Everybody wants love. The ceaseless stream of “meet-cute” content on social media and popular TV series remind us (even when we would rather forget) that if we’re not in love, we’re waiting to be. This inundation of love on our screens and streaming platforms is just one example of a Nicholas-Sparks-inspired society hoping that perfect connection is just one click, one season, away. But no matter how the romance starts, on a TV show or in real life, it is a relationship that follows.
The last two and a half years have added a series of obstacles to those already grappling with how to feel connected in their relationships. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, many have also found themselves lonely or disconnected, sometimes even in their relationships.
Rather than indulging in the make-believe love of Netflix’s latest rom com, maybe we should be asking of the relationship right in front of us: Why do I ghost my partner when we’re in the same room? Why don’t we talk the way we used to? How can we get past this?
After years of pandemic couple-hood, perhaps it is time for a relationship reckoning. For many, the unprecedented opportunity for increased together-time with our partners, stripped away possibilities for hiding, diffusion, and distractions and exposed our actual selves — not necessarily our relational ‘best selves’. So, where do we go from here?
Three couples’ stories
Janet was excited to spend a year of ‘trial living’ together before the hoped-for engagement. Of course, she didn’t expect to be in lockdown and working together all day at the kitchen table. She also didn’t expect to find things out about her boyfriend that she wished she didn’t know – like watching him fill out his tax forms and putting a “0” next to philanthropy or charitable deductions, when he had told her many times that he was very generous to social causes. So, she wondered, was it a lie when he said their values were aligned and when he called them a power couple – generous and generative?
Across town, Brian and his girlfriend were famous amongst their friends for being the ones to always go to the gallery and show openings, the ones who hosted the best parties, the ones who had a type of life that others would envy. The pandemic changed all that. After his girlfriend started spending hours every day watching Netflix series, episode after episode, and Zooming with friends about the series’ characters as real people, he found himself confessing, “I’m crazy about this woman, but I’m realizing that we’re so different. Sometimes I ask myself, who is she? We used to spend all of our free time together, planning the next big thing, and now it’s like she prefers to be alone and watch TV. I’m left wondering what my dinner table conversations are going to be like for the next 60 years.” While one member of the pair longed for the return of rooms bursting with all the measures of an interesting and flourishing social life, the other found tranquility and renewed appreciation for silence in uneventful Saturday nights filled with only the sound of Netflix series of the night. They are now asking themselves – do we even know who we are?
And then there was Veronica, who believed, happily, that her wonderful husband John was the most fiscally responsible, conservative guy alive. It wasn’t until he lost his job during lockdown that a different side of him was unveiled. Now with the world opened up he still doesn’t want to get another job where he has to ‘go somewhere’ every day. Instead, he would like to use their savings (to her, “drain” their savings) until he can start his own business and get it going. Dinner conversations that once involved the simple question of what movie to see, where to hike over the weekend or simply catching up with the day, have now lost their warmth and civility – and – reveal a need for a more emotionally intelligent way to identify and effectively communicate emotions:
“Can’t you just talk to me for once?”
“My God, I just want some peace and quiet, Veronica.”
“Oh, ok John, you don’t get enough of that during the day while you stay home and run through our savings? Look what you’re doing to us. You’re so pathetic.”
What is a relationship reckoning?
A reckoning is needed when what you believe about yourself, your partner, or your relationship is called into question.
In my 30 years of private practice, a ‘relationship reckoning’ was often the best next step for couples who were stuck in the same loop. A reckoning is a time to take a step back, re-evaluate, and ask each other the hard questions—questions like “How did we get here?” “Are we going in different directions?” “Do we want to pull this together and move forward?” “Do we still want this relationship?”
Signs you may be nearing a reckoning:
- You are not the same happy couple you used to be.
- You are arguing more than usual with your partner.
- You are arguing way more than expressing warmth, caring or love
- You constantly second guess your behavior around your partner or feel on edge. You would prefer to spend time alone.
- You feel restless and can’t imagine how that could change.
- You are feeling more drained or tired, for no obvious reason.
- You feel generally disappointed or unfulfilled.
- You feel generally unseen and not safe to share your feelings
- You feel suddenly unmoored by a broken promise by your partner.
- You look at your partner differently than you used to—or than you want to.
- You look at your partner and think, “Who are they?” or “What am I doing here?”
If any of these signs resonate with you, it is a call to action to pause and reflect. What has been going on? What have you been feeling – and, what is causing those feelings? What is your partner telling you they are feeling? How and when can you have a conversation? Your relationship needs some extra attention – a reckoning conversation.
Setting the stage
It may be tempting to dive into your reckoning conversation right away but preparing for it is just as important. Taking the time to check in with your own feelings, thoughts and values first is key. Pay attention to your emotions when you mull over situations or conversations with your partner that have caused you to question the relationship. Emotions are information – what are yours telling you ? Get curious and dig deep into what is causing them. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and honest with yourself about possible imbalances in your relationship, unmet expectations and/or unwanted reality. Once you have accomplished this, take initiative and choose the setting for your reckoning conversation. Be sure to select a time and place – with your partner – that will allow for calm, uninterrupted conversation with your partner, no matter how contentious your current disagreements may be. After moving through each of these steps consciously and carefully, you are now ready to begin the conversation.
Steps of a reckoning conversation
1. Start with agreements about what each of you need for the conversation to feel safe – for example, not being interrupted when talking, a commitment to kind speech, no criticism or judgement, a signal to stop and regroup if things go off the rails.
2. Take the initiative and be courageous in communicating your feelings and what you would like to focus on.
3. Use active listening to identify what your partner wants to talk about and if your partner’s feelings about the relationship align with your own.
4. Be curious and express interest in knowing more. If your partner blames you or complains about something you did, ask questions before jumping to your own defense.
5. Show you care and validate their expressed emotions and experiences and ask for validation in return.
6. Practice empathy by “standing” in your partner’s shoes, and accept your partner’s point of view as their reality even if it differs from your own.
7. Problem-solve and set agreements with your partner that will help build a foundation of psychological safety and bravery. Feeling safe to communicate your emotions authentically is necessary to any vulnerable conversation, especially for setting and achieving shared goals in a relationship.
What can a reckoning conversation look like?
Back to Veronica, her husband, and their dinner conversation. It seems clear that a reckoning conversation could help! It might go something like this:
“Can’t you just talk to me for once?’
“Veronica! Just another chance for you to jump down my throat?? No! You don’t listen – and I don’t like to be called pathetic, so I’d rather just be alone.”
“I hear you John. I am sorry about the name calling. But put yourself in my shoes. I’m frustrated and stressed about our situation. What else can I do? I’m stressed and I am scared.”
“I know you are. And when I feel responsible, it sucks. And when you remind me I am responsible, it sucks even more. And I’m certainly frustrated and stressed too. You know, maybe we can have this conversation in a different way… Maybe you know, that reckoning idea. I don’t want you to be stressed and I do want to work through this together. I want to tell you how I feel about work, why I feel the way I do, and want you not to put me down, blame me – or get defensive – in return.”
“(Deep breath) I am sorry that I have been nasty. I am glad to hear that you want to talk. You, know, it’s quiet in the house and we won’t be interrupted – now is a good time to have this conversation. I am happy that you want to tell me what’s going on. I really do want to know. I want our relationship to be better and I care about how you feel about your work and want you to feel fulfilled. I can do my best not to get critical or snarky. It’s just because I am worried about money and our future. I can do a better job of being my best self. And when it’s my chance to tell you how I am feeling, I need you to really listen. (Another deep breath) This is a reckoning because we can’t go on like this and it’s hard to talk about the reality that you are just not working and that impacts us. We both are so sensitive about it.”
“Yes – ok — let’s agree to stop the conversation when it gets too heated. Can we agree to stop if either of us needs to? “
“Yes – agreed”.
“Good. I understand what you are saying – and I want our relationship too. I don’t want you to feel stressed or worried – I am sorry that you do. But, now I need your support – and I feel stressed and like I am ‘in it’ alone when I don’t have that. I need you emotionally and, right now, financially too. I know it’s a drain on us, I know it can’t be forever, but I just can’t go back to full time 9-5 for someone else. I do think I can build something for myself and our future too. Maybe a time-line would help ? How is this: I work out all the details of starting up my business idea by… when? You tell me.”
“OK…. How is a month. That would feel ok for me. I know you need some time without us arguing to work it out. Here is what I need – it’s important to me to know that you are consistently moving forward with building something. I can’t take care of all our expenses myself and it isn’t what I want to do. Can we agree that you take a month to make a plan, to meet with who you need to, and work out details before we talk about whether what you want actually can work for us.
“Okay. I can do that… a month is ok. And I can update you along the way – and I want your opinion on things – as long as we don’t start fighting about it. Let’s agree on a signal so we can stop when things get heated? Let’s each think about a signal.
“Ok, good idea! A signal. And, I would love updates as you figure this out. That will make me feel less stressed and definitely more included in the process.”
“You got it. It will make me feel less stressed too, especially if I have your support.”
“I really think we can try this. I do love you, you know.”
“I know and I do, too. And I think we can do this.”
After a reckoning
A reckoning can restore a sense of mattering and being heard in relationship. Once you talk through your thoughts and feelings about what was working, what was not, and what you want going forward, you can move forward with a new, co-created foundation. With a renewed commitment and deeper understanding, you can experiment with new ways of being together as you continue to prioritize both individual and joint happiness and fulfillment.
Relationship reckonings can become a regular and welcome practice in your lives – like date night. It can be gratifying to check in with each other and find a way back to your loving connection. Practice self-compassion and couple compassion – it’s not always easy, especially in stressful times! Remember you are on the same team, and that vulnerability, kindness, and love offer a compass back to your connection.
Now is the opportune time for a reckoning
Nothing is static right now. As we move through this time of transition ‘back to normal’, pre-pandemic lives, or discover a new normal in our post-pandemic lives, take the opportunity to consider the health of your relationships. Do you feel like you really matter to each other, are your values aligned, do you feel safe expressing your feelings when you interact with each other? Ask questions that perhaps you could have asked earlier, questions that can illuminate what you love about the way things are going or what you can or want to do differently. While this may be a good time for a reckoning, it’s also always the right time to celebrate what you love about your relationship and to be grateful for each other.
Relationship expert Esther Perel reminds us in bold letters on her website: “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” At a time when news headlines and Netflix romcoms can compound our sense of lost love and connection, we owe it to ourselves, those we love, and those we have yet to love, a hard but honest approach to our modern relationships. When we love and our time together flows easily – we can enjoy, celebrate, be grateful! But, when we know something’s wrong and are struggling with our couple-hood, we can choose to reorient and reckon with each other rather than suffer in silence, stay in conflict or run away.
Krista Smith, M.A.T. works with students transitioning to adulthood at The Campfire School, having just complete her time as postgraduate associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is a former high school teacher in Chicago.
Cecily Lipton is a researcher interested in psychology, emotions and well-being. She is a student at Duke University and enjoys writing about topics related to her research and lived experience.