship doesn’t have to endanger your sense of self if you remember it’s your responsibility to create and maintain who you are. Socrates, one of the greatest thinkers in history and one of the founders of Western Philosophy put it even more simply: “Know thyself”. Bottom line, once you develop an intimate, trusting relationship with the person in the mirror, your relationship will reflect that value, not mask it.
Relationships are like “Vegas” (What happens in your bedroom, should stay there): The term pillow talk is not some quirky colloquialism that emits giggles and red-faces in polite company. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. : Not everything is for everybody. Friends and family should not be privy to the *intimate* details of your life together, good or bad. Sharing pillow talk with the wrong people will surely lead to nightmares in your relationship. Try your best to seek solace in one another. Mutual respect is a key element. There is nothing sexy about trashing someone you claim to love; quickly pointing out their faults but never singing their praises. Through good and bad times respect for your partner should never falter. Proudly hold them in the highest regard. If you continue to break your partner down someone more deserving will pick up the pieces.
Surprisingly, at least 3 of my subjects, the ones who endured the most harrowing relationships, have not given up on finding their “Prince Charming”. One or two however say they are soured on relationships and have resigned to never find the right person. Ultimately, each relationship is the sum of its parts. And while the formula can be quite complicated, if the factors don’t add up, the results will not compute. As I tap into my Mom’s reservoir of wisdom, I’m left with this: “Whether you make a choice to stay together or separate, don’t waste each other’s time. Make sure your decision is well thought out, mutual and responsible, for everyone involved.”
Liz Faublas is an Anchor for Currents, the only daily 30-minute faith based news magazine show in the nation. She is an award winning broadcast journalist and author of the blog “Inspirational Echo”. She resides in Queens with her only daughter.