sad partner

Listen to Your Unhappy Partner, as Only One Person is Required to End a Relationship

It isn’t uncommon where one person is extremely unhappy in a relationship and has told their partner they have at least one foot out the door, and the partner’s reaction is not to accept this information. The happy partner can also turn to try to convince their partner that they don’t have reason to be unhappy. The more content partner often blames the unhappy partner for being sad and fails to listen or see how they (happy) could be contributing.

If your partner is really unhappy and you want to preserve the relationship, one of the worst things you can do is try to convince them that they are happy or don’t realize how great they have it. The best first step is to listen closely and try to empathize. When your partner is unhappy, that is probably the worst time to try and “win” or persuade them that things are great. You may think you are an excellent partner, but your partner’s perception is what matters if you want a lasting and healthy relationship.

An example is when a spouse complains, they will leave unless their partner works less. The partner may insist that the unhappy person needs to realize how many material things they have because of the long hours. However, the unhappy person may clearly state that they don’t care about all the material things and will leave if they don’t have time with their partner. This can signify that the unhappy person is not being listened to, doesn’t influence the relationship, and that the happier person feels like they know best what their partner wants and isn’t too concerned if their partner agrees.

It’s natural to get defensive when criticized, but this is generally not the best time to get defensive. Sometimes the happier person goes to great lengths to prove how great the unhappy partner’s life is. Unfortunately, this is rarely well received. A person’s feelings may not make sense to others and may not be rational, but whatever they are, they are real to the person feeling them. Telling a person that their feelings are invalid rarely improves things.

If one person is miserable that their partner isn’t doing enough around the house, the best course of action is typically to try and do more around the house. This doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat, but sometimes it is better to be happy than right. Gathering evidence about how much you do, in fact, around the house is unlikely to go well until your partner feels heard, and you can try to empathize with or accept some responsibility for their perception.

In some cases, the happier partner feels blindsided due to refusing to listen. For example, the unhappy person may threaten to leave for a long time, stating what they need, only to be dismissed. The happier partner may be surprised (although they had plenty of warning) when their partner leaves.

In situations like this, a counselor will often “side” or focus more on the unhappy partner. This isn’t about saying who is right or wrong. It’s about trying to save the relationship if that is what you both want. Ignoring your unhappy partner is so dangerous because your opinion or the facts or both may not matter if they decide to leave. People who are used to getting their way or being in control may have difficulty realizing that they don’t get to decide on their own if the relationship will last. If the purpose of discussing with your partner why you don’t think you or the relationship is as bad as they do, keep in mind that most people just want the problem go away and doesn’t care about fault in the end.

Once the unhappy partner feels heard and believes their partner has listened, taken at least some responsibility, and wants to improve things, they may be open to discussions. After things have improved, the unhappy partner may be available to listen regarding how perhaps they have failed to recognize some of the significant parts of the relationship.

It’s like working in the business world and having an unhappy customer. If they complain about your service or product, would you argue with them about how excellent it is? Most successful business people probably wouldn’t. But, if you went to a nice steak house and ordered a medium-rare steak and it came out well done, would you want your server to tell you that they only make the perfect steaks and that you were cooked perfectly medium rare? Would you want them to say that perhaps you only think it’s well done because you are having personal problems or must have had a bad day at work? There is a good chance if the server apologizes (chances are they didn’t have anything to do with the issue), rushes to put in a new order and perhaps comps your steak, that you completely forget about the bad start to the dinner and remember a great experience. I am definitely not trying to say that a healthy long-term relationship involves one person being treated like a customer and the other a doormat, just that in extreme situations where your partner is about to leave, it is usually helpful to check your ego at the door, focus on what they need at first, and they gradually work more collaboratively to work on each of your issues (because each person almost always has something to work on).

It’s normal to go into a denial stage about your partner’s unhappiness. Likewise, trying to prove that you are doing a fantastic job as a partner is normal, and they just aren’t seeing it. But it’s almost guaranteed to fail (at least until you have really, really tried to listen and self-reflect first).

When I see a couple where one person is clearly saying they are hanging on by a thread, and the other person responds by saying they disagree that there are problems, it’s extremely common that the relationship won’t last much longer. An important exception and a topic for another post is when your partner makes a habit of threatening to leave you as a means to manipulate you and to get you to coddle to them. That’s a more serious scenario and it’s important to set boundaries.

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