After decades of being a therapist and lover of self-help books, I've come to realize that red flags usually appear fairly early on in a relationship that can signal eventual disaster if they're not dealt with. For instance, most couples report that their relationship problems didn't surface suddenly but are the result of buried resentment that can fester for years.
Likewise, when a couple splits, most state that their problems were never processed or resolved in a healthy way. As a result, they felt criticized or put down by their partner and say that they argue about the same things over and over (and over) again. In many cases, couples become detached and eventually lose fondness, admiration, and love for one another over time.
Sweeping issues under the rug only works for so long – when couples have deep-seated resentment it can be a challenge to forgive and forget. A healthy, intimate relationship is built on trust and vulnerability which involves sharing your innermost feelings, thoughts, and wishes. It's important to remember that all couples have perpetual problems and can develop tools to deal with them.
Let's look at Katie and Brett, a couple in their mid-thirties who came to my office ready to throw in the towel because their arguments had escalated recently. Brett reported, "Katie and I fight about everything from who is taking out the trash to money problems — a lot of issues are thrown into the kitchen sink when we argue. I just can't seem to please her." To this Katie responded, "Yeah, and his way of dealing with things is to go out with his friends and to come home late, so I end of feeling alone and hurt."
Unfortunately, the common theme in Katie and Brett's remarks is focusing on their mutual resentment rather than ways they can repair the relationship. According to author Claire Hatch, LCSW, "If you're bottling up feelings of sadness or anger, you end up suppressing your feelings. You'll find yourself feeling less joy and love, as well." In other words, if you can't talk about the hard things, you'll also feel less warmth and affection; and over time less fondness and admiration for your partner.
9 Warning Signs that your marriage or relationship is in trouble:
1. You argue about the same things over and over (and over) again and never seem to clear the air. You both feel like you're the loser and that you often have to defend your position.
2. You feel criticized and put down by your partner frequently and this leaves you feeling less than "good enough." According to renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, criticism is one of the main reasons why marriages collapse.
3. You have difficulty being vulnerable with your significant other and when you do your worst fears are actualized — you're left regretting that you revealed your feelings and desires.
4. One or both of you put your children or others first. Therapist and author Andrew G. Marshall writes, "If you put your children first, day in and day out, you will exhaust your marriage." He posits that many parents fall into the trap of putting their children first and the outcome is resentful, alienated parents and demanding, insecure children.
5. You don't enjoy each other's friends or families so you begin socializing away from one another. This may start out as an occasional weeknight out. But if not nipped in the bud, it can spill over into weekends — ideally when couples have an opportunity to spend more time together.
6. You have ghosts from past relationships that surface because they were not dealt with. You may overreact to fairly innocent things your partner says or does because it triggers a memory from a past relationship.
7. Your needs for sexual intimacy are vastly different and/or you rarely have sex. Relationship expert Cathy Meyer writes, "Whether it is him or you that has lost interest, a lack of regular intimacy in a marriage is a bad sign. Sex is the glue that binds, it is the way us adults play and enjoy each other."
8. You and your partner have fallen into a pursuer — distancer pattern — one of the main causes of divorce. Over time, it erodes the love and trust between you because you'll lack the emotional and sexual intimacy that comes from being in harmony with each other.
9. When you disagree, you seldom resolve your differences. You fall into the trap of blaming each other and fail to compromise or apologize. As a result, you experience less warmth and closeness.
What are the best ways to break the negative pattern of relating that can lead to the demise of your relationship? First of all, it's important to become conscious of your expectations. Dr. Brené Brown writes, "The fastest way for an expectation to morph into shame or resentment is for it to go unnoticed." Dr. Brown also recommends that we drop or prerequisites for feeling worthy based on conditions — such as having our partner's approval or a perfect relationship.
4 things to try before giving up on your relationship:
1. Stop criticizing your partner. According to Dr. John Gottman, talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner. For instance, a complaint is: "I'm upset because you didn't tell me about the phone call from your ex. We agreed to be open with each other." Versus a criticism: "You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?"
2. Practice resolving conflicts as they arise. Don't put aside resentments that can destroy your relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Take responsibility for your part in a dispute. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
3. Boost up physical affection and sex. According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, physical contact releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation. Studies show that it's released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones — lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
4. Nurture fondness and admiration for your partner. Remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities — even as you grapple with their flaws — and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and avoid the stonewalling — which is shutting yourself off from communication.
The best way to create a relationship built on love, trust, an intimacy is to take responsibility for our own actions and to practice acceptance and compassion for our partner. The truth is that all couples have problems, even the ones who seem like a perfect match. The thing to keep in mind is that realistic expectations and damage control can keep resentment from building and causing serious relationship problems.
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