Backstory to this post: Reposting in response to questions/comments in the Facebook Group
Copyright @ Susan J. Elliott
“The only hope is no hope.” ~ George Costanza
Most of the time we don’t talk about reconciliations. I find that there is a small percentage of couples who can successfully reconcile. Maybe there are therapists somewhere that have a high rate of reconciliations that work out, but I have not personally experienced that. Couple dynamics can be changed and recharted through couples counseling but it’s an intense (and usually long) process. I find, a lot of times, “confused” couples attempt the most number of reconciliations. Either one or both are confused about the relationship (it’s usually both but one partner is “doing” confusion for both…not confused people do not stay with confused people.)
There is the “reconciliation” excuse in Getting Past Your Breakup, but also there are references in Getting Back Out There . I wrote Getting Back Out There with a purpose of JAM PACKING advice to people who are 1. coming off a breakup and not yet ready to date but who need to RESHAPE the tone and tenor of their relationships 2. people stepping back out into dating after a devastating breakup 3. Fledgling couples and 4. Couples getting serious or couples reuniting. Because I have worked, FOR MANY YEARS, with all of the above.
The Couples Inventory
If you are a couple breaking up with talks of reconciliation, you MUST do the Couples Inventory in Getting Back Out There to define what kind of couple you are going to be.
But first you must do your own work on your own. You should do (by yourself) the Relationship Inventory in Getting Past Your Breakup to see if this is worth saving at all. If you are breaking up, whether you are looking at reconciliation or not, you MUST do your Standards and Compatibility Inventory in GBOT VERY SOON after breakup and if you are talking about reconciling, if you are EVER going to be a couple again, do it before you even BEGIN to talk to your ex.
Take time away from the former relationship and partner (GO FULL ON NC) and do the Inventories ON YOUR OWN before you even THINK about putting it back together. You need to figure out YOUR stuff first.
Then do the COUPLES INVENTORY either formally or informally and review the COMMUNICATION sections of the book. These are very important. Even though it’s called The Couples Inventory, it’s a terrific idea to look at it and work through what YOU want in a relationship, what YOUR partnership -in the near or far off future – is going to look like. The old relationship DID NOT WORK and you need to form a NEW RELATIONSHIP if you reconcile. So you MUST grieve and move on from the old relationship NO MATTER WHAT. The old relationship is dead – BURY IT and move on from it – EVEN IF you are going to reconcile.
As Elenor Roosevelt famously said, if you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything. I do work with couples, especially pre-marital couples, on communication and other “glitches” that may threaten future stability. If a couple in a serious relationship has issues regarding communication, “fairness”, acceptable and unacceptable (and, again, usually communicating that), I have no problem working with them. If a couple feels that they are well-suited and fairly healthy but need some guidance and help in solidifying that union or making it better, I work with them.
Many of the “healthy couple” strategies are discussed in Getting Back Out There. I know couples who have successfully gone through counseling who are married and/or have children and lots at stake and two committed people. I’m not talking about couples counseling in this post, I’m talking about a breakup (a true breakup, not a separation to sort things out) and then attempts at reconciliation. Rarely have I seen that work out and never with people who haven’t been together or married a long, long time. Cheaters are hard to reconcile with. The moral compass of a cheater doesn’t work in a healthy relationship. Abusers rarely change and let’s not talk personality disordered.
Another issue is if you have children together: children MUST be taught what healthy moving on looks like. While you are in pre-reconciliation mode, stay NC. Follow ALL the suggestions in the Children and Breakups post hereand don’t confuse them. You’re confused, your ex is confused, don’t confuse the children. Good co-parenting does NOT mean being friends or even friendly with your ex. Good co-parenting is brief, business like and only when necessary. You don’t need to be in contact, you don’t need to share photos, you don’t need to discuss minutia. Leave it alone. Get rid of the “co-parenting” excuse to not be NC. It’s baloney and you know it.
IF there is to be a reconciliation, you treat it as if you were introducing a brand new partner to the children….very slowly, over time, and when you’re pretty sure it’s going to work. Don’t do it TOO early. You’re going to hurt them once again. And when they are older and yo-yo-ing in and out of bad relationships, they can thank you for being a model of dysfunction and messiness.
The only exception to that rule is what I call the “event defining” break…a drunken episode and then the couple go to AA and/or Al-anon and work their programs and come back together or one person has issues that needs medication and takes it….or the death of a child…where I have seen more than one couple go to their separate corners, unable to share the pain, and eventually come back together later in the grieving process. These reconciliations also depend on both working their programs and with a therapist, It’s not going to happen overnight.
But besides these event defining” breakups, I haven’t seen many reconciliations that work out or any apart from these situations (except for one couple who, while broken up, found meditation and yoga together and now are all Zen about everything on the planet and another who had just married too young and separated for a year and went to counseling together and then regrouped as a mature couple staying in counseling for a few years).
Professionally I haven’t seen it very often and I haven’t heard about it from many other therapists. I don’t study it and there may be entire bodies of work that I’m missing, but my professional experience and my personal experience is that they don’t work. And sometimes just trying reconciliation, if you have certain histories, can be a trauma. I have done a lot of professional work and academic research on this subject. I have worked with a lot of couples in different settings. But I can also speak from personal experience.
My Own Experience
Through my own personal experience, I learned 2 things: 1) after a breakup, the hope of reconciliation always brought out the codependent in me. I have promised things that I’m actually ashamed of promising (and didn’t go through with) that occasionally gnaw at me to this day. I find this A LOT with couples where one person is definitely “more in favor” of the reconciliation than the other. They practically sell their soul for another shot.
In my early (teenage relationships) I would practically offer to rob a bank to keep a relationship with a complete bananahead in check. And even when I first started this long process called “recovery” I was still willing to sell my soul for a pittance. But I got better and better with time and more cognizant of my triggers and how they would be triggered through the power of observation and learning to switch gears. I learned that even if my insides were going crazy, I didn’t have to act on all that became unglued when a relationship was heading into the toilet.
Originally a breakup would send me off to the races. Anything to get it back and not have to face my abandonment and grief. I have done desperate things in my attempts to reconcile with my first husband. He was the unfaithful, abusive one, I was the one agreeing to do better, be better, act better (because my behavior caused his behavior, obviously). I agreed to anything, said anything, promised everything. Danced like a puppet on a string. Anything to do EXTERNALLY so that I didn’t have to face the mess that was INTERNAL.
But in the final reconciliation attempt, about 6 months after our last separation, he said that in putting together a plan that would suit both of us in living together, I could “go out” one night a week. I had been going to therapy, 12-step groups, other support groups and thought, “WHAT?” Here we were again. He was going to make demands and I was going to dance. Only this time I didn’t dance. By this time I was done. It seemed like a small hitch compared to so many things I had promised in the past and the way I had jumped through hoops, but that is where I was. Done with you. Buh bye..
I thought I was getting well (well I was but I didn’t know about relapses in codependency at the time or what triggered my craziness). But the first time post-marriage that a relationship was breaking up, I was turned inside out again. And I did the codependent “anything for you” thing. In the first few breakups/attempts at reconciliation, if anyone balked about the kids, the dog, the cat, the color of my eyes, the length of my hair, I was ready to promise to change it or get rid of it or whatever it would take.
Beyond Codependencywas published just before this time and I learned about codependent relapse. I had spent 2 years “unlearning” my mea culpa/blame it all me behaviors with my ex and my family and on all kinds of stages (work, friends, social groups). In my mind I was getting better and better. So when perceived or real abandonment triggered me right back into the howling vortex that is active codependency, I didn’t even know I was in it. I was shouting, “I’m okay! I’ve learned! I’m better!” as I was dancing off the cliff.
So when I realized how easily I could relapse, I re-read Codependent No More. Then I lived, ate, breathed Beyond Codependency not for a few months but for a few years. By that and working with my therapist, I learned I could be triggered but didn’t have to act on it. Each breakup brought out the abandonment in me and abandonment brought out the desperation to not be abandoned. I would have given ANYTHING to not be abandoned. But I got better. I started to see the pattern AS I was dealing with my stuff. The stuff I had been trying to avoid with all those promises.
I had BEGGED people (including the MoAB) to not leave or come back or whatever. How could looking at my “stuff” be any worse than that? Humiliation is worse than emotional pain. And I was done with humiliation. So I continued to work on myself and my issues, I became less and less desperate and more apt to say, “Excuse me but would you jump off a roof please?”
The Fantasy v. Reality
My hope for reconciliation had nothing to do with whether or not this bananahead was good for me, whether or not a relationship would work or whether or not we were meant to be and could magically transform into a couple who got along or belonged together. It had to do with my defects, my issues, my emotional upheaval that I just wanted STOPPED with the distraction of potential reconciliation.
With the couples I’ve worked with (or the people I’ve worked with), I find that fear of being alone, each person’s inability (or unwillingness) to work on their issues or just pure desperation is driving the hope for reconciliation. I remember counseling one couple, and asking, “Do you two even like each other?” (They didn’t).
As a therapist I’ve done family therapy with families and couples still together and helped many to stay together, but once there is a split, it’s hard to go back. If there was infidelity, I did not find it easy to put back together. Most spouses who were cheated on will blame themselves instead of the fact that their cheating spouse is a cheating, lying pos. And many aggrieved spouses work diligently to be better, more, different so that Cheaty McCheater will come back and stop straying. And that’s just stupid. Let Cheaty McCheater go and live a life where you don’t have to worry about this nonsense.
It’s not to say that reconciliations never work out but in my personal and professional experience, they tend to be rare. Unless it’s some big thing like one person getting sober (which completely changes the dynamic of a relationship) or both people are committed to their own personal journey and no irreparable harm has been done, I don’t see it working. Rarely have I seen “real” reconciliations. By real I mean that both people change and are committed to change and each other. Instead, I see people either promise the moon or lower their standards or just give up that they can escape or go into denial about how crappy the relationship really is.
I know my “reconciliations” were horror shows just keeping the patient on life support when the plug needed to be pulled. I’ve seen women go back again and again because the man was relentless in his pursuit and she finally just gave up. (not that I haven’t seen this with men going back and women being relentless, but I see it more with women going back). It’s not to say they don’t happen, they do. But just like “being friends with the ex” it’s rare and it takes a lot of work that most people won’t do. People resist working on themselves for their own sake, let alone for a relationship. And when you stumble and fall, you take someone else with you. Someone who was already angry with you. It’s a hard thing to do.
2) My exes were exes for a reason. It doesn’t really matter what it was. It was a reason and most of the reasons, no matter how much I thought or wished otherwise, were still going to be present in one way, shape or form. People who break up over nothing are usually self-centered trolls who don’t belong in relationships and who take advantage of the caring (or codependents).
Ask yourself why you want to reconcile with someone who so easily bounces OUT of the relationship and then wants to bounce back in? WHY? It’s really rare that two people agree on what the issues are with the other and with themselves. In couples therapy, the relationship is the patient, but so often learning communication or boundaries excludes the gnawing issues that each person has to work on within themselves or the simple truth that you are just not compatible. And that is true even if the beginning was “wonderful” and he/she was “wonderful.” Well of course it was wonderful, otherwise it wouldn’t have become a long-term relationship.
But when you can’t sustain a healthy relationship, all the wonderfulness in the world isn’t going to be able to hide that truth from you. Only you can hide it from yourself. And I know couples who have used each other and their crappy relationship to avoid looking at their own stuff…and they never breakup. How wonderful for them. While some couples do have just communication issues and a little bit of counseling on the interactions will help, it’s usually not that simple or not as clearly defined as a few simple issues.
Often the time in couples therapy learning “I” language is a waste of time for THAT relationship (but good to learn going forward). It’s usually more than “Tell me what I just said…” to keep a relationship alive. Relationships simply shouldn’t be that hard and healthy ones aren’t.
Healthy relationships are NOT HARD IF you are compatible and each of you has worked on your individual issues and if you don’t sweat the small stuff and if each of you want to be happy more than you want to engage in drama. As George Costanza said, the only hope is no hope. Hoping for reconciliation or doing the reconciliation dance can really stall your own personal progress. Think about your attempts at reconciliation in the past. What does it say about you, your ex(es), your patterns? Does it matter? Are you trying to recapture the glory of the young and marvelous relationship or do you both have severe compatibility issues?
Copyright Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author and a Link Back To The Original Content
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