What exactly do you do to "work on a relationship"
December 30, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

I want to salvage my relationship but am not really sure of the nuts and bolts of rebuilding trust and commitment. If we want to be able to say we gave it our best shot, what does that look like in practical terms?

I've recently had a series of painful heart-to-heart conversations with my live-in SO of 4 years, and need some guidance about next steps.

By way of background, we have generally a pretty charmed life. We agree on the big things, support each other, and, I thought, were deeply in love. He is very affectionate and complimentary. We virtually never fight. I sometimes feel taken for granted in terms of our balance of chores and such, but we're working on that.

A couple days ago after my return from Christmas break, we ended up talking seriously and I found that he felt a bit withdrawn from our relationship and that he thought I was feeling the same. I have for the last couple months been feeling symptoms of depression, and our work schedules are at complete odds. We haven't had a lot of fun "us" time lately, and my feeling blue and not sharing with him didn't help. He said he was worried that maybe we were losing the spark, as he's never been in such a long relationship and didn't know if ups and downs like this were normal. I told him it was normal and we agreed to try to overcome this together. He said he felt better already and loved me.

The next day or so things felt a bit weird between us, but I chalked it up to the soul-baring and each of us needing to process it all a bit. However, tonight we talked about it again, and with a loooottt of questions from me I have learned that he has a new work crush that he feels is "overwhelming" and that he is worried it is a symptom of the aforementioned withdrawn feeling -- the stuff he had *actually* mentioned in our previous chat.

I do believe that he hasn't made it physical, and has only known this person for a couple weeks. She will likely leave the office by mid-January. However, he said he finds her really attractive and they flirt during the day and chat online. He has also told me that he sees no future with her, doesn't feel an emotional connection at this point, and that it's purely physical. His concern isn't so much that he might cheat, and ruin our relationship, although that's part of it, but moreover that he must be feeling tempted for a reason: that it must be a sign things aren't good to us, if he's even feeling this way. It made him feel confused again, despite our productive conversation two nights earlier.

I've used the many, many excellent answers from previous relationship questions on this site to guide our conversation. I realise that temptation is a natural part of being human, and that long-term relationships will have their ebbs and flows. I feel betrayed by the fact that he took it this far with her, behind my back, but I am able to forgive if we can move on.

After that most recent discussion, he has confirmed that he wants to work on our relationship and see if we can get back to where we were earlier this year, before work stress, winter blues, and busty temps got in the way. I trust that he means it, though I do worry that seeing her for another month will undermine our progress. What I need are the details of HOW one goes about "working on it." Are we supposed to go to counselling? I don't think we have trouble communicating at all, so not sure if it'd be useful. Am I supposed to forbid him from talking to this girl? Ask to see all his emails? Email her myself (oh god, is that what people do in these scenarios?)? Are we supposed to set up date nights so we can "reconnect"? Should we set a timeline to reevaluate by? It all sounds cheesy, but I'm a novice at this stuff.

Please tell me what are the best, most concrete steps one can take to work on a relationship if we are both committed to making a go of it.

Also, if you feel that I'm completely naive for trusting his intentions here, I'm ready to hear the hard truths.
posted by Pomo to Human Relations (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If I were you and I had a boyfriend I trusted who confessed a crush, I'd give him permission. Not permission to cheat on me or to take the relationship with the crush any further. Just permission to have sexual and romantic feelings about her. I'd tell him that it's totally natural to get crushes on other people and to have sexual attractions, and that I was glad he told me about it. I'd tell him that it's okay to have those feelings and still love me. And I'd give him permission to feel those feelings and to want to flirt with her and chat with her.

If the relationship is dying, it will die no matter how you handle this. Telling him that you don't trust him or reading his emails or trying to interfere in his work life will only make the ending worse. But if this is just a blip in an otherwise good, strong, happy relationship, I think that the only way to deal with it is to ride it out.
posted by decathecting at 10:09 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

busty temps
Freudian slip?

Email her myself
Please for the love of all that is holy, do NOT do this. You do not know her side, for all you know she a butch lesbian that just thinks he is a friendly guy and has no romantic interest in him at all, and her return friendliness is being misinterpreted as flirting.

Plus it would make you come across as the crazy SO.

Double plus it is completely unprofessional and could possibly get your SO fired.
posted by I am the Walrus at 10:13 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, Walrus, I probably should have added that detail: he does know she's interested, as she has asked him out romantically. That is part of what has really got his crank going, I believe: he feels older and less attractive, and this helps validate his self-worth. If she were just attractive and uninterested, he probably wouldn't feel overwhelmed.

I totally get that, and would probably feel the same. I just wouldn't encourage it, as he has done, by telling her that he has a girlfriend but feels conflicted!

Point taken about the emailing, though; I'll keep her out of the picture as much as possible.
posted by Pomo at 10:20 AM on December 30, 2010

No, of course you shouldn't email her or get involved in monitoring their relationship. Yes, go on date nights! Have sex! Touch a lot when you're Not having sex! Go in search of fun websites and movies and concerts and books and Whatever that you want to share with him, and have him do the same! Start conversations about deeper, non-every day stuff like professional goals and family patterns and interesting science, or whatever you both enjoy.

I'm a big fan of individual therapy, and I'm sure couples therapy could help you guys communicate. But, yeah, I guess that's my bottom line: communicate. The trust will follow.
posted by ldthomps at 10:20 AM on December 30, 2010

DO NOT ask to see all of his e-mails and OMFG DO NOT e-mail her yourself. Nothing good can come from that, especially since based on the evidence you have nothing physical has happened (although even if it had, I would still say that you should not get in touch with her). He told you about this crush on his own and says he hasn't done anything physical, just flirted, so seriously seriously leave that part of it alone and focus on the two of you and your relationship, not his imaginary relationship with this other woman.

Related to this, I have a personal rule where I tell my husband every time I have a crush on someone (and I do have crushes on people very frequently, it's just something that happens to me). I don't do this because he tells me to, I do it because if I don't tell him it becomes a fun little secret that I have of which he's not a part and there's the chance I would build on that and enjoy the secretness of it, whereas as soon as I tell him it is out in the open which diffuses the situation and can even become part of a private joke. The fact that he told you about this seems like a good step to me and important information for you to have so that you can understand how he is feeling. He probably (as far as I know, although keep in mind that I don't know either of you) didn't tell you this to make you jealous, he might even have told you as a way of keeping it from going any further and to be honest.

I'm in no way an expert on relationships, but I would say that even good ones (based only on my own experience with my husband and my parents' marriage and stuff) do have better and harder times, especially based on things like stress, winter and finances but sometimes just on how people are feeling. In terms of how you "work on it", I would say part of it is to make sure you are thinking about each other and taking time to be together. If a formal "date night" would help awesome, but maybe just try to do little things like take walks together or cook dinner or enjoy a mutual hobby, not something big and planned, just something you can incorporate into your life together.

Also remember, although I really have no idea whether this would apply here, that there is nothing wrong with it not working out and cutting bait if you feel that things aren't going well. I have a very general personal rule for pretty much all relationships be they with a significant other, family, friends, whatever, which is that if I'm not happy when the other person's around, it's not a good relationship. You can love someone and have it be just the wrong relationship. That doesn't mean that this IS wrong, only you and your boyfriend can know that, but if you feel that you aren't actively happy together that's really something to think about. Good luck with everything!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:20 AM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've been with my husband for fifteen years now. We've each had crushes, from throw-away to more serious, more often than I can count. Neither of us have ever cheated. We've gone through ups and downs, distant periods and close ones. We went through two years of couples counseling before we got married, and it was the best time and money I've ever spent on anything in my whole life.

If there are no big Problems in the relationship, there's still some stuff you can do. (Hell, this is good even if there are Problems.) These are the Five Easy Ways to Tune Up a Relationship, as we learned in our couples counseling:

1. Say "I love you." Say it a lot. When you wake up in the morning -- "Good morning! I love you!" on your way out the door -- "Bye, sweetie. I love you." Even if you're not really feeling it, say it. It helps to remind y'all that, wait, we DO love each other.

2. Say "Thank you." And again, say it a lot. When your SO brings you coffee, or does the dishes, or comes home after a sucky day at work, or says exactly the right thing -- say "thank you." Even if it's something that any reasonable person would expect to have done in a relationship. Even if it's one of "their jobs." I'm a stay-at-home mom, and my husband thanks me every day for cooking dinner. It's nice, it makes me feel appreciated.

3. Touch each other. Not intimate sexytimes touching, just a hand on a shoulder, or a pat on the back, or holding hands while you watch TV. Again, it reminds you that you have a physical relationship.

4. Go to bed at the same time. The Internet will be there tomorrow, trust me.

5. Get up at the same time. This and the previous can be really hard, particularly if you have asymmetrical responsibilities or wildly disparate work schedules. But if you can manage it, it makes a huge difference in feeling like you're in it together and on the same team.

Obviously, these aren't things that will fix real problems, like anger management or lack of respect or infidelity or what have you. But what it can do is polish up your relationship and put the spark back into it -- which can then make it easier to put the effort into fixing real problems.

What you're describing sounds to me more like a normal 'ebb' period in a normal relationship. Give those 5 things a shot for a month and see what happens. (But also, counseling with a good couples counselor never hurt anything.)
posted by KathrynT at 10:22 AM on December 30, 2010 [44 favorites]

How about asking him what has been making him feel withdrawn? What does it feel like to him when he feels withdrawn? What parts of your relationship feel to him like they aren't working? And conversely, are there parts of the relationship that feel to you like they aren't working?

It seems to me that he wouldn't feel withdrawn and interested in someone else if he didn't feel like there was something about your relationship that wasn't working for him. I don't know if he'll be able to articulate it to you, but asking that seems to me like a more productive approach than you just reassuring him that his feelings are normal.

If he can't talk to you about how he's feeling, then I think couples counseling would be a great idea.
posted by zahava at 10:58 AM on December 30, 2010

Can you take a trip? I think part of the problem many people experience in long term relationships is that, over the years, they come to associate their SOs with the boringness of their everyday lives and not with exciting new experiences. Traveling together gives long term couples something interesting to experience together and talk about and form bonding memories about, memories that don't involve bill paying, sock folding etc.

I also like the first comment about giving him permission to have crushes. It's normal to have crushes! It doesn't at all reflect on what's going on at home, except that what's going on at home is probably not new anymore. In fact, since it is inevitable that you will both have crushes on other people at some point, it's crucial that you both learn to handle it in a way that doesn't destroy your relationship.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:01 AM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing that this really doesn't sound so bad. In fact, I'd say you've arrived at an opportunity for real improvements. The way to make communication better is to make communication feel safe and good. Don't punish him for disclosing difficult personal truths; give him a hug and tell him it's okay. The crush is a symptom of something he's wrestling with, not a betrayal of you, but nevertheless it was hard for him to admit it.

After he feels understood and good about having opened up to you, tell him how you feel, and ask him to keep you safe too.

Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by jon1270 at 11:01 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

...by telling her that he has a girlfriend but feels conflicted!

To clarify...he has spoken to her, saying, "I have a girlfriend, but I feel conflicted?"

He has taken his crush too far.
posted by DeltaForce at 11:33 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, DeltaForce, that is roughly how he explained their conversation. They were in the same room but chatting online at the time (gag). That was the part that made me feel betrayed, more than just having a flirty crush. We all do that, I'm sure.
posted by Pomo at 11:35 AM on December 30, 2010

I'm not sure why you're taking so much responsibility for fixing things. He claims that being tempted means something's lacking in this relationship? Then he should break it off with her and with you and find a theoretically better third person.

I don't have much sympathy for men who can't make up their mind. I'm not sure why this should be your problem. While making it clear that you're not angry at him for telling you about her, I would calmly, but clearly state that if he feels ambiguous about you then he needs to be the one planning trips and reconnecting, not you, until he makes up his mind. I would come from the platform of, "Well, I'm sorry you're having doubts about me, but I can't help you." Helping him have his cake and eat it too is not likely to facilitate his making a decision.

This is really on him. (Step A) Sharing his thoughts/temptations honestly, doesn't logically lead to (Step B) You helping him decide if he wants you or the other woman. He's put you in a position where he's clapping his hands for you to dance, asking you, "Why should I stay? How high will you jump?" Don't take the bait. Calmly deny any responsibility for his actions and let him know he's the only one who can decide what he wants.

He has confirmed he wants to work on the relationship, so you're the one who will be signing you guys up for couple's counseling and planning trips? Uh, no. If he's not taking the actions, he won't feel invested in the outcome. Seems like he has both this other girl asking him out, and you trying to make a better counter-offer. You can be loving and not get angry while still calling him on that bluff, IMO.
posted by Nixy at 11:49 AM on December 30, 2010 [13 favorites]

"Uncomfortable crushes" and "things that seem a lot like seasonal affective disorder" seem to go together in my experience, for whatever it's worth.

That doesn't mean you should take any shit from him about this other girl, though. He needs to realize that now that he's confessed, and since you guys are monogamous, it is 100% on him to tell her to step off.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, so much, for your answers. They have provided excellent guidance and a feeling that we can get through this -- and if not, that I will survive! I won't mark a best answer, because everything I've read has given me comfort and hope.

Nixy, I especially appreciate hearing your perspective which differs a bit, because it's a wake up call about how I'm viewing this as "my problem." I do realize that this is his mess to clean up, and will try hard not to hand-hold too much in the recovery process.

KathrynT, I'm saving that list in a prominent place!

Thank you again, MeFites. Any other tips or comments are of course more than welcome.
posted by Pomo at 9:55 AM on December 31, 2010

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