Person running on a treadmill

Running in Place: 5 Strategies for When Your Relationship Is Stuck

In the basement of our house sits a treadmill.  It is a great treadmill.  I’ve had it for many years, and it’s lasted through the years as well as several moves.  I haven’t used it so much in the last year.

I’ve started much more walking outside.  I like the outdoors, but there is another factor.

Sometimes, I found myself frustrated with the fact that, when I used the treadmill, I always was running—or walking—in place.  I never moved anywhere.

Of course, it’s silly to expect a treadmill to move anywhere. Treadmills just don’t move, or at least, you kind of hope they don’t, since if they do, it most likely will be to tip over and crash to the floor.

Whereas treadmills are not supposed to move, relationships are.  They have to.

My triangular theory of love, specifying the three components of love as intimacy, passion, and commitment, explains why relationships are generally dynamic and changing rather than static and stationary.

But sometimes, you find yourself in a relationship in which you feel like you are on a treadmill.  You are running, but you aren’t getting anywhere. You’re stuck running in place!

Relationships can get stuck for different reasons.

Intentional stickiness

On the part of one partner

Sometimes, one partner wants to move forward and the other doesn’t.  For one partner, maybe, it’s only the beginning; for the other, it’s the end of the line—you as a couple have gotten to where they are willing to go.

These relationships sometimes keep going for a while, as the more involved partner keeps hoping that the less involved partner will join them, but eventually, the more involved partner may realize that they have reached the end of the line—at least as far as the other partner’s involvement in the relationship is concerned.

If you are the partner who wants to move forward, then you have to decide whether you can live with where you are, or whether you need to move on.

What can keep such a relationship going longer than is perhaps natural is a reward system called intermittent reinforcement. 

This kind of reward system involves a mix of positive rewards with no rewards—the kind people get in gambling—and if the reward schedule is fine-tuned, someone may keep trying, always thinking that the gambling will pay off if one tries just a little longer. In gambling, of course, one eventually loses all one's money if one goes on long enough.

If the less involved partner is happy with the relationship and does not want to lose the more involved partner, they may seem to hold out just enough hope for the more involved partner so that the more involved partner keeps trying.

Every so often, that more involved partner gets a carrot—enough of a reward to keep trying.  But eventually, the carrots run out, or begin to look too predictable, and the more involved partner may stop trying.

On the part of both partners. 

Sometimes both partners decide that there are limits to where they can go.  They may believe it is too early to commit or they may have other commitments—for example, they are married to other people—and so the relationship reaches a point where there is nowhere to go.  The partners may decide just to stay friends, for example.

This might work as long as they both keep the same kind and level of desire.  If not, they might end up in the position described above, where one is satisfied and the other, not.

Or they may find that being “just friends” is too frustrating and decide that, in their case, nothing actually might be better than something.

Unintentional stickiness

Unintentional stickiness occurs when a situation beyond either partner’s control arises.

For example, one partner becomes ill and feels there just is no future anymore, perhaps for the relationship but maybe also for them.  They may wish to free the partner to find someone else who is not sick and who will not be a burden.  The problem with that decision is that only one person made what should have been a joint decision.

Unintentional stickiness also can arise as a result of lack of resources.  A couple wants to get married or to move forward in their relationship, but they feel that they lack the financial or other resources to cope with a greater level of commitment.  Again, it is best if such decisions are mutual, but they sometimes aren’t.

Unintentional stickiness may result from catastrophes.  You are having a great relationship with someone who lives in another state and COVID-19 strikes.  They can’t get to you; you can’t get to them.  And the relationship over the Internet just isn’t what it was in person.  You are stuck.

What To Do If You Are Stuck 

You do have options. Here are five:

1. Does it matter?

Remember the saying, “Mind over matter means that if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”?  This saying can apply to sticky relationships.  You may be stationary in one place, but do you mind?  If you don’t, it doesn’t matter.  And if you do mind, can you reframe the relationship so that you mind no longer?

2. Enjoy the view.

Sometimes you can just contemplate a great view without having to keep moving. Have you ever looked at a painting you really loved?  Or have you listened to a concert that really moved you?  You don’t always have to be moving.  Maybe you actually can enjoy where you are.

3. Move laterally.

Karin, the triplets, and I took a hike into a forest the other day.  We reached the end of the path, which was a river that was facing us horizontally.  I sat down on a rock to enjoy the view. The rest of the family started walking along the riverbank.

I asked Karin what they were doing.  But I knew.  They were walking laterally.  We could not go any further into the forest, but we could walk horizontally—at 90 degrees to our prior direction.  It was still a great hike, just not further into the forest.

4. Be patient--break through.

We all get stuck sometimes.  It happened to me recently when I was going to an allergist appointment.  There was construction and I got stuck in what seemed like an eternal line of cars.  But I eventually did get through the halted line.

Sometimes things seem to stop for a while, and then, unexpectedly or expectedly, they start moving again.

5. Call it quits.

And then, you just can decide that you are too frustrated and can’t deal with being where you, wherever that happens to be.  That’s understandable.

But you might want to try one or more of the above four strategies first. They can work. And they might work for you!


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2 thoughts on “Running in Place: 5 Strategies for When Your Relationship Is Stuck”

    1. Merci beaucoup, je suis content que l’article vous ait plu.
      Thanks so much — I’m so glad you liked the article!

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