How do you know if a relationship, that has some problems of conflict, can change for better? Kenny Rogers speaks to this dilemma, with his song lyric, “Ya gotta know when to hold, when to fold and when to walk away.”


dogs-playing-poker-11The poker analogy is a good one for relationships. For instance, folding your cards just means that you’ve given up hoping to win that hand. Folding in an argument with a partner means that you cease hoping to win in that moment. You may still play other hands. You just stop trying to win that hand. The walk-away is surrendering to the idea that you have either run out of resources to continue, or you just don’t believe it’s productive. Could be you ran out of money, or were just weary of the play. Or, maybe the other players made up rules along the way.



  1. Stay in a frustrating relationship and keep trying?       The hold.
  2. Do you temporarily give up, to keep playing later?      The fold.
  3. Or, do you stop playing altogether?                               The walk-away.


Some people struggle with tolerance, patience, and difficult setbacks in their relationship until there is an outcome of growth and satisfaction. This would be a victory of faith and hope! To stay in a challenging relationship does call for some mutual growth. If it’s not both people growing, then it has to be only one person giving up more and more of his or her reasonable entitlement of respect from the other. It’s not unusual for one person to lead the way by beginning to change. The other may learn skills through modeling. The hold and the fold have rewards and some risks also. The trick is how accurately gauging whether there is mutual effort and growth. Is there real hope for a situation changing; or is this a toxic hope that is foolish to invest in more time?


Still others won’t or can’t give up on trying to make a relationship work; despite risks to mental, emotional, or physical health. Some principles of discerning real hope from toxic hope can be helpful in making such decisions.


Others will walk away from a marriage or relationship at the first bad experiences of disrespect, problem drinking, or infidelity. There are good arguments to support leaving at the first sign of major problems. There are also good reasons for trying to work through difficulties. To listen, speak, and act from their gut about noticing a lack of respect in the relationship may be just what is needed for one partner to realize that there are limits. More importantly though, is that the partner who realizes that he or she has reached a limit makes decisions for self-respect and self-nurturing. It’s helpful to know how to express these feelings of disrespect in a way that can be heard and accepted by a partner.


The poker analogy is true also in this way. The calculation for staying in a poker game begins with a few factors. Can you risk staying in and do you have the resources to stay in? Do you have money and energy? And, are the other players playing by the rules? Does it seem like the rules are applied differently to different players?


In the important realm of relationships there are a few rules I’ve developed that indicate minimum levels of respect, self-control and dignity. Couples are asked to make some agreements out loud with each other.


One agreement is to set up mutually agreed guidelines for ‘how to talk with each other’ in a difficult conversation that has conflict and misunderstanding. This is the Listening Exchange agreement. One partner gets one minute to be a speaker and express thoughts and feelings. The other person reflects what was said, without adding any their own thoughts and feelings. A reflection is repeating back or paraphrasing what the listener heard. The first person continues for more one-minute rounds of being a speaker. Each one-minute expression is reflected by the listener until the speaker is satisfied that he or she has been heard. Then the listener becomes the speaker. If someone cannot keep their agreement to not interrupt and not to communicate their judgment or point of view while being the listener, then that person is in violation of the agreement made. That person is ‘out of their own control.’


Another agreement is allowing the partner to leave the room and conversation at any time, without being interfered with; so long as that person returns to the conversation within an hour. This is the Time Out Agreement. When one partner cannot allow the partner to leave a heated conversation because it is felt to be unproductive or even unsafe; that partner is failing to honor the agreement to allow the other to leave and is ‘out of their own control.’


There is an Integrity Agreement each partner makes out loud to each other.


“If I cannot reasonably follow my agreements then I am out of my own control. If this happens then I want to see myself seeking further help to address my problem of being out of control. This may be an appointment with a counselor, a psychiatrist, or an anger management group. Or, I will attend the appropriate self-help groups for the problem I may have.”


Is there real hope for this problem to get better, or am I in toxic hope? Two important factors regarding real hope are a) willingness and b) execution. There’s a big difference between knowing it’s time to leave the table and doing it. As for relationships, when there is a set of agreed ways of handling conflict, there is more chance of success and mutual growth.


Real Hope means there is a sustained change happening that can be seen or felt. When both partners are held to the same rules by clear and specific mutual agreements, then the results will be self-evident. Even, if only to one partner. Integrity means saying what you mean and doing what you say. If you say you’ll stop interrupting or that you will let the other leave a room under prescribed circumstances; and you cannot do this, then you are out of your own control and need help.


The hard part is seeing one’s own powerlessness, and becoming willing to act on it.


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