While different therapists will approach a couple's problems in their own way based on their clinical approach and personality, there are some basic questions that can always be helpful in assessing the state of a relationship.
Thinking through these questions can help you drill down and assess your own relationship:
1. Overall state: On an average day, what is your emotional quality in the relationship — are you happy, depressed, okay, or anxious? If you had this average day over and over, would that be a "good enough" life or relationship?
Obviously, you can’t expect ecstatic joy every day of your life — because other parts of your life take over, because your partner, like everyone else, has moods. But step back. Is an average day a good day?
2. Safety: Do you feel safe to speak up?
This probably should have been Question #1 because, in many ways, this is the most important element of any relationship. Sure, old childhood stuff will kick in that makes you feel like a 6-year-old, but overall do you feel safe enough to be honest when you need to or do you walk on eggshells too much of the time? Do you internalize your emotions — hold them in or blame yourself for problems — rather than seeing them as arising from both people's reactions?
3. Arguments: Can you rein them in so they are not emotionally or physically destructive? Can you tell when they are turning into power struggles about who gets the last word, who is right, where the conversation is going nowhere?
Occasional arguments are fine — this is about stress and problem-solving and fine-tuning the relationship. But the bigger issue is about emotional regulation — the ability to control your strong emotions, the ability to realize that arguments are going nowhere and both people are focused on winning. While there may be some differences — it takes one of you longer to calm down — does it happen? If not, if it always explodes, if it is always about who wins, you've got a big problem.
4. Problem-solving: Can you circle back and solve the problem?
Circling back is not just having the argument, dousing the flames, doing the silent treatment for hours or days, then sliding back to "normal" and pretending nothing happened. This is called sweeping it under the rug.
Nor is it just making up – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, big hug — but avoiding the topic because you don’t want to start another fight. Instead, can you both really go back, have a productive conversation — where you talk about the problem and come up with a workable plan — so that it doesn’t just get added to a pile of unsolved problems?
5. Compromises: Can you reach win-win compromises?
So, you make-up and one of you invariably gives in – "Got it, I’m sorry, I’ll do better. Sure, let’s do it your way." This isn't problem-solving, this is accommodation — giving in to avoid conflict because you feel you can’t win, because you are afraid.
Instead, can you both have compromises where each of you feels you’ve been heard, gotten something of what is important for you to get rather than just giving in?
6. Good vs. bad: Are there enough good times to outweigh the bad?
Question #1 is about the emotional climate; this is about experiences. Yes, relationships go up and down, but big picture, stepping back, are there enough good experiences not only to get by but also to make your average day a good-enough day?
The trick to working through these questions is to only focus on you and your relationship. What's easy to do instead is rationalize, compensate: Yes, the good times outweigh the bad because my kids are happy (and that's what counts), or because I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut and not push her buttons, or because he is way better than my last relationship. That is rationalizing, compromising, to soothe the pain, to get by day-by-day. That’s sweeping your true feelings under the rug.
Don't do that.
7. Teamwork: Do you feel you both work together well as a team, that you both have each's other's back, care about each other's happiness?
If the relationship feels out of balance, if it's every man for himself, there's only resentment and loneliness.
8: The big question: For you and only you, do you feel like you can be yourself, that you feel loved and supported, that if problems come up they can be resolved, that life is more than just getting by and accepting, that the relationship has rewards that you can’t get anywhere else and that you don’t want to lose?
9. Keep or change: Overall, would you want to keep the relationship and the life that comes with it...or not? What would you change most?