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When Your Relationship is Running on Fumes, What Should You Do?

A friend was talking with me about his latest relationship. He asked, What are you supposed to do when you're running out of gas or things start breaking down? As I listened to him, memories of a college road trip out west and then of my old tractor lawnmower ran through my head . How do you know whether to try to fix things or just move on? Not an easy question.

Comparing relationships to vehicles may seem odd, but they share some common elements. Both need fuel to keep going. You need to take care of them by performing regular maintenance. Sometimes they malfunction a bit and you can read a manual or talk to a friend and get things running smoothly again. Other times there's a problem you can't figure out on your own and you need to take them in to the shop to get evaluated and see if you want to get them fixed. Maybe there's a bad part that can be replaced carefully and they're back to running well. Or maybe so many of the parts look worn out you say goodbye to them and get a replacement.

Not so different from your love life. When your relationship needs repair, you have some choices to consider. Along with an abundance of self help articles, blogs and books you can use for ideas and advice, here are some of the questions I ask clients. Maybe they'll shed some light on understanding why you're having problems, and what needs attention. They may also help you decide whether to part ways or work things out.

- Is there anything about this relationship that's unsafe? This is like asking yourself, would I drive a car with bad brakes?

- What do you value about your partner? What do you think they value about you? Do these attributes motivate you to work on things? In other words, how important is this relationship to you, and why?

- Are you taking care of yourself so you have energy to invest in your relationship? Is your partner taking care of themselves so they have something to give? If the answer to either of these is no, what can you can do to improve things on your end?

- Does it feel like there's some give and take as far as tending to your individual and shared needs? Or do you get into power struggles over who gets to do what, and when?

- Do either of you tend to take care of the other and hope they'll reciprocate? If so, what happens when they do or don't?

- Are the problems you're having the result of recent events, a major life transition, or ongoing issues you keep cycling through?

- Are the expectations you have of each other explicit and realistic? Do you talk things out? Do you come to resolutions? if not, what gets in the way of doing that?

- What are the individual skills you need to make this work, and what do you need to learn to do as a couple?

If thinking about these questions has pointed you in a productive direction, good. If you'd like help exploring more about the roadblocks in your way, therapy is a great place to do that. You'll learn to identify what you want to work on and name the needs and feelings that are motivating your desire to make things better. A big part of therapy is also learning and practicing both individual and relational skills.

About those vehicles I described in the beginning of this essay ... they hold very different places in my heart. The college road trip halfway across the country in a new luxury van was a euphoric adventure, much like falling in love. We (four college friends, an infamous trust fund baby and a mountain man) only had one flat tire and changed it out quickly. The scenery was beautiful, the company was great, and we never ran out of gas during the long night stretches through remote territory. We had some potentially awkward encounters that could have turned ugly but instead became funny moments. Memories from that trip evoke feelings of freedom, pleasure and abandon. But the van wasn't around for long. Instead of getting it detailed and shampooed after our (messy) trip was over, the owner had the interior ripped out and replaced. It still didn't seem quite shiny enough so he sold it shortly thereafter and found a newer model.

In contrast, the tractor lawn mower I owned was appreciated, loved and maintained over a long period. For thirty plus years, its job was to mow acres of grass and give rides to little kids. It was like a comfortable, committed relationship. The newness of its abilities and looks wore off over time but I appreciated knowing I could depend on it. I looked forward to using it every week. I'd smile every time I opened the garage door and started it up. At a certain point a new scratch or dent was a reminder of a ride around my beloved property rather than a defect that needed to be fixed, When most of the parts finally wore out, it lived on as a parts donor "up north". A neighbor who recognized the value of something built with integrity and quality parts claimed it. I still have a framed picture of it in my attic somewhere, and feel touched whenever I rediscover it.

Cathy Johnston MA, LMFT, CST

612.770.1799

2840 Humboldt Ave S

Minneapolis MN 55408

37265 Twin Bay Dr

Crosslake MN 56442

cathy@cathy-johnston.com