We know being in a couple takes work from time to time. But what are the signs that your relationship is beyond repair? We explain.
It’s often said among (usually older) couples that relationships are too easy to leave. That perhaps people are not trying, and we are making disposable connections and breakable commitments, compared to the days when divorce was much more difficult to obtain.
However, most of us know at least one couple where we might wonder – why on earth do they stay together? This might be because they fight a lot, even publicly; they never show affection; they show disrespect or rudeness to each other; they can’t say a kind or supportive thing about each other. Sometimes we benchmark our own relationships accordingly: “Thank goodness we’re not like that!”
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, and so on. Some couples believe that getting help for your relationship must mean you are in deep trouble, as sex and love should “happen naturally” and you shouldn’t have to work at it.
Every relationship is different
Couples can have differences that they manage effectively when not under stress. For example, one might be quieter and more withdrawn, and the other more gregarious and social. They might have good ways to negotiate this, even if it is a bit tiresome at times, with each wishing the other was more like them.
During COVID, perhaps the quiet one is handling it quite well, but the need for social time for the other is escalating and becoming quite desperate. Suddenly their differences become a bone of contention, and before long the quiet one is seen as passive, inadequate and not offering the relationship much, and the extrovert is seen to be needy, demanding and critical.
Other couples can also have very poor fighting behavior, which can make them seem in greater trouble. The issues that they are battling over are perhaps 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 deep trouble look like?
In more recent years, there has been very credible and reliable research about what makes relationships fail, but the amount you argue, the differences you hold, the commonalities between you, bear no relation to relationship success.
Instead, the things that are most destructive are pervasive, repetitive behaviors, in order of severity, criticism, defensiveness, contempt (eye-rolling, disgust, dismissal or ridiculing) and stonewalling, or the silent treatment. Of these, contempt has been shown to be the greatest predictor of divorce.
The following behaviors and experiences signal difficulties:
- You raise your concerns and they are dismissed, minimised, denied, or ridiculed.
- You know things have been difficult for a considerable period and neither of you are raising the subject. It is like the “elephant in the room” and is taking over the relationship.
- Difficulties (lack of sex, increased arguing, little emotional intimacy) can no longer be put down to a bad patch.
- You are caught in a repetitive loop when you discuss things, which plays out pretty much the same every time you start to talk. This is not only boring it can make you feel more hopeless about your capacity to get through to each other and problem solve.
- Other people who know you well comment that you seem miserable or that as a couple you don’t look happy.
- You are scared by what is happening at home. You are worried about what the children are seeing, hearing, experiencing.
- You are not confident you can change your own negative behavior, let alone influence your partner to change.
You can’t remember when you were last consistently happy as a couple. Or if you can, it is a distant memory. Your attempts to reach out and restore some closeness seem to fail or fall short.
Where to from here?
Although these are very negative experiences and worrying signs, in themselves they don’t have to signal the end of the relationship unless they don’t change. With new ways of looking at issues and bridging the divide created by poor communication and conflict resolution, you can take the heat out and build 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.