Team Up to Handle Eroding Relationships

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Over the last fourteen years as a counselor specializing in marriage therapy, I have seen many couples co-destroy a once happy relationship. Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship if two people really reveal themselves to one another, but why do some relationships suffer and decay because of it while others survive and triumph life's challenges? Research confirms that the erosion some couples experience is not just due to differences, but how they are handled.

The fact is that no one is more important to us than our intimate partner and because of this intensity, our reactions can be far greater than they would be with a clerk in a store or any other more removed relationship. Modern science has helped care providers understand that part of what happens when people are having a reaction a mile wide (to an event that’s a yard long) is that the more primitive parts of our brain gets activated. Unfortunately, this is not the thinking and problem solving part of our brain. This research is important because it has simple and practical implications for protecting the loving relationship you are enjoying: One of the best things couples can do is take a Time Out from interacting when they notice signs of being physically aroused (muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, feeling flushed, thinking, talking, or writing in a pressured fashion). If you (or your spouse) are physically aroused, you will not be likely to have a productive conversation, you are likely to communicate in ways that damage the closeness in the relationship.

According to the long-term research coming from the University of Denver, there are four predictors of divorce and distress in a relationship:  

  • Escalating fights
  • Interpreting a partner’s behavior or intentions negatively
  • Avoiding and/or withdrawing
  • Invalidating reactions (criticism, contempt, devaluing, withholding)

Couples are well served by watching for these “red flags” and trying to hit the pause or reset button by rescheduling their discussion, moving to a different venue, and/or structuring the talk differently, or seeking the help of a third party. Stopping or catching one of these patterns helps couples manage the damage and feel close. Couples who are in charge of their discussions feel together, like they are a team against the problems. When couples don’t have good control over their behavior and aren’t protective of the relationship, it erodes and decays. Bottom line: a relationship with no bottom lines is a sick relationship. Marital satisfaction is high in relationships where people are being thoughtful about their behviour, and are dedicated to managing hurt and anger, hour by hour.

So, how do you know if you need to reach out for more help? The rule of thumb is that if one person thinks there is a problem in a relationship, there’s a problem! Fortunately, counseling is an effective method for building tools. Although we live in an information age and there are plenty of resources at our fingertips, it is very helpful to hear unbiased feedback about our own blind spots and be coached (live) as you begin to learn to relate in new ways. It is hard to be a new person in an old relationship, as they say. A seasoned therapist specially trained to work with couples can be very effective at helping transform relationships where people are feeling so hurt that they are acting ripped off and angry, which ultimately tends to prevent the possibility of being heard and keeps couples stuck.

Written by: Remi Spicer, LMSW at Great Lakes Counseling Services. If you would like more information on this topic, please contact Remi at 616-990-4400 or by email at [email protected]. Photo: stock.xchng

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