How to Handle a Relationship Crisis
Do you know the most important steps you should take in a relationship crisis? What to do first if you discover your spouse having an affair? Or what to do if you spouse suddenly wants a divorce? In this podcast, Coach Jack will help you to turn a bad situation into a marriage building situation by getting off to a good start.
After listening, you may want to continue to build your marriage by:
- Get a consultation with Coach Jack to find out the next steps for reconciling your marriage.
- Read an article on the differences between working with a counselor and working with a coach.
- Read an article on steps for making up after an argument or fight with your spouse.
How to Handle a Relationship Crisis
[Introduction to the podcast]
Announcer: On the Reconciling Marriages with Coach Jack podcast, Christian psychologist, author, and relationship coach, Dr. Jack Ito, will help you to build and restore your marriage. By learning just a few relationship skills, you can help your spouse enjoy your relationship more, while getting more love and affection from your spouse. Listen to Coach Jack as he helps you with one more step toward a marriage both you and your spouse will love.
Jack Ito PhD: Today, I want to teach you how to handle a relationship crisis. Most of the people who contact me for coaching have gone through some kind of recent crisis and they need help on how to rebuild their relationship. Sometimes the way that they handle their crisis has made things even worse between them and their spouse. So, I want to help you know how to handle this situation better in case it happens to you. And don’t worry if it has already happened to you and you didn’t handle things so well. Just know that things can still be worked out. There’s nothing that you have done during a relationship crisis that’s going to do permanent damage. Most of the time that’s because your spouse will understand that the crisis that was created for you at that time was something that was emotionally overwhelming and so however you reacted wasn’t your normal behavior. Nevertheless, handling it in a good way can give you a really good head start on making your relationship better.
There are some things that you should do immediately when there’s a relationship crisis, and other things that you should put off. One of the most important things to understand about relationships is that relationships are not based on logic. Many times when a spouse says that he or she wants to separate or divorce or you catch your spouse having an affair, you might have the tendency to want to reason and to use logic with your spouse. This is not going to be a good approach and especially at a time when people are really emotional to begin with. Relationships are emotional. We are with people because we want to be—not necessarily because it is a logical thing to do. Many times the logical thing to do might not be to have married them at all. But being emotional creatures, we want to be with someone even if it might not make that much sense. We just need to know how to keep the relationship going and how to deal with the troubles that come along.
A relationship crisis usually happens because someone was not aware that there was a serious problem with their relationship and then suddenly they find out. That is an overwhelming feeling and makes people want to react and just try to fix things immediately. Our emotions can be overwhelming. At that time we may cry, we may lash out in anger—who knows. It’s not the best time to be interacting. Have you been in that situation before? If you have, you will notice that it takes your focus away from everything else and just makes you want to fix things as soon as possible—even if the problem has been going on for a long time. The best way to handle a relationship crisis is not to have one in the first place. Sometimes, maybe all the time, when people get married they think that “sure we might have some difficulties, but we’re not likely to have a crisis.” The fact is that if you have a relationship long enough, you probably will have at least a few severe crises. The way that you handle them is going to make all the difference in terms of whether the relationship becomes better again or whether what happens does irreparable damage and slowly degrades your relationship.
So the first thing that you can do to become better at handling crises is to expect that they are going to happen once in a while. That’s a normal part of life. That’s true if you have children. Your gonna have some kind of crisis with them, whether it’s a health crisis or relationship crisis or some crime or drugs or somebody’s sexual behavior or many things. Something is going to happen if you have children—guaranteed! The same thing is true with your spouse, same thing is true for your job. You might think when you get your job that nothing is ever going to happen. But life happens to jobs like everything else. You may get laid off, that kind of business may be replaced by a new and modern kind of business—we just don’t know. But if we prepare for such things, then when they happen, we’re not going to be taken completely by surprise. And, because we have planned for it, know how to deal with it, it’s going to go much better. Relationship crises are like that.
Things are going to happen just like with anything else. Some people are better at handling crises than others. I think it has a lot to do with their perspective on why crises happen. I find that some people have regular relationship crises, of the same types, that results in them losing their relationship and then getting another relationship, and then having the same kind of crisis happen again, and then losing their relationship again. I think these people kind of as lottery players and one of their beliefs is that in order not to have relationship crises you just have to find the right person. And, if you find the right person then everything is going to go smoothly. These people think that if you have a crisis, you did not find the right person. And then when the relationship ends that’s their proof that they didn’t have the right person, and then they start again with someone else, who they then think is the right person. They’re essentially playing the lottery—sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Other people have a completely different perspective, and that is relationships will be great as long as you do all the right things, if you learn all the right skills, and do all the things that spouses are supposed to do, then your relationship will just be wonderful and you will never have a crisis. I’ve met quite a few parents who think this way about parenting. Before they have children, they think that they’re going to read all the right children’s books, watch the correct videos, make all the correct choices for their children and everything is going to go smoothly, easily, they’re going to grow superkids. And they find out that’s not really the way it works. Life happens and no matter how much you plan it’s not going to go perfectly. Many times these people get very stressed when things do go wrong because they see it as their own failure to prepare or they just think that it shouldn’t be happening and it kind of blows their mind that they’re having such problems.
There’s a group in the middle which probably is more realistic and uses kind of both aspects of these people. It is true that we need to be careful about who we get into relationships with, and who we work with, who we associate with. They’re going to be some people that, if we get into a relationship with them, a crisis is much more likely. And I’ve talked about that elsewhere—how to find the right partner. On the other hand, even when we have the right partner for us, we are still going to need to have some relationships skills. On the other hand, when we find the right partner, we still need to learn relationship skills and how to deal with those usual kinds of things that come up in relationships and also have some emergency resources for the big things. The same is true for a job. You can have a great job, but you better make sure that you have emergency savings just in case something happens to the job or something happens to you. When you do these things, you have these emergency resources in place, you actually will find that you enjoy your job more, you enjoy your kids more, you enjoy your spouse more, and it works a lot better than planning for everything to always go smoothly. Not, because you just know how to do everything right or planning for everything to go smoothly because you have won the lottery and got that perfect spouse that you never need to worry about anything happening with. Those are recipes for disaster.
So do your best to be in the best relationship, whether it’s your friends or your spouse. And then make sure you are learning how to keep that relationship going well. When I am contacted by people who have had a relationship crisis, their behavior usually depends on when the crisis occurred. Many times the crisis occurred months ago, and they’ve been dealing with it in various trying to make it better. And what they been trying has not been working. And, they’ve found my website or my book and have come to me because they found that the things that I’m teaching have actually been helping them in their relationships. And so they want to work with me. These people are past a crisis point. Other people who contact me contact me right after their crisis—it may even be the same day. Typically they want to talk to me later on that day—maybe even one hour from then and they want to talk with me. Typically even one hour from then they want me to spend a few hours doing intensive coaching with them to help them to fix this rapidly, before things spin out of control. Well that doesn’t really happen. I’m not going to be available right when they want me to be. My schedule is too busy for that. Also I’m not going to spend hours teaching them at the point that they’re in a crisis. In fact, if someone comes to me when they are in a crisis, they’re really coming at the wrong time.
The time that a crisis happens is not time to immediately reach out for coaching help. That is not the first step. I have worked with people in crisis before. The goal of helping someone in crisis is simply to help them to calm down, to relax, to be able to be calm so they can make it through the night. It’s never about fixing their problems and that should be a lesson for you, that if you do get help in a crisis, that is going to be the focus of the counselor. That is gonna be the focus of the coach or whoever you are dealing with. If you can do this part on your own and then, after you calm down, use the coach for making a plan for learning your alternatives for dealing with your situation, that’s going to be a much more effective use of your time and resources. Most of the time people have these panicky feelings in a relationship crisis, it’s not really a crisis for their spouse. And it’s not even a crisis for their relationship. Usually whatever is the crisis is is something that has been going on for a long time. For example, someone discovers that their spouse has been having an affair which may have been going on for months or sometimes even more than a year, but because they just found out, suddenly they are in a panic and they want to take action to make sure that their spouse cannot see their affair partner that night or something like that.
Really, if your spouse has been having an affair for a year or some months, preventing your spouse from having contact with an affair partner that night is actually going to cause more harm than good. Much better to calm down, make a plan, get away until you know correctly how to deal with the situation, even though it means that your spouse may be having contact with the affair partner a little bit longer than before. In fact, even if you did something, probably your spouse would still be having contact with the affair partner, but your relationship might be actually worse because of your overreaction. When you are in crisis the same thing is true if your spouse is saying that he or she wants to separate or even to divorce. It may seem like a panic situation to you, but this isn’t something that just occurred to your spouse this day. So for your spouse it’s old news. It’s just they have waited for a while to tell you about it. And then if you immediately jump into action without thinking about it—thinking about the best way way to respond—thinking about what you really want to have happen, then you may say or do things that make it even more difficult to reconcile if that’s what you decide you want to do.
The fact is that when you rush into action it will add stress to your situation. Your spouse may want to get away from you, your spouse may argue with you, you might spend the night arguing. Although that is a kind of intimacy, it’s not really a good kind of intimacy. People who argue in order to achieve intimacy are actually sabotaging their relationship. That’s true in a crisis as well. Spending the night talking about your crisis may bring fatigue (it will bring fatigue) and may bring calmness. You may have talk things out, but it won’t necessarily have been the best action that you can take. The best initial step that you can take when in a relationship crisis is to relax. That is not an easy thing to do. I didn’t say it’s an easy thing to do. I don’t expect you to be able to just relax, just like that. That’s not going to happen but you can take steps to help yourself relax.
You can perhaps get away from your home even if it means going to a hotel, stay with your friends, go someplace where you can relax, think, pray. Maybe even do something to get your mind off of your relationship for a while. That is actually going to be far better for your relationship than taking action for a plan that isn’t thought out, was just based on your immediate feelings. One of the things that people often regret is starting to beg and plead. Another thing is getting really angry and saying some very nasty things. Either of these can make it more difficult to reconcile. I know how to help people with both of those situations, if they started off that way, but the best thing is to not start that way to begin with. So once you have been able to get away, get some time, calm down, there is still another step that you can take. The second step that you can take is to listen to your spouse. Most likely your spouse really didn’t get to talk to you a lot because you were very reactive when your spouse first said something or you needed to get away—which is a good thing. For example, you might’ve said to your spouse, “Wow, that is really heavy,” or “that was very unexpected,” “very difficult for me to think about that right now, I need to get away and have some time to calm down. Then I want to come back and talk to you about that.”
And then, whether or not they want you to do that, you should take the time to do that. And then when you are calm down you need to come back and to listen. If it’s too upsetting to meet your spouse in person, you can do it by phone. You can even do it by email or text—whatever is going to help you to be a good listener. So you need to listen to what your spouse has to say without doing several things. These are the things not to do. Do not argue. Don’t defend yourself, even if you spouse is saying things which you don’t believe have any basis in truth. Defending and arguing are not going to make the situation better. Also make sure that you don’t attack, accuse, blame or threaten your spouse. Those are never good ways to work on reconciling. People are not particularly attracted to that. Most people are not going to say, “Wow, you attacked, me threatened me, blamed me—okay, that makes me change my mind. I want to be with you, alright, forget what I said before.” That is just not how people are. All of those behaviors are what I call “needy” behaviors and I’ve written about them in my book on overcoming neediness. If you have that particular kind of problem, I encourage you to work on it. It’s never, never attractive to other people and they certainly don’t help us to connect with them either. None of these actions are going to achieve your desired result of reconciling, if that’s what you want. if you are wanting to actually get away from your spouse to end your relationship, then in a sense these things can be helpful because it will help to really destroy the emotional connection that both of you have, which will make it easier for you to let go of each other. But don’t do that as a reactive thing. And I wouldn’t encourage it anyhow.
There are better ways to let go and say goodbye to people who’ve been an important part of our life for so long. So let’s suppose that you’ve done the steps in the correct order—you have taken time out to relax, to calm down, to become less reactive, then you have fully listened to what your spouse had to say without trying to immediately fix things or explain more work things out—what do you do next? Well, after that you don’t continue to talk about the issue with your spouse. I know you might like to just continue to work on that with your spouse and come up with a plan with your spouse. I don’t recommend you do that if your spouse is saying that he or she wants to get away from you or if you discover that your spouse is having an affair. The only time we really want to work with our spouse on a plan is when we both want the same outcome. So, for example, if your spouse says to you, “Our relationship is really bad. I have been thinking about leaving you, BUT what I would really like to do before that is to work together to see if we can make our relationship better—okay, so that’s actually a pretty good situation. Because your spouse wants to make things better, you spouse lets you know what’s likely to happen if you don’t and probably your motivated to work together with your spouse. I would say go ahead. In fact, if you don’t work together with your spouse in this situation, most likely somewhere down the line your spouse is going to come and say that he or she is separating or is divorcing. But, if you and your spouse are not on the same page in terms of outcome, don’t continue to talk about the issue with your spouse because it’s just going to push you two further apart.
So, what is the best thing to do in that situation? Well, you calm down, you listen to your spouse openly—listen, listen, listen, listen. Listen well. And then you clarify anything that you needed to clarify without necessarily tipping your hand and saying just what you want—remember, it’s not about fixing. It’s just about clarifying—understanding what your spouse has to say, what your spouse wants, and then next it’s time for you to consult with someone. If you are lucky enough to have friends who are wise and can give you good advice, then I would start with them. Or you might want to talk with your pastor or parent or someone who is usually a very good help for you when you have things that you need help with. Or someone who you believe has the wisdom to help you in your situation. Many times our friends care a lot and would like to help but they don’t really know the best way to help. Another problem is that although friends may be motivated to help us it doesn’t mean they know how to help. And people who do know what to do in some cases really don’t know what to do in others. That is most of the people you get advice from who are nonprofessionals—whether it’s for your car, your roof, your children, or your marriage, or anything else—are going to give you a single solution.
Some people might say what you need to do is divorce. Some people might say, well you need to go to counseling. Or some people might say something else. But they are unlikely to give you multiple choices. That’s the benefit of meeting with a relationship coach—is that when you do, at least if you meet with me (I can’t speak for all coaches), what I will do my best to do is to help you to see all of the choices you have for your situation. For example, when a person works with me after they discover their spouse is having an affair I help them to see that they have six choices in this situation. Usually they’re thinking they just have one or two and because of that they really can’t consider all of their options. Also they might not know what is the best fit for them. What would work for another person in their situation may not work for them. Let me just give you an example. So suppose a woman discovered her husband is having an affair and she gets advice from her friend who says, “you need to tell your husband that he has to choose between you and the affair partner or that you are going to leave him.” While that is certainly a choice and it’s a good choice for a secure woman who already has a good relationship with her husband. However if her relationship with her husband is not good, then who is her husband likely to choose? He’s likely to choose the affair partner. And what if she is an insecure person or very dependent person who would not be able to follow through with such an ultimatum? In that case, she’s likely to have a strong ultimatum but then find herself unable to follow through for the length of time that it takes for her husband to take her seriously. In that case she’s unlikely to be able to follow through with good boundaries long enough to help her husband get to the point where he is actually giving up his girlfriend, the affair partner, in order to be with his wife.
So just because something worked well for your friend doesn’t necessarily mean it will work well for you. That’s true for other situations, too. Your spouse wants to separate or divorce or other kinds of crises that happen. By the way, the same considerations are true if you get advice online. Maybe you are in a forum somewhere where someone tells you what they recommend for your situation. Well that might work very well for them and their situation but it might not work for yours. Their spouse is not your spouse, their personality is not yours, their level of security is not yours, their resources is not yours. If you go to many different forums, then you might find a few different answers. Still, it l might be hard figuring out what is the best choice for you. If you have that wise person in your life who really knows you well, knows your spouse, great. If you don’t, get a consultation. Just one session at least to find out what your options are in your situation.
The best way, always the best way, is to avoid crises. To do this you need to learn in advance how to create a healthy relationship and what to do when things go badly which they will sometimes do despite our best efforts. When you do this, you are going to be less anxious about problems happening. You’re also going to be more attractive and secure spouse. Attractive and secure spouses have much better relationships. Learning what to do in a crisis will help you to focus on doing the right things if a crisis happens. Because you know what to do if a crisis happens, you won’t need to live in fear of it and you will be able to enjoy your relationship more. In my experience, people who are young and inexperienced will not learn in advance how to deal with a relationship crisis. I was there once—a long time ago. I was young and inexperienced and I just thought love was enough. Love is never enough. Crisis is going to happen no matter how much we love someone and no matter how much they love us. You need to plan for them. You need to carry a spare tire in our car regardless of how good our tires are. We never know when we are going to have a flat. Relationships don’t just happen naturally. Falling in love can happen naturally when you’re single. Staying in love takes work.
If you don’t do the work, things will deteriorate. Eventually crisis will happen no matter how much you and your spouse were in love when you first got married. That is not a good predictor how things will go years later. Only the work that you do on a day by day basis in your relationship will help you to predict how things are going to go. Those of you who have a lot of life experience and relationship experience will be able to relate to what I’m saying. I don’t know where you are in your ability to do with crises or if you’ve already had one and perhaps done the wrong things or would like to do better next time. If you would like to learn how to maximize your chances of reconciling in a relationship crisis, then I invite you to my website coachjackito.com for help that is consistent with Christian family values.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Reconciling Marriages with Coach Jack. Visit coachjackito.com to learn more skills for reconnecting with your spouse and restoring your marriage.