How to Fix a Broken Relationship: Advice From Pros

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Is your relationship not working? How can you mend a relationship that lost its spark? What are some signs that your relationship is broken beyond repair? 

Problems are part of life and a part of being in a relationship. When your relationship is broken, the key is not to fixate on the problems but to look for effective and mutually beneficial resolution options.

With this in mind, here’s how to mend a broken relationship and how to end it—if you decide that’s the right thing to do. 

Healing a Broken Relationship

Relationships are tricky. No matter how compatible you are with your partner, conflict and individual differences will arise sooner or later. Relationships may also lose their spark as the novelty wears off and routine gets in the way. 

However, neither of these things means that your relationship is broken beyond repair. More often than not, you can mend your relationship by putting in the effort to learn about each other’s needs, approaching conflict constructively, and rekindling the lost intimacy. 

Learn About Each Other’s Needs

According to therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt (Getting the Love You Want), one of the main reasons relationships fall apart is that partners fail to meet each other’s unconscious needs. This happens because we unconsciously choose partners that help us resolve the wounded parts of our childhood, and when they fail to do that, we grow unhappy without knowing why. 

To learn how to mend a broken relationship, you must learn to see each other as separate individuals, and then gradually change to become the person your partner needs you to be. To this end, Hendrix and Hunt devised a program of exercises around the core concepts of mirroring, validation, and empathy. These exercises fall into three broad categories designed to create feelings of mutual safety, explore your childhood needs and frustrations, and guide you to making the hardest changes of all.

1. Create Safety for Growth

Hendrix and Hunt insist that each partner must commit to the process and agree to remain a couple for at least three months. This creates a feeling of security for a partner who fears abandonment, while the time-limited nature of the commitment can be calming for a partner who feels trapped in an unhappy situation.

The next step is for both of you to identify and limit the ways in which you “escape” from the relationship. This can be by working late, staying out with friends, or spending excessive time pursuing hobbies. 

Finally, in order to return the relationship to a state that doesn’t inspire the need to escape, it’s vital for a couple to have fun again, and to act the way you once did when you first fell in love. 

2. Learn Each Other’s Truth

Once a setting of safety has been established, it frees you to become open about your unmet needs. Part of this step in mending a broken relationship requires individual work that begins when you visualize your primary caregivers. This can be either parents, grandparents, or anyone else who was responsible for your upbringing. 

  • Create a list of their positive and negative characteristics without differentiating between which caregivers the traits belonged to.
  • Imagine your greatest childhood frustrations—what you wanted most that your caregivers never gave you.

Once you and your partner have established the general traits of your caregivers and the unmet needs left over from childhood, you’re ready to engage in the “Parent-Child Dialogue.” In this exercise, one person speaks from their point of view as a child, while their partner takes the role of a parent. The “child” speaks about a negative childhood experience, while the “parent” responds with validation and empathy.

For Hendrix and Hunt, what’s more important than any specific childhood issues is the way in which you and your partner interact. It’s vital that you listen to each other with curiosity and compassion so you can recognize each other as separate individuals and not merely placeholders for your unconscious parental images.

After exploring the ways in which your childhoods shaped you, you will then make a list of your partner’s traits as you perceive them. Many of these will match characteristics that you ascribed to your primary caregivers. With this information, it’s possible to consciously spell out the unconscious needs that you brought into your relationship.

3. Mutual Transformation

Through this process, you can become more aware of the unconscious drives that led you to seek out and create a loving bond. More importantly, you can also learn to understand your partner’s unspoken needs. This is where the hard part begins.

When a relationship is broken, we often wish our partner would change to meet our own desires. In a relationship where the couple are conscious allies, we commit to changing ourselves in order to meet our partner’s deepest needs.

The tool that Hendrix and Hunt provide to facilitate gradual transformation is the “Behavior Change Request Dialogue.”

  • In this dialogue, one person brings up a broad-ranging desire that is followed by specific, actionable requests.
  • The other partner can then choose from the options and agrees to follow through on one of the requests.
  • The requests are made in the form of a scripted dialogue, with mirroring, validation, and empathy for each other.

Through this process, you and your partner will make incremental changes to your behavior. However, the Behavior Change Request is not transactional. Any changes you make must be done so freely, as a gift. You being able to choose which changes to make ensures that you don’t give up personal autonomy.

It will be easier for you to meet some requests for change than others. The requests that spark the strongest resistance are those that touch on areas where you have the greatest need for growth. Part of your resistance to making changes may be rooted in the feeling that you’re violating a rule or taboo set by your parents. If you feel resistance to your partner making changes, your caregivers may have taught you that you weren’t worthy of receiving love in that way.

As you and your partner make gradual changes, you create a cycle of mutual growth. By changing yourselves to meet your partner’s needs, you fill in the pieces of your own Lost Self.

TITLE: Getting the Love You Want
AUTHOR: Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt
TIME: 17
READS: 20.8
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: getting-the-love-you-want-summary-harville-hendrix-and-helen-lakelly-hunt

Approach Conflict Constructively

One of the signs of a broken relationship is an irreconcilable conflict. However, it’s quite rare for conflict between two loving people to be irreconcilable. More often than not, people just lack a systematic approach to resolving conflict. 

In his book Nonviolent Communication, psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg suggests a systematic method for peaceful and constructive conflict resolution. The key premise of Rosenberg’s method is that behind every conflict are unmet needs. Identifying the unmet needs underlying the conflict helps you empathize with the other person because human needs are universal. 

Effective conflict resolution requires that people on both sides of the conflict come to appreciate that their own needs and the other person’s needs are equally important. Therefore, the goal of the NVC (Nonviolent Communication) conflict resolution method is not compromise. In a compromise, neither party’s needs are fully met, and those remaining unmet needs will only cause further problems down the road. The NVC conflict resolution method is about finding a way to resolve conflict in a way that meets the needs of all parties. It consists of five steps: 

Step 1: Express Your Own Needs

In this step, be careful to differentiate between needs and strategies. Needs are the fundamental physical and psychological resources that sustain life, like water, food, meaning, and support. Needs can be met with a number of different strategies—specific actions that fulfill a need. It’s sometimes difficult to tell needs and strategies apart because we’re not used to openly and vulnerably sharing our needs. The fundamental difference is that need statements don’t refer to any person doing any particular action. 

For example, the statement “I need you to leave me alone for a minute” is a strategy, not a statement of need, because it references someone doing something. A true need statement in that situation might be “I need quiet in order to focus.” That statement leaves the door open for many possible solutions (like earplugs or going to a different room) instead of mandating a certain action. 

It can be tempting to couch need statements in intellectual analysis by starting a statement with “I think” instead of “I need.” Unfortunately, people often interpret analysis as criticism, which can shut down the conversation. For example, saying “I need to express myself more clearly so I can feel understood” instead of “I think you’re misunderstanding me” avoids the analysis trap and keeps the focus on needs. 

Step 2: Identify Others’ Needs

If the person you’re communicating with isn’t practicing NVC, they might express their needs in more indirect ways. Silence, rejection, judgmental comments, and nonverbal cues are all veiled statements of need. By recognizing these and translating them, you can keep the conversation flowing nonviolently even if the person you’re talking to isn’t playing along. 

Identifying needs expressed through judgment or silence usually involves a degree of guessing. People often use the same cues to express different needs or emotions (like sighing heavily to express exhaustion, frustration, or sadness), so it’s important to check that guess with the other person. This might be a continual process, since most people are more likely to respond with a second indirect expression rather than a clear “Yes, you interpreted my needs correctly.” 

Step 3: Verify That Everyone’s Needs Have Been Heard

Once you’ve expressed your own needs and identified the other person’s needs, it’s helpful to check that you both understand each other correctly. We often skip this step because we incorrectly assume that when one person clearly expresses a need, the other person hears that need exactly the same way.

In practice, this process is a simple but powerful way to avoid further miscommunication down the line. After you’ve listened to someone’s needs, paraphrase those needs back to them to check your understanding; after you’ve expressed your own needs, you can ask them to do the same. 

Step 4: Provide Empathy

When people are hurting, they often can’t hear the needs and feelings of others until their own pain has been recognized and understood. The conversation can’t move forward until they get the empathy they need (but just like in any conversation, if you’re feeling too many strong emotions yourself to provide that empathy, it’s best to step away and give yourself some emergency first-aid empathy first). If you skip ahead to the solution phase, the underlying feelings and needs will linger—even if you resolve the conflict on a practical level, the relationship will suffer. 

Step 5: Propose Solutions

Remember, solutions in NVC are courses of action that meet everyone’s needs rather than asking people to compromise. Propose solutions using present language by requesting what you need at this moment in order to move forward. This keeps the conversation moving because it gives the other person the chance to either agree or refuse right in the moment. This creates an immediate feedback cycle—if they refuse, you can continue problem solving—rather than having to resume the conversation days or weeks later. 

For example, instead of saying, “I want you to come to the party with me this weekend” and then having to wait several days to see if the person follows through, you can say, “I’d like you to tell me if you’d be willing to go to the party with me this weekend.” 

It’s also helpful to use positive action language when proposing a solution (by asking for what you do want right now instead of what you don’t want) so that your request is clear and specific. However, word choice is important, as some positive action language is easy to mistake for a judgment or attack. For example, “I want you to listen when I speak” or “I want you to be responsible” feel like accusations.

To avoid this, focus your request on things that can be immediately seen or heard. Imagine your conversation is being filmed—your requests should be for things that would be picked up on camera (unlike “listening” or “being responsible,” which are abstract ideas). 

Remember, a true request is one that the person is free to say “no” to without fear of punishment. If they do refuse your request, listen for the need behind that refusal that is preventing them from saying yes, then try to propose solutions that will also meet that need. 

Example: Resolving a Decades-Old Marital Conflict

Let’s use a real-life example of a relationship conflict to illustrate this process. In one of Rosenberg’s NVC workshops, he mediated a conflict for a married couple who had been arguing about their finances for almost forty years. He began by asking the wife if she could identify her husband’s needs in this conflict. Her answers reflect common mistakes people make when identifying needs:

  • First answer: “He doesn’t want me to spend money.” Whether or not this is true, it’s a strategy, not a need, because it references a specific person doing a specific action. 
  • Second answer: “He’s just like his father.” This is an analysis, not a need. Again, even if it’s true, this statement isn’t helpful for resolving the conflict. 

At this point, Rosenberg intervened and asked the husband to express his needs directly. The husband responded with “She’s a wonderful wife, but she’s totally irresponsible with money.” That’s a diagnosis, not a statement of need. Rosenberg listened for the underlying need and took a guess by asking the man if he was afraid because he needs to provide for his family economically. His guess was correct—they’d finally identified the husband’s underlying need.

After the husband finally expressed his need clearly, Rosenberg asked the wife to repeat that need back to him. She responded, “Just because I overdrew the checking account a few times doesn’t mean it will happen again.” This is self-defense, and it’s a common response that indicates someone is in too much pain to really hear someone else’s statement of need. In this case, the wife was so hurt from years of feeling distrusted that she wasn’t open to hearing her husband’s needs until that pain was validated. Rosenberg empathized by paraphrasing her feelings and needs around the issue of money. 

A few minutes of focused empathy didn’t instantly erase forty years of hurt, but it did provide enough reassurance that the woman’s pain was being heard that she was able to finally hear what her husband was saying. In turn, she was able to express her own needs and clarify that her husband was hearing them correctly. 

Once the two spouses had fully expressed their own needs and verified that they each understood the needs of the other, coming up with solutions to the problem only took about 20 minutes. Solving a forty-year-old issue in 20 minutes sounds impossible, but it highlights just how much of a conflict isn’t about the issue itself but the needs and feelings of the people involved. 

TITLE: Nonviolent Communication
AUTHOR: Marshall B. Rosenberg
TIME: 41
READS: 105.6
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: nonviolent-communication-summary-marshall-b-rosenberg

Rekindle Lost Intimacy

It’s not uncommon for relationships to get stale over the years, both physically and emotionally. If you feel like this is what happened, don’t rush to call it quits. First, understand that it’s not realistic to expect the same level of intensity you’ve had at the beginning of your relationship. 

When you first meet someone, you don’t know them. That’s why budding relationships are so intense. You don’t know what kind of connection you have yet, so you’re working with imagination and potential⁠—ingredients for desire. You idealize the other person and focus on their positive qualities. They do the same to you, and you feel validated and transcendent. Additionally, because you don’t know each other, there are strong boundaries between the two of you. You each have a distinct sense of self that’s unmixed with the other person’s.

As you get to know each other better, either by talking to each other or observing each other, you start to establish a routine. Maybe you move in together, which brings you closer both physically and emotionally. You become familiar with each other. 

When you and your partner get so close and familiar that you’re now a fusion rather than two separate people, you no longer have anyone to connect with⁠. That’s why to rekindle the passion, you have to reintroduce distance. This can be psychological distance, for example, asking your partner to ignore you rather than immediately greet you when you get home from work. Or it can be literal⁠—one of you leaves for a while. Either way, it can be helpful to think of the distance-creation as sexual play rather than a rejection. It can also help to remember that the closeness you and partner have established gives you a strong foundation to return to.

TITLE: Mating in Captivity
AUTHOR: Esther Perel
TIME: 28
READS: 100.3
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: mating-in-captivity-summary-esther-perel

Ending a Broken Relationship

While you shouldn’t rush to end your relationship, you shouldn’t drag out a broken relationship just because you’ve already invested time and energy into it. In doing so, you forfeit the time you could be spending building a better relationship with someone else. 

When you see clear signs that your relationship is broken beyond repair, it’s time to end it. Dating coach Logan Ury (How to Not Die Alone) says that the first step to ending a broken relationship is to make a plan for what you’re going to say: Compassionately communicate that the relationship isn’t working, but don’t name specific reasons, as this will likely lead your soon-to-be ex to obsess over whatever you say. 

Second, schedule both the breakup and its immediate aftermath. Select a time to have this conversation that works for both your and their schedule. Allow yourself up to 90 minutes, but then have something else to do—like drinks with your best friend—so that you can avoid dragging out the breakup unnecessarily.

Final Words

If your relationship is in crisis, it may feel like your whole world is crashing down. You may feel afraid to lose your partner, and at the same time, feel compelled to leave because you’re unhappy. This is a tough situation, but there are steps you can take to mend a broken relationship and reclaim your love. 

If you enjoyed our article about how to fix a broken relationship, check out the following suggestions for further reading: 


What’s the key to a happy relationship? In Attached, psychiatrist Dr. Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller argue that the secret is understanding attachment styles: the different ways that people express and perceive romantic intimacy.

Codependent No More

In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie explores codependency and how it affects people’s lives. A self-help classic and the book that inspired codependency 12 Step Programs around the country, Codependent No More provides explanations, advice, and compassion for people struggling with codependency.

How to Not Die Alone
How can you find and keep a happy relationship? In How to Not Die Alone, Logan Ury—behavioral scientist, dating coach, and Director of Relationship Science at the dating app Hinge—presents a science-backed approach for finding the true love you’ve always wanted so you can do exactly what the title says.

How to Fix a Broken Relationship: Advice From Pros

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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