How to end your relationship deadlock today

is this what your family photo looks like?

It’s been too long.

The distance, the conflict, the ambiguity, the unspoken feelings. Maybe you’re good at avoiding the issues, or maybe they are, but it’s right there. You can almost smell the proverbial elephant in the room when you’re with them. Or maybe you avoid the smell entirely by staying out of contact.

Is this how the relationship is going to be, forever?

I don’t think it has to be. You’re both in the relationship and so you each have a degree of control over the quality of the relationship. And even as you read those words, you wonder what you could possibly do differently. It feels out of your control, doesn’t it? You, my friend, are probably in a relationship deadlock.

Wikipedia currently defines a deadlock as “a situation in which two or more competing actions are waiting for the other to finish, and thus neither ever does.” The examples are from computer science and technology – transactional databases, operating systems – but they happen all the time in human relationships. We experience trouble in a relationship, and even though we’re taking steps to make “progress”, we’re really wishing the other person would behave differently. It doesn’t happen. You are stuck – but you don’t have to be. Here’s four steps to resolve your relationship deadlock:

Reality Check

You’re not really changing them. Your efforts to modify their behavior – be it by reminding, cajoling, bribing, rewarding, manipulating – haven’t worked. They are very likely not going to work, else they already would have. If they do work, they probably won’t work for very long.

This isn’t because you haven’t tried, nor is it because you’re failing at something. It is because we are each humans, and humans are very highly resistant to change, even when self-initiated. Billions of dollars are spent each year by people seeking to change things about themselves: their appearance, their personality, their behavior, their knowledge. Much of it is unsuccessful even when the person very much wants it to happen. Given that, you are extremely unlikely to change their behavior

Hope and Plan

Some will read the previous point and be sad. “I can’t believe they won’t change – I’ve got to hope for the best.” “Love hopes all things!” Indeed, it does. You care about this person and want the best for them.

Planning does not mean giving up hope. It means planning for today’s reality, while leaving room for change.

Suppose I have an uncle who I care about deeply, but is repeatedly disrespectful towards my child. I keep asking him to stop. Maybe I threaten him. I manipulate engage him in activity to distract him. Or I could avoid spending time with him. Do any of these sound familiar?

All of these are failed strategies to change the uncle’s behavior. I care for my uncle. But I am delusional if think I can change his behavior. Instead, I can hope that he awakens to his behavior someday but I must plan that he stays the same. This is simple algebra: I need to hold some part of this equation constant (his behavior) in order to solve for ‘x’ – the choices I make. If I make his behavior the “constant”, I am much less likely to attempt to change it.

This can be the hardest step of the process emotionally, because there is often a sense of loss and even grief when you stop trying to make the other person behave a certain way. This emotion should not be underestimated or ignored – it is real loss of an idealized person. Working with another person who is not entrenched in the relationship can often help you identify and process these emotions.


So, you’ve stopped your futile attempts to change. You hope for the other’s best, but you plan given the data you have today.  Once you’ve made your choice, it is time to communicate your plan. Start by apologizing for the hurtful manipulation you’ve engaged in, and share your new plan. “I’m sorry for trying to manipulate you. I accept that you’ve chosen to act this way, and I’m not going to try to change that. Instead, I’m going to…”.  Write down your plan somewhere so you can remember it. Then enact your plan consistently for a sustained period of time.

It is possible that their behavior will change. Their change may even correlate with your sharing this plan. However, your communication is not manipulation – it is simply information sharing regarding your new plan, and the changes you are making.


Plans change. After you’ve enacted your plan for weeks or months, you may decide that you want something different, though they remain the same. Or, you find they have changed significantly, and you’d like to make a new plan based on new data. Either way, it is absolutely acceptable to re-solve your “equation” and enact a new plan. I suggest using a calendar to schedule periodic assessments of your plan; you are leaving the door open in case change occurs.


We often settle into patterns of relating with others that are frustrating and unfulfilling. We assume the other will or must act differently in order for things to get better. But in doing so, we give up the immense power we have to make real change, and hope in the wrong things.

Could today be the day to end your relationship deadlock?

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