There’s no question that relationships can be challenging at times. How do you know if you and your significant other have just hit a temporary rough patch or if it’s something more serious?
Clue 1: Poor Communication: I generally urge couples to seek professional help when they are not able to talk about their problems. If you and/or your partner are at a place where it feels too scary or too unsafe to even bring up concerns ( sex , money, or even annoying little pet peeves that are causing increased tension), a therapist can help by clarifying the issues at hand and to help each of you understand what the other is truly trying to communicate.
Clue 2: Your Sex Life has Significantly Changed: It is import to note that there are two types of changes that should be a cause for concern. First and most commonly reported is the loss of intimacy that the couple previously shared. A second change that may signal danger is a sudden increase in the sexual activity of your relationship. If you have not been having regular or passionate sex and your partner’s sexual appetite drastically increases or if he/she wants to experiment with new activities that have never been expressed as an interest before, this could indicate that your mate is experiencing feelings of arousal that are not originating from his/her relationship with you!
Clue 3: Holding on to the Past: If there has been a traumatic event in your lives, like the loss of a child or an affair and one partner has great difficulty moving forward it may be time to seek professional help. Each person processes trauma differently and some may need more space, time, support, and resources to work through hardships.
Clue 4: A Reoccurring Issue: Difficulties in the relationship that seem to persist, regardless of endless discussions can greatly be helped by therapy. If you are seeing the same issues coming up over and over again in a negative way this is a pretty good indicator that they are not being dealt with and resolved in an effective manner. Seeking outside help could prevent years of further disagreements and building resentments.
Clue 5: Finances: It should come as no surprise that disagreements over money are one of the top reasons couples find themselves at odds. If your partner is secretive about family finances or feels the need to control everything related to money, it may be time to speak up. Try saying something like, “I would like to be included in knowing about our debt, our monthly bills, the balance on the mortgage, how many savings/checking accounts we have, etc.” If your partner objects, it may be time to see a counselor.
Clue 6: Kids: Children can add a lot of richness to a relationship, but they can also be a source of stress. The latter is true especially if the two of you are not a united front. You may want to seek counseling if you are having frequent disagreements regarding the others’ parenting styles and about how your children should be raised. These are major issues that need to be resolved…both for the health of your relationship and the well-being of your children.
Clue 7: You Still Love Your Mate: If you still love and want to be in a relationship with your significant other but haven’t been successful, then it may be time to consider finding a therapist. Aim to be a proactive couple who work together to solve issues before they breed resentment and break trust/intimacy.
Whether you choose to seek help or continue to work on your relationship privately please know that counseling does not “break couples up” or “keep them together.” Couples counseling strives to come alongside the couple to improve communication and gain a better understanding what is truly going on in the life of the relationship.
Accept Each other: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I’m sure most of us have some secret…or not so secret wish about changing our partners’ behaviors. Maybe one day those dirty clothes will actually repel off the floor and jump into the hamper? Or maybe our easy going mate will learn to initiate meaningful conversation with our friends without our nagging. But, what if the inability to see all of the dirty dishes piling up in the sink comes from our partner’s laid back personality which is what drew us to him/her to begin with? I often find that the things that we initially love the most end up driving us the most batty. Dr. John Gottman, PhD, a leading researcher and author on the principles that make a marriage thrive, found that happy couples know their partner’s differences, and resolved (for the most part) to stop trying to change the other. Rather than harping on their partner’s not-so-ideal personality style, they instead focus on each other’s strengths.
Request Sweetly and Directly
Whether you want him/her to sweep the floor more often or to spend more quality time with the kids, your partner will be more likely to acquiesce to your requests if it is perceived that he/she will get relationship brownie points. Instead of framing your desire as a demand or a complaint, present it as a favor…or a blueprint for what will make you happy. Try asking for what you would like, instead of what you don’t want. In lieu of saying, “I hate when everything has to be scheduled all of the time,” try saying, “I would love to have a day where I can come home and do something spontaneous with you.”
Giving your partner a little positive reinforcement goes a long way. I know it sounds like a no-brainer, it’s amazing how easily this necessity can fall through the cracks. Gottman’s research has found that in everyday life, happy couples operate in a 20:1 ratio. This means that these couples share 20 positive moments (a shared look, compliment, or affectionate touch) for every 1 negative moment. Tell your partner something positive at least three times a day and make sure it’s specifically tailored to him/her. Nothing generic please! Instead of saying, “You’re a good partner,” tell him/her why. “You’re a good partner because you always call throughout the day to check in. I really appreciate that because I know a lot of people that never hear from their mates.”
Focus on the Positive
Unhappy couples get stuck in negative thinking. If you’re looking to find something negative, believe me, you will. If you look for behavior that annoys you and that your partner is doing wrong, you will find it constantly. But, here’s a thought, catch him/her doing something good! If you look for and look at what your partner is doing right, you’ll find it just as frequently as you were finding the negative. It’s a choice. Change your mindset. The next time you find yourself starting to notice or dwell on those pesky habits or annoying quirks, visualize something your partner does that makes your heart melt in order to stop that negative thought pattern.
Take A Trip…Down Memory Lane
I can usually spot if a couple is currently happy together or not by asking them to share their “how we met” story. Happy couples tend to recall and even rewrite history by glossing over the bad and, instead, focusing on the happy memories. The opposite can be said for couples in distress. When you retell your memories to your partner, it can actually change your mindset, how you view him/her, and how you think about your relationship. Relive the fondest moments of when you were first dating, or recall the highlights of your relationship (such as the day he showed up unannounced to your work and whisked you away to a spontaneous lunch, or that surprise ball game that she planned) to resurface those memories…and feelings.
Minimize Playing Devil’s Advocate
Don’t underestimate the power of being there when your partner needs to vent. This includes listening and supporting them without throwing out solutions to the problem at hand. Aim to be supportive and not to take the side of the person or situation he/she is discussing. Yes, this means even if you can see where that aggravating party is coming from. There will be time for seeing both sides later on, but be that support system and listening ear when your partner just needs to let it all out. For example, if your partner is upset that another co-worker got chosen for a promotion over him/her, now is not the time to say, “Well, maybe you didn’t work as hard as you could have. You can be a little lazy sometimes” Right now your partner needs his/her feelings validated, and to hear you say, “That must have been really hard.” Happy couples know when to bite their tongues.
Don’t Get Too Comfy
Just because you have trust, security, and commitment in your relationship doesn’t mean you can stop trying. Happy couples keep dating, complimenting one another, and doing things together. What can you do today to make your partner glad that he/she chose you?
Sure, happy couples have date nights, but they also do everyday mundane activities together. Happy couples make little habits that bind them together…and make some of life’s not so fun tasks a little more enjoyable (the once a week grocery trip together, etc).
Know Your Partner’s Calls for Attention
Happy couples are aware of those little bids their partners make for attention. When Gottman’s team studied 120 newlyweds in his Love Lab, they found that couples who were still married six years later were paying attention to these calls for connection 86 percent of the time, compared to only 33 percent of the time for those who later divorced. Look out for the little things, and respond to his/her need to connect. Here are some example bids for attentions: “Goodnight”, “Wow, this is really interesting”, “sigh“. Behind each one of these mundane and brief statements in a person hoping to receive a response from their partner. Instead of ignoring your partner or getting annoyed because he/she is talking through your favorite tv show, how about these responses: “Good night”- Good night, “Wow, this is interesting”-What is?, “sigh“- Are you okay?
Do the Little things
When it comes to being in a contented relationship, it takes more than just the big 3 “I don’t drink/use drungs, I pay all of the bills on time, and I don’t beat you.” Though these are great characteristics for a relationship to have, they are not really what keeps couples happy in their daily lives. The small things matter and they add up. These small things could be being there for each other when one needs to vent, noticing when he needs a hug, or buying her childhood candy…just because. It is also important to note that happy couples let go of the idea that you have to feel in love all the time.
MY NAME IS JAMIE HAYWORTH-CHIN, AND I AM A LICENSED MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPIST. I SPECIALIZE IN INDIVIDUAL, FAMILY, AND RELATIONSHIP THERAPY. MY GOAL IS TO WORK WITH YOU TO GAIN A FRESH PERSPECTIVE IN ORDER TO RECLAIM YOUR LIFE AND RELATIONSHIPS.