Michelle, now 25, was a freshman in college when she fell head over heels for Jon. He was two years older, but they instantly felt a connection to each other and developed a deep and loving relationship. Wondering how to fix a broken relationship was the furthest thing from her mind.
Things began to change when Jon graduated and moved back home out-of-state. Their texts and phone calls became less frequent. Jon didn’t seem interested in hearing about Michelle’s “college problems,” and she couldn’t relate to his new stresses in the “real world.” Michelle also started feeling a twinge of jealousy every time Jon mentioned his new work friends, especially female co-workers.
It didn’t take long after that for the couple to decide they needed a break from their relationship. They spent the next year and a half apart, dating other people and taking time to figure themselves out—but they never lost touch.
When Jon took a new job near their college town and relocated, he asked a then-single Michelle to meet up for coffee.
“We started reminiscing about how things were when we first got together, and realized there were a lot of things we missed about each other,” Michelle said. “No one [else] we had dated…made us feel the same way, so we decided to give it another shot.”
It took time to readjust and work through the things that drove them apart, but nearly five years later, the couple is still going strong. They moved in together after Michelle graduated and are now talking about getting engaged.
Michelle and Jon’s story isn’t an uncommon one. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research found that 44% of young adults (ages 17 to 24) who had been in a relationship in the past two years had reconciled with an ex-romantic partner at least once. But not every relationship that’s on the rocks is worth salvaging.
What is a broken relationship?
Some relationships are just doomed from the start: The couple got together for the wrong reasons (revenge or an elevated status, for example) and things have always been rocky. However, other couples started off strong and still may have a solid foundation underneath it all—but feelings and behaviors have shifted out of whack over time, which threatens the entire relationship.
In the absence of a major inciting incident like cheating, addiction issues or abuse, it might be hard to tell when an otherwise stable relationship is falling apart. Tracy Ross, LCSW and couple’s therapist, said that one of the common signs of a “broken” relationship is a feeling of distance from one another, or a lack of “connection” the couple once felt. This might mean:
- You’re spending less time together.
- There’s less physical affection and intimacy.
- You’re not “on the same page” about important things.
- You’re turning toward someone other than your partner for daily support.
- You don’t feel as safe or as comfortable in the relationship as you used to.
- You no longer like the person you are when you’re with your partner.
- You and/or your partner are making big decisions without consulting each other.
- You’re sending each other mixed signals—saying you want one thing but acting in the opposite way.
- You’re avoiding confrontations and ignoring major problems because doing so is easier than having a difficult conversation with your partner.
Some other (perhaps more obvious) signs that things are going wrong include a lot of fighting and blaming each other, and an inability to resolve those arguments.
“The easiest way to tell if your relationship isn’t working is if your negative interactions outweigh the positive ones,” said Dr. Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher. “Relationships are not all rosy and perfect, they do take work, but they should be more positive than they are negative.”
How to tell if your broken relationship can be fixed
If the signs listed above describe your dynamic with your partner, you may wonder if fixing a broken relationship is even possible. The short answer is, “it depends.”
According to Ross, you need to be able to answer two key questions: What is your motivation for staying, and what are the obstacles to making the relationship work?
“If you can answer those questions, then you’ll know if it’s worth trying to salvage the relationship,” she said.
While every couple is unique, Ross and Mark offered some general guidelines that might help you better understand the potential for saving your partnership:
You may be able to fix your relationship if…
- You have a solid foundation and built on trust and commitment.
- You’re both willing to change and are motivated to work on improving the relationship.
- There are no fundamental “deal breakers” or qualities about your partner that you can’t or won’t accept.
Your relationship may be hard to save if…
- You’re trying to change the other person, or expect that they will alter the behaviors/qualities you don’t like.
- You’re constantly insulting each other, putting each other down or comparing your partner to others.
- You’re stuck in a cycle of blaming each other and avoiding actually fixing the problems in your relationship.
Fixing a broken relationship
So you think your relationship has a fighting chance—now what?
First, Ross noted that couples need to turn “toward” their relationship and stop avoiding the problems and difficult conversations that led them to this point.
“Spend time together,” said Ross. “Talk to each other and actually listen. Share what’s going on for you. Put yourself in it.”
To this end, Mark recommended that couples sit down together and think about the qualities they love the most about the relationship and the things they’d like to see change.
“With those things that you love, come up with specific plans to make sure you prioritize those things,” she said. “With those things that you’d like to see change, come up with specific plans to make sure that you are taking steps toward ensuring they change. Making this explicit…and jointly agreeing on a common goal can be really helpful, especially when you begin to see the relationship change for the better.”
Couples therapy can also be very helpful, especially if you’ve both agreed to work on the relationship.
“If you walk in and say, ‘We’ve decided to fix the relationship…we are committed to each other and want to make things work,’ [the therapist] can start from there,” Mark said. “It can be helpful to have an external party help you along through that.”
One important thing to remember throughout this process is that you can’t expect your partner to change without being willing to change yourself.
“You’ve got to work on yourself, not just the other person,” said Ross. “Be willing to look at how you contributed to [the current situation] and start to do that piece of it.”
What if fixing a broken relationship doesn’t work?
Depending on how severe the issues are in a relationship, you’re likely not going to mend your relationship in a few days. Real change takes time and effort from both parties, and it may take weeks or months of hard work to finally get to a place where you both feel whole again.
While there’s no standard timeline for when a broken relationship should be considered “fixed,” there are some clear signs that your efforts will not yield results.
“If you continuously feel like you’re putting in the effort to fix the relationship but your partner is not showing consistency in putting in the effort, that’s a sign to re-evaluate,” said Mark.
Ross agreed, noting that if you’ve made an all-out effort (for say, six months or so) and there’s been no progress or change, it may be time to let go.
“If you start going in circles and can’t make movements [toward fixing things], even with outside help…you’ve probably done as much as you can do,” Ross added.
Mending relationships is always hard
There’s no easy path to reconciliation when you’re figuring out how to repair a broken relationship. It can be done, and it may take a long time. But if you and your partner are both committed to changing the things that are wrong, you’re much more likely to come out stronger on the other side.
“Make each other a priority,” said Ross. “[Saying] ‘we don’t have time to work on our relationship’ is saying it’s not a priority. If it’s a priority, then you can spend time on it. A little can go a long way.”
As for Michelle and Jon, taking that break to discover who they are—and what they each truly wanted from a partnership—is “probably the only reason” they’re still together today.
“I think if you truly love someone, you’ll find a way to work through your differences and come back to each other,” said Michelle.