Couple_painting

8 indicators and antidotes for a troubled relationship

While the idea of the perfect, untroubled relationship is something that many of us cling to, in reality they just don’t exist. Statistics continue to show that first marriages end in divorce around 50 per cent of the time and that relationship woes are high on our list of stressors. Relationship counsellors suggest that our unrealistic expectations are one of the leading reasons our relationships aren’t lasting. Too often it would seem we let disappointment and frustration dictate how much effort we are willing to put into our relationships and instead of fighting for love we simply let it go.

With effort and clarity though, you can make your relationships the best they can be: satisfying, loving, supportive and safe. You need to keep in mind that all relationships will have periods of difficulty as you change and grow as an individual and as your circumstances change. You just need to be aware and active so that you address these issues before fatal damage has been done. You need to protect the love and respect you began your relationships with: honouring the memories and feelings you once had and can have again.

It is easy in hindsight to see what went wrong and to recognise the slow decline of what was once a loving partnership. Hindsight though is too late if you want to salvage what you had. In order to mend things before they get out of hand you need to recognise when your relationship is sliding into a bad place, work out why it has happened and then take steps toward re-establishing a loving state.

 

Seeing the signs

So how do you diagnose a troubled relationship and how do you take steps to heal it before it’s too late? Most researchers agree that while all couples will have difficult periods during the course of their relationships there are a number of symptoms that signify deeper trouble, trouble that can destroy a relationship if not addressed quickly. These symptoms include withdrawal and avoidance, escalating conflict, negativity, lack of intimacy, criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and unresponsiveness.

While any of these behaviours are destructive to your relationship, if a number of them exist within a partnership it can be difficult for love to survive without commitment by both parties to the healing process. The first step then is recognising that these behaviours exist and that they signify deeper issues.

Withdrawal and avoidance: these two behaviours are linked and can be as subtle as your partner continuing an activity like watching TV when you’re trying to talk to them about an important issue, to staying at work late or spending more and more time doing solitary activities or activities with others. Your partner may point blank refuse to talk about issues, put talks off, or have other things they need to do. Withdrawal and avoidance can be both physical and emotional, generating anger, frustration and fear. These actions also leave one partner isolated and helpless fuelling insecurity.

Escalating conflict: relationship counsellors know that couples generally argue about the same issues over and over again. However it is not so much the topic of the fight that can cause irreparable damage but the way the fight is conducted. Violence is never acceptable, but even verbal abuse in the form of insults can be lethal to love. When you are angry you can too easily say things that threaten the very lifeblood of your relationships and when you use your intimate knowledge of your partner as a weapon, the threat to your relationship is increased and trust can be irrevocably breached.

Negativity: constant negativity about your partner and/or your relationship can make it impossible for a couple to stay together. Approaching each other with constant negativity only feeds feelings of frustration and hopelessness. Negativity is a slippery slope with research showing that you tend to see what you expect to see in others and in situations. Called “confirmation bias”, you look for evidence that confirms what you already think is true about a person or a situation. In troubled relationships, partners can refuse to see the positive aspects of their lives together only focusing on what is wrong with it.

Lack of intimacy: intimacy is not just about sex. Intimacy is also about sharing your thoughts and feelings with your partner. If you are the last person to know what your partner is doing, if you no longer spend time together doing things you both enjoy, and touch has gone out of your day, then an issue exists that needs to be addressed. A lack of intimacy can be difficult to breach once the gap has widened to the point where touch has gone from being an easy habit to something you avoid.

Criticism: When couples criticise each other it is a major step toward the end of a romance. Criticism is a personal attack that belittles the other person, slowly but surely wearing away their self-esteem and their love and affection. This is because the opinion of your partner is usually the most important of all. Love is about the unconditional acceptance each partner feels from the other. Criticism is the antithesis of this love.

Defensiveness: This happens when one of you feels under attack. Defending ourselves is a natural human response but it can go too far when you or your partner won’t accept responsibility for a problem. Continued defensiveness is destructive because it infers blame onto one partner for all that is wrong, it makes conversation and resolution impossible and can lead to an escalation of conflict.

Contempt: Contempt is the most destructive force in a relationship. It suggests that your partner is not as good as you in some way. You see contempt in body language, facial expressions and particular speech patterns including sarcasm and cynicism. It can take the form of name calling, and ‘humour’ that belittles or mocks. Contempt makes it difficult to have a productive discussion with your partner because you have already dismissed them as unworthy.

Unresponsiveness: this occurs physically and emotionally. Your partner may refuse to engage in conversation, they may be monosyllabic, withdraw from the room when you’re in it, ignore you or refuse to respond to your touch. This is another frustrating act that can brew anger and dislike, ultimately destroying any sense of affection and trust you had. When you ignore your partner you make them powerless it is a cruel act that can wound deeply.

The behaviours discussed above are ways in which deep rooted problems manifest themselves, they are not the problem themselves but the signs that tell us that something is terribly wrong. You cannot afford to simply address the symptoms without also curing the illness. In order to do this you need to think and talk.

Most of the issues raised above can go a long way toward resolution with effective, positive communication, but it is by no means an easy cure. In order to have a meaningful conversation you first have to be clear on what the issue is and what you want to do about it. It requires each party to take responsibility for the relationship, to be clear about their needs and wants and to try to recapture what it was that drew you together in the first place.

 

Finding clarity

We all love in different ways and this can be at the heart of many relationship difficulties when you don’t effectively communicate your needs. In order to have the kind of relationship you want you must work out what it is you need to feel loved and secure. It may be that simple gestures like a hug and kiss each morning before work, your partner asking about your day, or snuggling on the couch make you feel loved. For someone else financial security, solid planning for the future or regular “I love you”s might do the trick.

Whether words or actions define your love style you must communicate it to your partner. If you rely on them to work it out for themselves they will naturally fall back on what they understand about love, which may not work as well for you. Once you know what it is that will make you feel loved and secure you need to find out about your partner’s needs. Awareness of each other’s love style can go a long way toward heading off frustration and dissatisfaction.

It is also important to understand that you cannot rely on someone else to make you happy. It is fine to have certain expectations from your relationships but you are responsible for your own happiness in the end. It is important then, to take responsibility for the way your relationships play out and to be able to differentiate between an issue that is yours and an issue that is a relationship one. You cannot afford to misinterpret your feelings.

It is also crucial that you maintain a sense of perspective, a bad time does not need to define your relationship. Indeed, research shows that couples who can access happy memories even during conflict are happier in the long run and more likely to stay together. So think carefully about the path your relationship has taken to try to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong.

Once you can define what is at the heart of your relationship decline you need to be ready to take the next step. Remember that human beings aren’t always good at communication so it is important to be very clear about why you think the relationship is in trouble, make a time-line if it helps, but keep your focus on owning your feelings, leaving blame at the door. A happy relationship requires two active participants who are willing to take responsibility for their words and actions.

 

Communication

Effective communication is the best preventative of trouble for couples. This doesn’t mean always coming to a solution. Marital research shows that about 80 per cent of problems don’t even have to be solved when couples talk through issues; it’s simply about coming to a mutual understanding. Certainly any ongoing issues – those that keep cropping up – will require some kind of agreement, but it is important to approach difficult conversations in the correct way.

One of the most important things to do is approach communication with a positive attitude. If you go into a conversation angry, upset or negative, the conversation will inevitably be unproductive. Therefore it’s probably best to save these difficult issues for a time when you and your partner are relaxed and you’ve both had time to think about what you would like to say and when you can offer reasonable solutions to the problem.

Asking questions of each other is a good idea. This helps you both to clarify what the issue is, how each of you feel, and what your proposed solutions are. From there you may find you are both actually on the same track or that a compromise is within reach.

Most important is listening. You need to actively listen to your partner, repeat what they’ve said if you need to clarify a point. Make sure they can see that you are serious about hearing them out. If things get heated, use a time-out. You need to maintain control and anger will only allow the conversation to drift into accusations and name calling. These kinds of conversations are ultimately going to be emotional and you must respect each other’s right to feel. If you don’t understand why your partner is so upset try to draw them out to get to the heart of the matter as it may be that there are other issues involved that aren’t apparent.

Finally, try brainstorming together about the problem. The more solutions you have to a problem the more likely you are to find one that suits both of you. Problem solving needs to be a team effort. It doesn’t just rely on one person caving in.

Along with good communication comes behaviour change, after all actions do speak louder than words. Changing negative behaviours that have become habit will require conscious effort but it can be done.

 

Antidotes for ailing relationships

Antidote to Criticism – Complaining

Personal criticism is very destructive to any kind of relationship and we too often confuse criticism with complaining, yet the two are vastly different. Complaining is impersonal, criticism is not. When you criticise someone you usually use blanket statements that include value judgments about your partner. We use words like ‘always’ and we name call using terms like selfish, thoughtless, stupid.

Complaints on the other hand target specific issues leaving the other person’s ego intact. They put the focus on the complainant’s feelings – you did this and it made me feel like that. Usually an apology is enough to allow both parties to move on.

Antidote to Defensiveness – Take Responsibility

When you’re defensive in an argument you are really saying, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you”.  It is important to understand that defensiveness stems from fear and is usually related to low self-esteem. Being defensive is destructive to your relationships because it doesn’t allow you to repair the damage, compromise or find a solution. Often, the things you are defensive about are the things you know you are guilty of, behaviours you might not like in yourself. However being defensive doesn’t allow your partner a chance to have a voice and in the end it will push them away.

When you defend, rationalize and minimize your mistakes you simply reinforce them to your partners. Instead of being defensive you have to take responsibility for your actions. Again, listen to your partner and if there is truth in their complaint acknowledge it and own it.

Antidote to Contempt – Love

As mentioned before, contempt is the antithesis of love so the antidote to contempt is love. Positive reinforcement, praise, loving gestures and a sense of pride can repair the damage that contempt can do.

Offering your partner support, acknowledging the effort they make, rejoicing in their successes and sharing their triumphs with others are all ways to show love and pride in your partner. Remember the things that drew you to them in the first place and give minimal attention to the things they do that annoy you. We all have bad habits but that doesn’t define our worthiness for love.

Antidote to withdrawal, avoidance and unresponsiveness – Turn into the relationship

All of these behaviours are about burying your head in the sand so as not to have to deal with your relationship problems. It is about hoping that if you hold your partner off for long enough the problem will somehow resolve itself. Unfortunately the ostrich strategy rarely works.  So instead of ignoring your problems confront them head on. Not as easy as it sounds, but letting issues fester will only lead your relationship to doom.

Here again is where effective communication will help you. Make a time to talk, make sure you’re comfortable – maybe you’d be happier talking while going for a drive, or on neutral ground like a park or restaurant, over a glass of wine (make sure you don’t drink too much) or over a nice dinner. Remain calm and be open to what is being said. Practicing mindfulness techniques can help. If you allow the words to be heard but not to touch you, you’ll have a better chance of responding to what is happening rather than reacting or over-reacting to them.

Antidote to lack of intimacy – touch

While intimacy isn’t all about sex, sexually happy couples have an ability to enjoy close physical relations, without it always leading to sex. Physical affection is different and separate to sex and this is important. Studies have shown that most successful couples make physical contact with each other in brief, non-sexual ways far more often: things such as holding hands, touching during conversation or in passing, and sitting close together make a difference to happiness and improve feelings of love and loving. While sex can be a hot coal in a relationship, which may require formal therapy, increased intimacy on a variety of levels can improve your sex life. Sharing stories and non-sexual but loving touch can lead to better sex and a more loving, secure relationship.

Antidote to escalating conflict – fight fair

Everyone argues, fights, quarrels or disagrees. Whether it’s parents, siblings, friends or colleagues, it is human nature to disagree at some time or other. In order to keep arguments from escalating you need to learn to fight fair. The heat of the moment can initiate abuse, so self-control is an absolute necessity. If you feel yourself losing it, you need to step away immediately.

When an argument is inevitable it is important to keep to a few rules. The first is to keep away from name calling and sarcasm, if you don’t manage it, apologize immediately and start over. Next, stay on subject, don’t begin the fight on one topic and then bring in past events to support your point. In order to find solutions you need to make sure you keep to the topic and think through what it is you need to make things better.

Signal your partner about what you want to talk about and make sure it’s a good time. If not schedule a time when you can both be ready. Make sure you take turns speaking and listen carefully to what your partner says. Again, clarify if necessary and keep your tone of voice quiet and controlled. Make sure your body language is non-threatening and relaxed and set the scene so that you won’t be disturbed or overheard.

 

Relationship maintenance

Once your relationship is back on track you need to keep it there. Relationships, even happy ones, need work. You cannot afford to become complacent about our responsibilities to ourselves and our partners or our relationships will return to decline. Awareness of each other is crucial to keeping love safe, you need to grow together, respect difference, remember that you may sometimes have to agree to disagree and you must always treat each other with respect.

A relationship in decline is often salvageable, and if you can establish that you both still have the same values and you are both committed to being together, love can be reinvigorated. Acceptance of the changes that life brings, small loving gestures, support and openness will all assist in maintaining a loving life. Laziness and complacency are not conducive to a lasting relationship.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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