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What is a broken relationship?

What is a broken relationship?
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You might think a broken relationship is what happens when one partner cheats, is a serial spendthrift, or has a serious drug problem. But you’d be wrong, say experts. Those issues tend to be symptoms.

In a broken relationship, “you don’t get along more than you do get along, and your overall satisfaction with the relationship is mostly low, below 50 percent,” says Rachel Sussman, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, relationship expert, and the author of The Breakup Bible: The Women’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce. “That goes on and on for a long time.”

It can also be different for everyone. Sussman says she’s seen couples bounce back from infidelity with a stronger bond. The same is true for someone with a drug or alcohol problem (though that can be trickier).

But for the most part, it’s rarely one thing that torpedoes a relationship. “It’s usually a variety of issues that go on for a long time, where you lose hope,” she says.

That said, relationships on the verge of collapse usually have some tell-tale signs. And while many relationships are salvageable, some aren’t – and yes, therapists can pretty much tell both things from the get-go.

Here is everything you need to know about a relationship that needs repair, including how to go about it.

Signs of a broken relationship

Signs of a broken relationship
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Therapists don’t always use the term “broken” to describe a relationship in need of repair. Instead, they use “dysfunctional relationship dynamics,” says Amy McManus, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“A dysfunctional relationship dynamic is a way that a couple has of communicating and relating that isn’t working to create an emotionally safe and supportive connection,” she says. “It’s often easy to see. One or both partners is unhappy, angry and frustrated. Usually, both partners feel like the other one doesn’t hear or understand them.”

So what clues a couples’ counsellor into the fact that your dynamic no longer seems to be working?

You’re not talking to one another

You’re not talking to one another

“Communication is the number one issue,” says Laura Louis, a psychologist and couples therapist. “Sometimes it’s a feeling of, ‘Did you hear what I said? Or does what I say even matter? Or do I matter?’” When it gets to the point where you’re not feeling heard, understood, or validated, disconnection can take place, says Louis.

You’re disconnected from each other

You’re disconnected from each other
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This can take several different forms. Take, for instance, couples with children. If your kids are the centre of your marriage, your conversation may revolve around all the chores that come with raising kids, says Louis. “Things like, ‘Okay, would you pick up Billy? Or when are we taking Ashley to ballet practice?’ And that furthers the disconnection.”

Other worrying symptoms: “Sleeping in separate bedrooms, when a couple stops having sex (see these ways to overcome the obstacles to a healthy sex life), when they don’t want to spend time together, and when they’re finding other things to fill the space that their partner might have filled at one point,” adds Louis.

One of you has shut down

One of you has shut down
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This is what Louis calls stonewalling, and it can happen when one partner gets overwhelmed by emotions or doesn’t think the other person cares enough to listen. “Someone can shut down emotionally and still come home every night. But when you ask how they’re doing, you get one-word answers,” she explains. “But sometimes I see an actual physical withdrawal where one person literally just walks away, walks out of the room, or leaves the house when their partner wants to talk about something.”

Is your relationship worth saving?

Is your relationship worth saving?
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Therapists will never tell you whether you should ditch your partner or stick it out. That’s up to you to decide. But they can tell pretty quickly if there are obstacles to getting your relationship back on track.

The opposite is true, as well. Experts can suss out if you’ll be able to re-establish your bond.

“A therapist will help you assess how bad the damage is,” says Sussman. “Some couples feel like the sky is falling, and then they come back the following week and tell me they had a really good weekend. And when one partner describes their weekend and I see the other person smile, that tells me there’s glue and the couple has something,” she adds.

Here are 13 normal fights even happy couples have.

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You likely won’t make it if…

You likely won’t make it if…
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Being afraid of your partner is a sign of a damaged relationship, says Sussman. And all three experts agree that physical or emotional abuse are deal-breakers. “We can’t do couples therapy in cases like this, so I really focus on making sure that the person is safe,” says Louis.

And while McManus has seen some relationships recover from domestic violence, “first the couple will need to be separated so that each person can safely do their own individual work,” she says.

Not sure if your relationship fits this bill? Here are the tell-tale signs of abusive relationships.

... there’s no respect

... there’s no respect
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“It’s difficult to save a relationship is if one partner has completely lost respect or feels contempt for the other,” says McManus. “I rarely see this in couples therapy. Couples I see are usually frustrated and angry. But I suspect that the ones who have genuine contempt for one another mostly don’t make it as far as the therapist’s office.”

Trust is another issue – if partners can’t depend on each other, they’re more likely to break up, says Sussman.

Discover 6 ways to build trust in a relationship.

... you play the blame game

... you play the blame game
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“If a couple comes to me and they are 100 percent blaming the problems on the other person and they refuse to take any responsibility, I tend to think that relationship can’t be fixed,” says Sussman.

McManus agrees. “Some people just aren’t ready to look at the wounds that have led them to respond to challenges the way they do,” she says. “So then it’s much less likely they will be able to learn to communicate in a healthy way.”

Make sure you’re not guilty of these 12 things you should never do after a fight.

But you have a good chance if… you fight a lot

But you have a good chance if… you fight a lot
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You’d think that couples who bicker constantly are doomed. Not so. In fact, it could be an indication that you’re at least making the effort to communicate with each other, says Louis.

Plus, all that fighting may motivate you to change the dynamic precisely because it’s so distressing, says McManus.

Read up on the types of arguments that end relationships.

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