Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Let’s say that Jay and May decide that they’re both going to have full-time jobs and have kids at the same time. It’s hard, especially since neither of them earn the big bucks. Lots of running around, time-management issues, conflict, and stress. The “happy family that’ll bring us close together” keeps drowning in everyday frustration and sniping.
That’s when Jay might say, after a particularly difficult period, “This just isn’t working.” Or May might say, “I don’t think this is going to work.”
And, no, they’re not talking about tinkering with the arrangement, like maybe Jay working fewer hours or something. They know—or think they know—what they’re talking about. Ending things.
And what does “This isn’t going to work” actually mean?
“This” is the whole thing, or what they see of it anyway. These two people—“us”—with these two kids living this lifestyle on this income.
And “work” is...well, what?
And that’s the problem. That’s what I want to talk about. That’s where hope you never imagined can come from.
I know Jay and May because they are like the thousands of couples I’ve worked with over the decades(!). They think of a relationship as a thing you build and then it just works. And, yes, it may take time to see if it works, but at some point you can see if you have a successful design or a failed design. And, yes, everyone pays lip service to “working on” your relationship. But most of us think of our relationship as like our toaster. It works or it doesn’t. And “working on it” just means emptying out the crumb tray every once in a while.
All this is a total delusion.
Relationships aren’t like machines that work or don’t work, depending on how well designed they are. (Though, yeah, of course there are a few designs so lousy no one could make them work!) Relationships are like puppets: you put your hands—your very selves—in them and make them work.
The language of “this isn’t working” is the language of irresponsibility. Of “how things happen here has nothing to do with what you and I do.” It’s like saying of an empty puppet lying inert on a table, “It isn’t working.” Well, duh!
This would be my vote if I could change the world. Neither I nor anyone else would use language about “it working” to talk about their relationship. It’s a language that oh so quickly—too quickly—leads to despair.
Instead, my vote would be that everyone would try this. There you are, things not going well in your relationship. Yes, it feels as though it’s “not working.” I get it. But what you’d say is something like, “This has been a rough week, hasn’t it? You’ve been frustrated with me, and I’ve been frustrated with you. So. What can we do to make things better? What’s one thing I can do to make things better for you?”
You build a LEGO castle—even the most beautiful LEGO castle in the world—one little LEGO brick at a time. And that’s how you find your way back to one another. By asking each other, “What can we do to make things better?” Or, “What’s one thing I can do to make things better for you?”
Here’s the thing. Asking, “What can we do to make things better?” empowers both of you. It puts both of you on the road to solutions and puts you both in the role of solution finders. Not solutions to everything all at once. But one small solution at a time.
It’s you sticking your hands in the puppet and bringing it to life.
That’s what the problem is with saying “this just isn’t working.” That’s really just a power move. Think about it. What’s it supposed to accomplish?
Either May agrees with Jay, and they both decide to end things then and there. Hooray for despair! Or else you’d have to say it’s Jay forcing May into the position of coming up with a solution. It’s a language game: I say something despairing so you’ll come up with something hopeful. I get you to do the work! People try this all the time.
So no more dangerous, despairing language games. Just something wonderfully constructive like, “What can we do to make things better?”
For more help in getting unstuck from frustration, despair, and power struggles and in finding hope and real solutions instead, please check out Why Couples Fight.