Relationships can be wonderful, but they can also be really, really difficult. I wish I could tell you that there is a simple formula for moving beyond relationship chaos, but the truth is that a relationship that has gotten into a state of chaos can take a lot of time, energy, and commitment to turn around or reach a positive resolution.
If you find yourself in a state of relationship chaos, do your best to stay calm, centered, and positive. Take the time you need to sort through your feelings and map out a plan of action for moving from chaos to calm. And, be sure to take good care of yourself in the process.
The following chart summarizes the key steps to take when you’re facing a chaotic relationship situation that we’ve discussed as part of this blog series:
Sometimes, the support of friends and family members, along with your own coping resources, can only go so far in helping you to navigate really difficult and chaotic relationship challenges.
Counseling or therapy can be helpful at any time in your relationship, but they can be a critical source of support when you face relationship problems that affect you to your core. Some signs that it might be time to reach out for professional help include the following:
- You and/or the other person feel like you’ve tried everything you can do in your power to solve the situation, but you don’t see any progress.
- You’ve noticed unhealthy or unsafe relationship behaviors creeping into your relationship. (Note: Any form of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse or violence should be taken very seriously in a relationship. In relationships in which any form of violence is present, couples counseling is not recommended due to safety reasons. Individual counseling can provide support for the victim/survivor, and a domestic violence perpetrator intervention is recommended for anyone who uses abusive behaviors in the context of a relationship.)
- You’ve developed mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depressive symptoms, especially if they become more severe and frequent.
- You’re failing to take care of yourself, such as by eating a nutritious diet or getting a healthy amount of sleep.
- Thoughts of your relationship problems feel like they’re taking over your mind. You find yourself distracted and unable to focus on your work or other responsibilities.
- You feel overwhelmed by the situation and confused about what to do.
It’s normal to feel embarrassed to reach out for professional help. Remind yourself: “It’s a sign of strength to have the courage to seek the help I need.” A trained professional can provide valuable support, such as helping you to process your feelings and thoughts, develop new relationship skills, connect your current situation with significant past events in your life, and gain new insights into your situation.
Whether you seek help individually or with your partner, trained professionals can provide valuable, instrumental support as you face crises and chaos in your relationships.
It’s natural to feel alone and isolated when you’re facing chaos in a relationship with someone who’s very close to you. That person may be your primary source of support, so when that bond is fragile, you may feel lonely and confused about where you can find help.
However, reaching out for help from trusted friends and family members can be an important step toward moving beyond the chaos. If you’re afraid to admit that you need help, remind yourself of the following: “People who care about me would want to help me get through this.”
Before you reach out for help from friends and family, however, take some time to think through how to do this in the way that’s most likely to help your current situation and least likely to make it worse. Think through the details of whose help and advice you want to seek, and consider any possible negative side effects of involving any other people in your relationship problems.
Also, consider your intentions for seeking help: Are you reaching out because you want the other person’s support and guidance, or are you trying to find people to take your side and turn against the other person? Although the latter motive may offer some temporary relief, involving someone else in that way can lead to long-term problems.
Here are some other questions to help you consider who in your life might be helpful to ask for support in the midst of a relationship challenge:
- Would this person have my best interests at heart?
- Will this person offer me objective, reasonable advice, even if that means possibly telling me about things they think I’m doing that might be contributing to this situation?
- Does this person know enough about my history to understand why I think and feel the way I do?
- Is this person a good listener?
- Can I trust this person not to tell the details of my problems to other people?
If you can identify one or more people who you can answer “yes” to most of all of the above questions, consider how you might reach out to them for their support. This support can be crucial for helping you to feel connected and cared for as you face the difficult times in your relationship.
It’s important to do your best to keep hope alive, even in the midst of the most difficult relationship struggles. Take time to develop a positive mindset, such as by reflecting on the following affirmation: “This situation is difficult, but I trust that I/we will get through it and that there’s something positive waiting for me/us on the other side.”
Negativity–both in the relationship and within your own mind–can turn into a destructive cycle, leaving you and the situation feeling more hopeless and making it more difficult to see solutions.
A positive attitude doesn’t mean that you’ll gloss over problems or avoid facing difficult conversations. Instead, a positive attitude can help you accept that you are currently facing hard times, as well as trust that these difficult situations can be overcome.
Try to reframe your current challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow, which ultimately will help you to become a better, stronger person. These challenges also can be opportunities for growth and a deeper connection in your relationship, if and when you can overcome them in a healthy way.
If possible, try to encourage the other person to keep this positive mindset as well. You might even consider starting your difficult conversations by stating an intention to remain positive and focused on understanding each other and building solutions. If the other person chooses not to join you in the positive mindset, that’s their choice to make, and you’ll probably have to work harder to stay positive yourself. However, even in the most challenging times, holding on to a positive outlook can help you to move beyond feelings of hopelessness.
In times of relationship chaos and conflict, it’s time to activate your strongest and best relationship skills. This includes an intentional effort to use positive communication skills, such as speaking clearly and thoughtfully and listening to understand the other person. Other useful relationship skills include conflict management, problem-solving, emotional regulation, and repairing disconnection.
It’s important to build up your relationship skill set before conflict and chaos erupt. Take time during the calm, positive times in your relationship to strengthen your relationship skills. (Our Healthy Relationships Initiative Toolkits offer resources to help you do this!)
Practice positive relationship skills in less intense moments so that you’ll be prepared with the intensity comes. I’ll admit that it’s very, very difficult to stick with positive relationship skills in the midst of relationship chaos, especially if the other person is not using them. However, the more you apply those skills during difficult times in your relationship, the better you’ll be able to prevent the situation from getting worse. You’ll also be better positioned to get the relationship back on track and work toward reconnecting, if possible.
To help make relationship skills work for you in the midst of relationship chaos, consider the following affirmation: “Relationship challenges are opportunities to practice positive communication and other relationship skills.”
Although you can’t control another person’s actions, that doesn’t mean that you should simply allow other people to continue to treat you in ways that are damaging to you, your relationship, and other people involved.
It’s important to communicate your boundaries to the other person. Only they can decide if they’ll honor or violate your boundaries, but it’ll be easier for you to determine if they’ve crossed your boundaries if you are certain you’ve communicated the boundaries to them.
Try the following affirmation as you’re in the process of discovering, communicating, and maintaining your boundaries: “I have a right to be treated with dignity and respect.”
With this background of you acknowledging that you are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, I suggest the following steps for boundary setting in a chaotic relationship situation.
- Engaging in self-reflection: Identify your needs for how you want to be treated within the context of that relationship.
- Turning insight into boundaries: Translate the needs you identified in Step 1 into boundaries for your relationship. Identify which behaviors will and will not be acceptable to you in the relationship.
- Determining how to communicate your boundaries: Take time to think through the most positive way you can communicate your boundaries to the other person. Consider how you can convey these in a non-threatening manner, so that the other person will be least defensive and most receptive to your needs.
- Communicating your boundaries: Find a good time that feels relatively calm and stable. Be calm and clear. If you’re confident in your needs, communicate them firmly but in a caring manner. To the extent you feel it’s necessary, share the rationale for your boundaries. However, if you’re certain about them, avoid getting into a debate them with the other person. You can say, “I’ve told you what I would like to see in our relationship. This is important to me. It’s your choice if you’ll choose to honor this request, but I hope you will consider it and my needs.”
- Responding to boundary violations: If the other person violates a boundary you’ve communicated clearly to them, consider the best way to respond. You can remind them of your request through another conversation. You may choose not to respond, such as if they call you at an hour that you asked them not to call you. Take time to determine the best course of action.
- Observing the other person’s response to your boundaries: Notice the extent to which the other person honors your boundaries. If the other person frequently violates your boundaries, it may be a sign of their lack of respect for you. On the other hand, when someone respects your boundaries, this can help to re-establish trust and respect in the relationship.
- Choosing your next steps: As you begin to be more comfortable with understanding and communicating your boundaries, you may identify new boundary issues to address. You may notice other boundary violations in other areas of your life. Stay mindful of your boundaries and how other people respond to them over time, and repeat the steps above as needed.
Take time to reflect on the values that are important to you. How do you want to treat others? Most of us want to act with kindness and to be thought of as good-hearted people.
When someone else is treating you in a hurtful way, your first temptation may be to hurt them back. Try your best to resist this temptation. If you do say or do something that was hurtful, acknowledge it and apologize as soon as possible.
One of the reasons it is so hard to act kindly and admit mistakes when someone is hurting you is that you may think, “Why should I be nice to them, when they’re being so mean to me?” But, the truth is that acting in a kind way isn’t just for the other person–think of it instead as a gift you can give yourself.
You see, someday, you’re going to look back on this chaotic relationship situation, and I want you to look back and feel proud of yourself for staying true to your values and acting with kindness and integrity. If you sink down to their level, not only is it likely the situation will spiral further downward, but you also may regret things you’ve said and done.
To remember this principle during relationship chaos, consider saying the following affirmation: “No matter what the other person does to me, I choose to act with kindness and integrity.”