4 Scenarios for an Unhealthy Relationship – What If No Improvement or Change?

Improving RelationshipsOne day you wake up and finally decide that your unhealthy relationship is not working and it is not going to improve on its own. This is really scary and uncomfortable to feel. However, just because things are not changing does not mean they can’t change.  Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know. In other words, we only know things in life that we bump into incidentally, experience along the way, or learn about purposefully.  There are possibilities beyond our knowledge that open the door for change.

There are four main scenarios for resolving an unhealthy relationship:

  • Both people are open and willing to do the work. Changes are made that improve the unhealthy relationship.
  • One is willing but the other is not and is resistant to try. Do you leave or remain in the unhealthy relationship?
  • An attempt is made but it becomes clear that the relationship will not be what one or both people need and want. If this is the case, the couple must decide to stay or go their separate ways.
  • Both people “choose” to remain in the relationship as it is. Remember, no action is still action.

Scenario 1:

These are the fortunate people because they were willing to try to improve things in their unhealthy relationship. They were open to the process and made the changes on their own or sought professional help.They were willing to risk and accepted the possibility that the relationship may not succeed. But they chose to try anyway. They decided to put effort into the relationship because they valued the relationship, or sometimes couples do the work “for the children’s sake”. They don’t want to split up the children or the housing situation. Perhaps they did not realize it at the time, but they chose to work on the relationship because they didn’t want their children to come from a “broken home”.

Scenario 2:

One of the partners wants to improve the relationship but the other is not open to doing the work for whatever reason. One option, though not ideal, is for the motivated partner to seek professional assistance alone, and to work on the relationship with the psychotherapist’s assistance. For example, a therapist can teach the motivated partner how to redo conversations that have not gone well in the past. Or they can help the motivated partner learn how to effectively help the other partner more fully understand how he or she feels and that they really want to work on the relationship because they value their partner.

Or it may be that the motivated partner understands and accepts that the other partner is not willing to make changes or do the work. The motivated partner needs to decide if they are willing to accept their partner as they are, and to live with the relationship as it is currently. Or that they cannot or are unwilling to live with the quality of the relationship as it stands. They know what they want and are willing to find a more fulfilling relationship with someone else.  A past blog on “Must Have Lists” identifies those things each partner needs to preserve their Core.

Some people decide to remain in the relationship even though it is unlikely to improve. They stay because they are afraid to be alone or they fear they will not find someone who fulfills them.

Scenario 3:

Sometimes, even with professional assistance, we find that the other person will never be able to fulfill our needs in a relationship. A person’s “wiring” or emotional makeup may not match what the other person needs. It is not necessarily a “right or wrong” situation. Sometimes we are just not matched well enough for both parties to feel happy and fulfilled, regardless of their efforts. They are just too different in terms of what they want in a relationship, or what they are capable of giving.

In this scenario some couples still decide to stay together. Some stay but choose to have relationships on the side. This is not recommended professionally. However, it is possible that the couple believe they can make it work, especially if there are children still in the house. I do not see it as a cut and dry, right or wrong scenario, but it is one that the couple needs to consider. For certain, the children are definitely learning how to pick a mate and how to be married by watching the parents over time. No question about this. It is a fact and must be considered in the decision. The most important point in this scenario is that the couple discusses the options and make the best choice they believe for the children. It is a much less complicated process when no children are in the picture.

Scenario 4:

When both people choose to remain in an unhealthy relationship that is not fulfilling.  If there are no children involved, it becomes a decision just between the two people, regardless of why they chose this option. Sometimes they choose to stay together because both people fear  starting over with the unknown, or fear they will have failed, and do not want to be seen as a failure by themselves or others, especially by family members. Here again, they may stay together out of fear of being alone, or once again being unhappy in another relationship. They may fear they they are incapable of having a healthy relationship and do not want to risk their fear becoming a reality.

Remember, “no action is still action”.  Sometimes couples avoid conflict and just stay together, just continuing the way it has always been. But it is still a decision they each make. This is not necessarily right or wrong. It is what some people “decide” is most comfortable for them. But it is definitely a decision whether done actively or by just staying together day by day with no discussion regarding the decision.

Final Thoughts:

As you can see, there are various scenarios that couples experience and their decision to stay or dissolve the unhealthy relationship can be a complicated one. Remember, “we don’t know what we don’t know”. Sometimes there are possibilities of things getting better, and sometimes it is not likely to improve. The process of the decision-making about the outcome is one that both partners will live with one way or the other. Even if the decision is to dissolve the relationship, a professional psychotherapist can be very helpful in guiding the decision in a healthy manner.

Action Items:

  1. Where are you in this situation? Are you just now realizing how unhappy you are or have you known this for some time?
  2. Are one or both of you open to seeking professional help? If not, why not? Money should not be an issue. Many therapists accept insurance, and there are agencies that also offer therapy on a sliding scale according to one’s financial situation.
  3. If you are not open to getting help, do you feel certain this relationship will not work? Or are you afraid to find out one way or another?
  4. Is there fear involved regarding being alone if the unhealthy relationship ends? How does this affect your decision-making?
  5. If there are children involved, how does this affect your decision-making?


Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman, PhD

What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, by John Gottman, PhD.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, by John Gottman, PhD.

About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on YourTango.com and on MSN.com.

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