03/15/2012 03:33 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

Does Your 'Love Stool' Have Wobbly Legs?

Did you know that on average people who are unhappy in their romantic relationship have been so for about seven years before they seek help?[1] And let me tell you, seven years of misery and disappointment take a terrible toll on what I call the "emoplasticity" or the emotional flexibility and bandwidth of a relationship.

My guess is that right about now you are wondering why a couple would wait so long before they seek help. Well, couples often "beat themselves up" when things go wrong, making statements like, "We should be able to repair this ourselves," or "What if there is no fix for our relationship and we have to get a divorce?" I call these "motivation-busters," and they serve to halt any productive action.

How do I know when I'm in trouble relationship-wise? Paint me a picture.

Your relationship for the purposes of this illustration looks like a stool. There is the seat, which is the marriage itself, that is balanced atop and supported by, three legs. The legs of the stool are called passion, play and productivity. If anything happens to one or more of the legs, the stool begins to get wobbly, and if the legs are damaged enough they will collapse entirely and the stool will be destroyed!

Let's look at what each leg does:

  • Passion: It's about your commitment, sex, affection and the desire to simply "be" with your partner.
  • Play: Everybody has a child inside them and that part of each of us needs to play with the child in our beloved.
  • Productivity: It's the business of relationship, paying bills, talking out the garbage, etc.

Can I repair my stool if it is broken?

Possibly. If you build your stool out of good materials but your aspirations are "fuzzy" and your stool collapses, that's eminently fixable. If you build your stool out of "emotional chewing gum and bailing twine" and you are all about great aspirations (think the multi-million dollar wedding, 72-day Kardashian marriage), that's not repairable.

The "stool" model is a useful tool that you can use to check on the health of your intimate relationship. Have a frank conversation with your partner and ask, "How sturdy is our stool?" Examine the various legs together and determine which ones may or may not need work. If your stool is solid, hurrah for you! If it's a little more on the wobbly side, here are some practical dos and don'ts.

  • Don't wait for things to get worse. If you've been unhappy for more than six months, get help.
  • Do "shrink shop" if you need professional help. Remember, all therapists are not created equal!
  • Do be careful about with whom you choose to discuss your relationship difficulties. This could come back to "haunt" you. You may convince your mother and your best friend that, "he's" a lout and then decide to stay with him because you've "ironed things out" to your satisfaction. Your confidants may not agree with you, and may be quite vocal in their objections to your decision.
  • Don't complain to your partner's parents about him or her. This will not resolve anything and it will hurt your relationship on multiple levels.
  • Do be careful about heeding advice from friends and family because there is some pretty terrible "folksy" relationship remedies out there.
  • Do not talk to your children about problems in your relationship, no matter what their age. Your children are not your confidants.
  • Do not stay in violent relationships. Remember, violence + jealousy + verbal abuse do not under any circumstances = love.
  • Do not stay in a relationship for "the sake of the children." Even though you don't tell them you are doing so, the children will know. Believe me, kids tell me about this all the time. And believe this too, your children will not thank you for it, because guess where they learn their intimacy skills from...
  • Do find a way to talk to each other from half an hour to one hour every day. Put the kids to bed, or if they are old enough tell them to amuse themselves and not bother you unless something catastrophic happens like a flood, an invasion of locusts or a toaster fire. The latter is a complex story involving tubs of margarine shoved into toasting slots meant for bagels which I will save for another article. Anyway, I can't emphasize the importance of this enough, talking = intimacy. At first you'll probably discuss mundane things like your child's hamster's health or the "obnoxious guy" at work. After that, there will likely be some painful silence and then you'll start to talk about important stuff. Things like, are you happy? If not, what makes you unhappy? Do you remember when we fell in love? Do you remember why we fell in love? And so forth.
  • Do, when you have your conversational time together, remember to turn off the TV, your cell phone, your iPad, your email, your Twitter feed and your Facebook page, etc. You can always TiVo or DVR the show you are missing, but you can't record your relationship for viewing later.
  • Do use "fair fighting" rules when you disagree. No name calling, no hitting, no throwing objects, no character assassination and only one topic at a time, please.
  • Do use "times out" when discussions begin to escalate. If you allow things to spiral "out of control," nothing good will come of it. Remember, you can return to whatever you are discussing when things are calmer.
  • Do go on weekly dates. You don't have to spend a lot of money, just a little "quality time."
  • Do know that marriage is like an ocean, "The love tide comes in and the love tide goes out." If however, your tide is mostly out, go back and review the first two "dos and don'ts."

For more by Margaret Cochran, Ph.D., click here.

For more on relationships, click here.


[1] Karney and Bradbury, "The Longitudinal Course of Marital Quality and Stability:
A Review of Theory, Method, and Research." Psychological Bulletin 1995, Vol. 118, No. 1,3-34