All relationships have their ups and downs, and being in a couple takes work from time to time. But what happens when the relationship is more work than play? We look at the potential signs your relationship is over or beyond repair.
We’ve all experienced degrees of difficulty with someone we love. Occasional arguments are perfectly healthy, as is having different interests, and independent lives.
There are certain myths about relationships and how they work that are rather glibly tossed around. For example, couples shouldn’t fight; that opposites attract; that it is critical to have common interests; that distance makes the heart grow fonder. Some couples believe that getting help for your relationship must mean you’re in deep trouble, as sex and love should ‘happen naturally’ and you shouldn’t have to work at it.
However, when disagreements chip away at a couple’s underlying respect, it often results in a slow decline in the motivation to patch things up.
While a sudden break up can feel a lot more shocking, it’s also much clearer — a defined moment of separation. A long disintegration, on the other hand, can leave a person feeling reeling, wondering at what point the ‘we’ became an ‘I’.
Every relationship is different
In recent years, there has been very credible and reliable research about what makes relationships fail. Perhaps surprisingly, the amount you argue, the differences you hold, and the commonalities between you actually don’t bear much relation to your relationship’s success.
Couples can have differences that they manage very effectively when they’re not under stress. One might be quieter and more withdrawn, and the other more outgoing and social. They might have good ways to negotiate this, even if it is a bit tiresome at times, and even if they occasionally wish the other was more like them.
Other couples can also have very poor fighting behaviour, which can make them seem like they’re in greater trouble than they really are. The issues that they are battling over might be quite small, and to another couple, perhaps quite manageable.
However, for some, it might get nasty and personal when they argue, or one runs away and refuses to engage, or the other cries and sulks, and the argument ends up lasting for days.
What does real trouble look like?
The most destructive relationship behaviours are those the Gottmann Institute has deemed the ‘Four Horsemen’ – criticism, defensiveness, contempt (eye-rolling, disgust, dismissal or ridiculing), stonewalling, and the silent treatment. Of these, contempt has been shown to be the greatest predictor of divorce.
There are also other warning signs, and if one or more of them are present in your relationship, it may be time to take action.
1. There’s no emotional connection
One of the key signs that your relationship is over is that the spark has gone. A foundation of a healthy relationship is that both partners feel comfortable being truly open with each other in sharing thoughts and opinions. If you are no longer vulnerable and open with your partner, it’s hard to tell if the relationship is worth saving.
If you’re not sharing what’s really on your mind, it might be a sign that you no longer want a deep connection. Similarly, if you’ve found that the usual fun banter between you is gone, or it’s difficult to have engaging conversations, your bond could be getting weaker.
You may notice that you and your partner rarely discuss things anymore – neither positive or negative. Rather than solving issues when they arise, you may both sweep them under the rug, but hold on to the frustration you feel under the surface. It’s like an “elephant in the room” taking over the relationship. Allowing your partner to walk all over you – or your partner allowing you to do the same – is a sign that the balance of power is off.
It may feel at this stage like there’s no point trying to work things out, and you’d rather opt to say nothing at all. While being agreeable and non-confrontational can sometimes be an asset to a relationship, simply ‘keeping the peace’ with your partner can be a sign a relationship has tipped over the edge.
3. Aggressive or confrontational communication
The flip side to a lack of communication is aggressive communication. You and your partner may be arguing a lot, constantly picking fights with each other, and unwilling to patch things up. When you’re dealing with constant disagreements, it can lead to anger on both sides. You may try and raise concerns with your partner, but they are dismissed, minimised, denied, or ridiculed. You may not be confident you can change your own negative behaviour, let alone influence your partner to change.
When people are feeling relationship frustrations, it can be extremely tempting to release energy through aggressive or confrontational behaviour. Like a pressure cooker, the rush of anger can provide a temporary feeling of satisfaction. But in the long-term, this type of behaviour erodes trust and respect, and kills communication between partners.
4. There’s no appeal to physical intimacy
Sexual desire and intimacy can ebb and flow through the course of a relationship. If you’re in a sexual ‘ebb-phase’, it doesn’t mean there’s no hope for you. Physical intimacy in all loving forms is critical for a relationship’s sustenance. Touching releases hormones, namely oxytocin, that support the emotions of love and connection. If you can still have close physical intimacy without sex, and you still find your partner attractive, chances are your relationship just needs a little nudge forward.
If, however, you are not interested in your partner at all, that can indicate issues. If the thought of being intimate with your partner is off-putting, it can suggest that your relationship needs some work – or that a breakup is potentially near.
5. You don’t trust them
Mistrust can spread through a relationship like wildfire, and it can happen in stages. First it might be doubting your partner and feeling uncertain about their trustworthiness and dependability. Doubt, if unresolved, grows into suspicion. Suspicion is belief without proof. This causes anxiety and feelings of apprehension or uneasiness which can often manifest. And when you’re anxious you become fearful, which stops you from being open and vulnerable. Finally, when you feel fearful, you withdraw.
Trust is the foundation of a committed relationship, and lack of it eats away at the relationship from the inside. If you feel like you can’t trust the person in your corner, it’s a roadblock that prevents any meaningful connection. In order to regain it, both partners need to focus not only on trust itself, but on the root of the problems that led to a breakdown in the first place.
6. Fantasising about others
This sign can be a bit misleading. Most experts will tell you that fantasising about others is perfectly normal, and that almost everyone does it. The determining factor here is how much your fantasising infiltrates your peace. Does it feel natural and positive, or are you riddled with guilt? Does it distract you from your partner? Are you fantasising about just sex, or about an entire relationship with someone else? Is it about someone you know?
These are questions you should ask yourself to help you ascertain whether your fantasy is healthy or undermining your real relationship.
7. You’re not supporting each other and have different goals
When you’re feeling down or celebrating something exciting, having a partner there to support, encourage, and celebrate with you is one of the joys of relationships. Not having your key person there during important times shows disconnection.
One of the hardest disconnects to accept in a relationship is when partners want different things and can’t or won’t support the other person. No matter how deeply you care for each other, if you’re not planning for the same goals in life, it’s difficult to realign your hopes. If you’re not making time for each other to be happy as a couple, the warning signs are hard to ignore.
8. You can’t imagine a future together
One huge component of lasting relationships is envisioning your shared future together, as you co-create your lives and partnership. If the view of the future doesn’t align, or if you’ve stopped talking about future plans altogether, it may indicate a relationship is coming to an end.
Where to from here?
Although these are very negative experiences and worrying signs, in themselves they are not necessarily signs your relationship is over – unless they don’t change. By looking at issues in new ways and bridging the divide created by poor communication and conflict, you can take the heat out. You can rebuild enough of a bridge to see what really is between you.
If you are stuck in negative cycles, seeing a professional counsellor can be an excellent circuit breaker. Even agreeing to make an appointment and attending together is the start of a common platform and a new approach.
Ultimately you have to ask yourself: if the trouble between us could change, do I still love, trust and respect my partner? Is there still something important between us? You need to have a reason to do the work, because it won’t always be comfortable or easy.