When you’re unhappy in love, it’s often hard to know if you are being too picky, too “sensitive” or just wrong in your assessment of the situation.

You wonder what “counts” as being a legitimate reason for you to fall out of love or feel distant from your partner. Should you break up if your partner cheats on you, hits you, lies to you? Just how do you know how to set limits, draw the line and pick your battles?

I wish I could give you absolute rules. Every relationship is different. Just think about all the couples you know—and how they make you think thoughts such as: How can be married to her?

In this first part of a two-part series I provide some general guidelines. In part two I will talk about your most common situations. Please send me your comments and stories. They will help others.

General Guidelines

1. Begin with an assessment of your feelings. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest, how hurt are you really? Usually, the need to set limits originates from feelings of hurt, disappointment and doubt about how your partner feels about you—and how you feel about your partner.

For example, Veronica got steamed every time Justin slurped his soup and displayed bad table manners in public by doing things such as eating before others had their meal. She made fun of him and tried to joke when he made a mess at the table. When they returned home, he would holler at her for embarrassing him in public.

Veronica realized that she hated that people would judge her choice of Justin. She also realized that handling the situation in the same way was not working.

Instead, she sat down with Justin and asked him: What do I do that really bothers you? If you tell me, I promise not to get angry. But I want the chance of telling you what I don’t like.

They then chose which things to fix together—and which things to let go. They also developed a signaling system where Veronica would tap Justin under the table to let him know that he had food on his face or that he had to pay attention to his table manners. They also talked about Justin leaving his clothes all over the house. Veronica learned why Justin did that: to rebel against his controlling mother.

2. Assess your mood and situation at the moment. Are you feeling more aggravated or upset than usual? Did you have a bad day at work or get bad news about your health or a loved one? Take a break, take a breath. Ask yourself if the aggravation is worth discussing now. Can it wait? Can you skip it entirely?

On the night that Steven learned he didn’t get the job promotion, he verbally criticized his wife Sally for not taking the time to prepare a good meal. They both worked long hours, and Sally was always the designated cook. She felt too tired to make a fancy meal—and she secretly resented that Steven didn’t help.

After screaming at each other, Steve finally walked outside. When he returned about 45 minutes later, he told her about not getting the promotion. The situation made them realize that they had to solve meal time issues. They bought a crockpot and they both did the prep work together.

3. Take charge of your reactivity. How able are you to control your ability not to let the situation escalate? You might feel like throwing a pan at your partner or calling him or her bad names, but don’t. Always act in a way that makes you proud of you—and that mimics how you would like to be treated by your partner.

Steve and Sally vowed to become more aware of their moods and reactivity. They also developed a signal system where one of them would lower his or her hand to signal to calm down.

4. Don’t play history. There’s no point in rehashing the past by reviewing You said/I said. As I’ve mentioned many times before, skip the replay and play it forward instead to work toward a solution.

Veronica and Justin agreed to work immediately on a solution. They bought a small magnet of the sun and put it on their refrigerator as a reminder to stay positive. Next to it they also put an elephant magnet to remind them to speak up about things that bother them.

They solved their problem of Justin leaving his clothes around by buying a larger hamper and more shelving. They agreed that if his clothes were in the main house, she would collect them and leave them on the stairs for him to take upstairs.

5. Develop understanding and some tolerance for quirks. We all have quirks. Unfortunately, most of our quirks are about things that really bother otthers—such as being late, messy, too neat or too absorbed in activities that get in the way of the relationship for too much and for too long.

Why do these quirks bother you? Often, a dip in your love feelings for your partner originates from not feeling respected or included, and not seeing your partner as desirable. Common quirks are leaving socks or wet towels on the floor, not cleaning up the dishes, not filling the gas tank, spending money for unnecessary things or not paying bills on time.

The best way to handle them is to problem-solve together—and to let go of some things. For example, does it really matter if your partner likes to wear certain clothes?

Veronica accepted—and came to respect—that Justin wore his jeans and tee shirts and wasn’t swayed by fashion trends. “I actually liked that he was his own person. I needed to borrow some of that.”

6. Become a teammate and not a nag or martyr. It takes time for new behavior to set in. Be kind in reminding your partner to stay on track with your new decisions. Ask for assistance rather than complain in silence—or yell, criticize or lose that loving feeling. Don’t become a martyr. Martyrdom is both a selfish and self-punishing place to be. You get to hold onto to your anger and emotional distance and distaste for your partner while you punish yourself for not facing your issues by taking on too much. Ouch!

Steve learned to speak up more whenever something bothered him. He and Sally also planned ahead to spend time together on certain nights—and time apart if one person wanted to watch another television show or spend time with family. “It wasn’t ‘even-Steven,’” he joked. Over time, they developed a rhythm of time together and time apart. And when one of them felt left out or not helped, each spoke up—and developed a solution together, of course.

7. On the other hand, don’t be overly understanding about serious transgressions. Fear of your partner is a sign that you might be in a harmful and abusive relationship. If you have been abused or if you fear your partner, then get a safety plan immediately. Go to your local women’s center, pastor, hospital or counseling center and ask for assistance. Abuse includes physical, emotional, verbal and financial mistreatment. Cheating and lying about money can also be deal-breakers.

But how do you know when to give second chances? Oh, I wish there was a rule book, but here are some decisions that came from the women in my study.

  1. If my partner cheats on me, then the relationship is over. Or: If my partner cheats on me, then I will work with him or her on the relationship with a therapist for at least six months to save the relationship and learn my role in the problem. If cheating happens again, then I’m out.
  2. If my partner hits me or harms me or the children in any way, I’m out.
  3. If my partner has a substance abuse problem, then I will first work with him or her to get sober, get into a program, and to work with a therapist together for at least 6-9 months. I will allow for one or none relapses.
  4. If my partner used my money without my knowledge, then I’m out.

Hope these tips help you.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, MA, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie-a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. You can follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.