When to Save a Distressed Relationship
Unhealthy Relationships: All couples go through a rocky period in their relationship. They may grow distant from each other and encounter problems that seem to be impossible to overcome. It is agonizing to decide whether or not to save a relationship because we never know the possibilities. How will we know when our relationship is worth saving?
In this episode, marriage and family therapist Brittany S., will touch on healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We talk about what a normal distressed relationship looks like and how to deal with it. You will also discover the different markers of an unhealthy relationship. Knowing the difference between the two will help make the big decision whether to save your relationship or knowing when it’s time to let go.
Tune in to the podcast to learn more about the role of attunement, responsiveness, and vulnerability in cultivating an ideal, healthy, and loving relationship!
In This Episode: Unhealthy Relationships
- Find out what a distressed healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy one.
- Understand the pursue-withdraw cycle in distressed relationships.
- Recognize the general markers of an unhealthy relationship.
- Know where to start and what steps to undertake in couples counseling.
- Identify when growth is and is not possible in a relationship.
- Understand the importance of having aligned expectations for the future.
- Know the importance of attunement as the fundamental heart of every relationship.
“Is My Relationship Healthy?”
Brittany shares with us today that a “good” relationship ultimately depends on what you think of yourself and your experience within the relationship itself. She suggests asking three main questions when identifying the health of your relationship:
- What is the overall quality of the relationship?
- Do I feel good about myself in the relationship?
- Do I feel like the relationship benefits and serves me well?
How We See Ourselves
How we see ourselves is affected by the people who surround us. Usually, when you begin feeling like you need to change yourself, you are not enough, or you need to be better for your partner to treat you well, is a sign that the relationship may be unhealthy.
When we start to believe we are unworthy of love, connection, and belonging, the foundation of the relationship begins to fall away (if there even was one to start with).
Because of this pessimistic view, we begin to feel more angry, aggressive, and hostile towards ourselves. Brittany shares that most of her clients that are struggling with this dynamic will internalize feeling unworthy, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or healing.”
Fixing the Negative Subconscious Belief
The issue here is that people who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship begin to believe they are the sole problem. To address this, we need to be aware of what stories we are telling ourselves. Fixing the negative subconscious belief requires challenging these stories. To do this, challenge these stories by:
- Identifying if there is evidence that there is some truth to the story; and
- Cracking the narrative and expressing it
When working with couples, Brittany shares that partners often blame each other for their unhappiness or unwillingness to show up for their partner how their partner may need. Partner responses can tell so much about the health of the relationship.
If our partner is willing to comfort us and offer help, it provides some reassurance that we are in a healthy situation. But if the partner lacks comfort and responsiveness, it is a sign to take a deeper look into the relationship.
What does this mean? It means that by challenging the stories that we tell ourselves (I’m unworthy of love…) and getting to the root of why we feel these ways, we can better understand whether or not it is something we can work on and grow through, or if it’s a sign that this relationship really isn’t good for us after all.
Is a Distressed Relationship Normal?
According to Brittany, “When people are in distressed relationships, it impacts each other. Both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop being the best version of themselves.” A distressing situation creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful and support the negative pursue-withdraw cycle.
The pursue-withdraw cycle is characterized by:
- One partner who is demanding, critical, and demands reassurance, comfort, or engagement from the other; and
- The other partner feeling overwhelmed by these demands and, in turn, withdrawing
The more one partner shuts down, the more the other demands and becomes more aggressive, thus feeding the cycle. The cycle is normal in distressed relationships but requires a path of healing.
Brittany relays that this cycle propagates because “there's usually a need for comfort or safety or connection or a vulnerable attachment—a need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.”
The General Markers of an Unhealthy Relationship
It is important to assess early on in counseling if the relationship is in a distressing situation or more problematic. Some questions to ask yourself if you find you are in an unhealthy relationship are:
- Is there essential responsiveness?
- Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?
- Can they identify their part in the distress?
- Is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner?
- Are there elements of shaming and severe criticism present in the relationship?
- Is there manipulation happening?
- Is one partner trying to isolate the other?
- Is one partner threatening the other?
- Is verbal abuse happening?
According to Brittany, it's common to blame each other. However, partners should step back and realize their part in the problem. If one partner is insistent on blaming the other and claiming no-fault, then it becomes unhealthy.
Brittany recommends seeking individual therapy from a trained professional in domestic violence cases, a professional who has the background to help you keep safe. She also advises seeking domestic violence support.
Starting the Process of Healing
When starting the process of healing, Brittany refers to this time between her couples as a dance. Brittany begins by asking her clients to map out their dance and identify their part in the relationship. It is critical to be aware of:
- What is happening to your body
- What emotions you are feeling; and
- Is there any judgment happening
Partners should become intimate with their dance and tell each other about it. The more open and willing to connect with your partner at this time, the higher likelihood of healing taking place.
It is essential to identify emotions, bodily sensations, and the stories we tell ourselves. By learning how to communicate better with your partner, you can begin to break the pursue-withdraw cycle. If you find that your partnership needs help better communicating, Brittany suggests seeking the help of a relationship specialist.
Brittany says that when there is growth possible in the relationship, a healthy couple will be able to engage in their dance, self-reflective, and talk about their emotions.
Is Growth Possible?
Healing is a process; being aware of each other's roles and emotions takes time. It may be more challenging for some people to express themselves due to their previous experiences.
However, having a hard time at first does not mean that the relationship is horrible or will not survive. Brittany emphasizes that her role as a couple's counselor is to help people grow and go through the transformational process. It's normal to have a hard time because the process takes vulnerability.
However, if you cannot establish vulnerability and safety, consider individual counseling to heal from childhood trauma or past relationships.
“Couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best in trusted relationships with others,” Brittany says. If the wounds run too deep that you cannot show up in your relationship, that is a sign to work on yourself.
Keys to a Healthy Relationship: Can This Relationship Be Saved?
If you have been working on fixing your relationship and have been in counseling for months, but nothing has changed, then you can use that valuable information to decide whether the relationship can be saved.
Responsiveness is an essential factor in the survivorship of a relationship. We have to express what we need and see how someone responds to that.
Healing requires vulnerability and baseline safety. If your partner disagrees, you may consider the possibility that they are not suited for you.
“It's okay to mess up and make mistakes, but there has to be a motivation to work on things, grow, and stay in it together,” says Brittany.
Pushing for the Future
It's part of our culture to encounter difficulties in being present and focusing on what's happening now. We often look forward, believing that the future will be better.
However, it’s important to look at your situation and relationship in the present. We must focus on:
- What the relationship feels like now
- What is and what isn't serving us
- What needs work; and
- Our willingness to put in that work towards the future we are desiring
Make sure that you and your partner have the same desires and expectations for the future. Evaluate and reflect if a compromise on healthy relationship expectations is needed.
Attunement: The Heart of a Relationship
Attunement is the process of being present with our partner. Attunement is the goal; it is the entire heart of every relationship. It involves engaging in emotional responsiveness and vulnerability.
If you feel disconnected, think about how you can find your way back to each other and if both of you are willing to take part in that process. It's critical to have that responsiveness, reciprocity, and respect in a relationship.
“You won't have attunement in a distressed relationship, but you can intentionally create it if both people are engaged in that process.”, says Brittany.
- Domestic Violence Support | The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Take our Free Healthy Relationship Quiz!
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage on Netflix
- Brittany’s profile on Growing Self
Brittany has shared invaluable advice on dealing with a distressed relationship and differentiating it from an unhealthy one. What did you connect and relate with the most? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.
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Real Help For Your Relationship
Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn “rough-patches” into “growth moments” can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.
Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.
Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.