How to Save a Relationship That’s Struggling (and When It’s Best to Let It Go)

Photo: Stocksy/Santi Nunez
No matter how strong a relationship is, you’re bound to hit a few rough patches along the way. Relationship struggles can take a number of forms—including infidelity, a cycle of being on-again and off-again, a lack of fun between the sheets—and range in severity to mildly stress-inducing to downright toxic. All of these examples (and countless others) may leave you wondering how to save a relationship that's struggling, and whether doing so is even the best course of action.

Every relationship has its peaks and valleys, and there are ways to bring a sputtering one back to life. However, there are some tell-tale signs that the bond is better broken. Read on for advice from relationship experts about how to help restore health to a troubled relationship—as well as signs that it might be beyond repair.

Experts In This Article

How to know when to save a relationship and went to let go

The truth is that not all relationships are meant to be saved, so it’s important to get clear on whether it’s better for you and your partner to be together or apart. There are a few key components to take into consideration when making your decision about whether to continue the relationship—and surprisingly, love isn’t one of them. “Love is obviously important, but it is not enough [to overcome issues],” says dating and relationship coach Laurel House. It’s possible for you and your partner to love each other but still have an unhealthy dynamic.

The ingredients for a healthy relationship are trust, safety, and emotional connection, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Date Smart. If the issues in your relationship are rooted in problems within these realms, and you’re not able to effectively resolve them, it’s likely that the partnership won’t be able to recover. She adds that most ongoing relationship struggles come back to safety, connection, and trust. “It’s vital that both partners feel they are loved, seen, and safe within the relationship, and when one or both partners are engaging in behaviors that work against foundational elements such as mutual trust, a healthy relationship simply isn’t possible,” she says.

"It’s vital that both partners feel they are loved, seen, and safe within the relationship, and when one or both partners are engaging in behaviors that work against foundational elements, a healthy relationship simply isn’t possible."—Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist

Your physical and emotional safety are the most important considerations. “If you ever feel physically or psychologically threatened, these are red flags that you should not ignore,” says well-being consultant Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, co-author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts. If a relationship dynamic involves abuse, as in a trauma bonding relationship, ending it is always the right move. “Leaving the relationship is vital to your safety and well-being, and that of your kids if you have any, in these situations,” she adds.

Ensuring your partner supports your needs and core values is also important. “If you feel that you are compromising your core values and morals, this is another reason why leaving the relationship rather than trying to fix things might be a better choice for your overall health and happiness,” says Pawelski.

Trust issues can have a major impact on a relationship, and can doom it if they’re not resolved. It’s possible to work through trust issues; even infidelity, while devastating and damaging, isn't always a marker that a relationship has run its course. If both parties can learn how to rebuild trust in their relationship and how to move on after the cheating, their relationship could survive the fallout—but repairing trust issues of any kind, especially after a breach, takes sustained time and effort to repair, says Dr. Manly. “Relationships can be salvaged after a breach of trust, but it may take quite a lot of time and energy, depending on the nature of the breach and the personalities of each person [involved],” she says.

The presence of conflict itself isn't necessarily a sign that a relationship is struggling, or that it should end; in fact, conflict is normal in any relationship, as long as you both fight fairly, it can even be healthy. The ability to work through conflict is a key component of a relationship’s resilience, too, says Dr. Manly.

However, she says it’s generally wise to end a relationship if you find yourself unable to come back from the brink of challenges with your partner and within the relationship. For example, if one or both partners are conflict avoidant, issues will build up over time without resolution; if one partner frequently starts arguments without addressing the underlying reasons why (or is picking fights for no reason at all), that can fuel toxic fighting that irretrievably damages the trust, safety, and health of the relationship.

If you’re not able to work through conflict, it’s a sign to end things. “When conflict resolution skills are low, whether it’s a pattern of intense fights or a pattern of avoiding issues, the relationship simply won’t be able to move forward,” Dr. Manly says.

People who have communication issues can learn better coping mechanisms—but it takes sustained and consistent effort. Individual therapy can help address individual communication struggles, and a couples therapist can help both partners learn better communication skills and the ability to recognize when they’re tipping into unhelpful or unproductive dynamics.

Saving a relationship requires investment and effort from both partners. If one person has already mentally and emotionally checked out and shows no desire to repair the relationship or is unwilling or unable to do the work required to fix the problems, then it’s probably time to end things. “A relationship is generally not worth saving if one or both partners are disinterested in making the relationship the best it can be,” adds Dr. Manly.

Additionally, it’s a bad idea to stay in a relationship that’s just convenient—if the primary reason you’re in a relationship is to avoid being alone, it’s a better long term choice to end it. “When one or both partners are not invested in the relationship and when it’s held together due to convenience rather than love, it’s often best to move on,” says Dr. Manly.

13 signs of a struggling relationship

The presence of some of these signs doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed, but it does mean it needs work. All relationships have challenges, but Dr. Manly says more downs than ups point to a relationship that needs work or needs to end. Here are 13 signs your relationship is at risk:

  1. You (or your partner) stop showing up as your best self in the relationship.
  2. You’re constantly in conflict with your partner.
  3. One or both of you are emotionally distant.
  4. You’re not honest with each other.
  5. You (or your partner) make excuses for each other and hide the truth from friends and family.
  6. You (or your partner) would rather do anything else but spend time with each other.
  7. You make each other feel unworthy or not good enough.
  8. You sacrifice being true to yourself for the sake of your partner and to avoid conflict.
  9. You don’t like who you are when you’re with your partner.
  10. You (or your partner) lose yourself in your relationship. You no longer have a sense of self.
  11. You stopped engaging in activities that once brought you joy.
  12. You don’t spend time with friends.
  13. One or both of you are experiencing any form of abuse, such as sexual, emotional, physical, and/or financial abuse.

How to save a relationship

1. Work on yourselves as individuals first

In order to save and strengthen a relationship, both partners need to do their own inner work. “It’s important for both individuals to work on themselves and connect with their core values and strengths,” says Pawelski. “Lead with curiosity by creating an open space where you can both be honest with one another. Only then can you work together as a couple to try to strengthen your relationship.” For example, if your anxiety is damaging your relationship and fueling disagreements or discomfort within it, it’s important for you to work on that individually.

"It’s important for both individuals to work on themselves and connect with their core values and strengths."—Laurel House, dating and relationship coach

2. Fight better

Although it may sound counterintuitive to fight if you’re trying to strengthen your relationship, House says a couple arguing can be a perfectly healthy thing to do. The key, she caveats, is to do it the right way. This looks like communicating in an open, honest way that will bring you closer together versus lashing out and blaming each other, which will only drive you further apart.

3. Express gratitude for the little things

“It's the littlest things that give breath to the relationship,” says House. Therefore, it’s important to express your appreciation for the little things your partner does. This can take shape in any number of ways, such as taking out the trash, making coffee, or sending you a sweet text message. And not just once in a while, but daily. House suggests making this a nightly ritual and saying thank you for one small thing you each did that day.

4. Savor your time together

Acknowledging and truly savoring the time you spend with your partner is another strategy that can help save a relationship. Be fully present with your partner to soak up that quality time. Celebrate the big moments, like vacations or birthdays, but be sure this extends to the more mundane moments, too, like watching TV together or preparing meals at home.

5. Do monthly check-ins

Relationships require maintenance, which is why regular check-ins can be helpful. House suggests sitting down together for a calm and honest conversation about how your relationship is doing. Cover all areas, such as communication, intimacy, parenting, and finances. “By addressing potential problems early on, you are able to fix them before they break you and simultaneously expand and deepen your true emotional intimacy and connection,” says House.

6. Celebrate each other

Although being there for each other through the tough stuff is an important part of a relationship, so too is celebrating each other’s achievements. “Often we are barely listening when our partner shares something good with us,” Pawelski says. “We may unintentionally dismiss it by not paying attention, going back to reading the paper, perhaps, or changing the subject. These behaviors are just as bad as directly saying something negative about our partner’s good news.” So when your S.O. gets home, beaming with good news to share, put down your phone and give them the attention they deserve.

7. Stay curious about your partner

Reigniting a spark or restoring a state of emotional health to a relationship can be as simple as taking an interest in one another. “In the beginning of a relationship, it seems to be easy to be curious about our partner and focus on the positive,” says Pawelski. “However, later in the relationship when the newness fades, we often mistakenly think we know all there is to know about our partner. We stop asking questions, and we fall into a rut.”

FAQs about how to save a relationship

How do you bring a relationship back to life?

If you recognize some of the signs of a struggling relationship in your own dynamic, know that all relationships have fluctuations. But when these happen more often and result in the relationship getting stuck or deteriorating, Dr. Manly says both partners need to help bring it back to life. “Many relationships succumb to a slow death, meaning they deteriorate over time in almost-imperceptible ways, when partners don’t prioritize the relationship in an ongoing way,” she says.

To center a relationship and bring it back to life, Dr. Manly says it's key for both partners to make efforts to make the dynamic more connective and fun. Depositing into your relationship love bank, or the stockpile of positive interactions that drive affection and intimacy, is key; Dr. Manly advises doing so by reconnecting daily through simple interactions that elicit joy and connection.

"Many relationships succumb to a slow death, meaning they deteriorate over time in almost-imperceptible ways, when partners don’t prioritize the relationship in an ongoing way."—Dr. Manly

What might this look like? If your partner is particularly stressed at work and doesn’t have much time to prepare a nourishing dinner, get their favorite takeout or take the reins and prepare something to enjoy together. You could plan an ice skating date or to see their favorite movie, or catch up with them over coffee, without the presence of screens. The point is just to consistently work moments of connection and fun into your day to bolster your bond.

When Dr. Manly works with couples who are struggling, she recommends the following: daily 30 minute walks to reconnect and talk; one distraction-free, shared meal each week; doing one shared, fun activity per weekend; and a daily appreciation practice. “When couples follow this prescription with a positive, connective attitude, they often find themselves enjoying each other and the relationship more than ever,” she says.

Can space help save a broken relationship?

According to Dr. Manly, space alone is typically not enough to save a struggling relationship. What exactly you do with this break is a better sign of whether or not the space will be helpful. “If partners take a time-out to recalibrate and do their own self-work, a relationship surely can change, if partners take a time-out to avoid their issues or engage in distractions, the unresolved issues will be waiting to plague them when they connect again,” she says.

So how long should a relationship break be? There isn’t one answer, but if the break stretches for a prolonged period or you find that you feel better without your partner, these are signs the break should be permanent.

How can you save a struggling long distance relationship?

Long distance relationships present particular challenges because they make it harder to have the sustained and frequent interactions that foster connection. Distance doesn’t spell doom, but it means couples have to try harder to keep the connection alive and well. To make this work, both partners need to put in extra effort to stay emotionally and physically invested, says Dr. Manly. “Even more than other relationships, partners who are separated by distance truly need ongoing care and to be feeding the romance,” she says.

Daily conversations and in-person meetups (even if they’re infrequent)—ones that are planned and marked on your calendar—are essential for filling the void. Dr. Manly says finding fun and unique ways to stay connected, like having virtual date nights or sending each other surprise care packages, can fuel romance and bridge the gap.

How can you save a relationship when you’re not having sex?

Sex is important in relationships because it is a great way to create intimacy, but the exact right amount to have depends on the couple, says Dr. Manly. People have varying levels of libido and sexual desire; she says that some partners don’t need much or any sexual intimacy to function well. Issues around sex in relationships tend to happen when a mismatch of expectations and desires, health struggles, conflict, or stress get in the way of intimacy, she says.

The best way to solve this is to speak kindly and candidly with your partner and work on the root cause. “If a lack of sex is hampering the quality of your relationship, it’s important to compassionately address the issue with honesty and directness,” she says. “In some cases, psychotherapy with a sex specialist is necessary for partners to get to the root of the issue.”

How can you save a relationship if you’re feeling bored or disinterested?

Novelty is important to relationships to keep things interesting and to form new memories and experiences together, and the absence of it can cause boredom—and restlessness—to set in. If you’re bored in your relationship, try some of the above tips for bringing the spark back. Find new ways to bond and connect with your partner, like sharing new experiences, because as certified Gottman Institute couples therapist Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT previously told Well+Good, playfulness and fun  (in addition to the more serious aspects of a relationship) are key to building and maintaining intimacy.

If you’re disinterested in your relationship, Dr. Manly says it’s important to figure out the root cause before deciding what to do. Are you dealing with your own mental health struggles, or stress from work or family, or are there unresolved conflicts with your partner? These could be at the root of your lack of interest. Through being in the relationship, you might also realize that you and your partner aren’t as compatible as you believed, says Dr. Manly, which makes you less interested in trying.

Relationships progress in phases, and the honeymoon or infatuation phase that’s marked by intense interest and passion doesn’t last forever. “It’s important to realize that it’s natural to be a bit less interested in a partner when the infatuation period fades; if partners truly love each other, the spark can come back with doses of TLC and ongoing investment,” she adds. If you find that the relationship isn’t fun even when you try creating more, it might be time to start moving toward the exit.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...