A couple has a tense conversation representing what happens when relationships are in distress

What Happens When Relationships Are In Distress?

In my work as a couples counselor and a relationship coach, I’ve witnessed the changes that happen when relationships are in distress many times. If you are going through a rough patch with your partner, it’s important for you to understand that distressed relationships function differently than healthy relationships. It’s easy to believe that the problems you’re experiencing are due to your partner’s flaws and failings (and I’m guessing your partner is thinking the same thing about you!), but many of the challenges that couples experience during hard times really come down to these changes in the relationship, not character flaws in either partner. 

I hope this article helps you understand what’s happening if you and your partner are on rocky ground. Take it from me — the earlier you intervene in this process, the better. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can find it on this page (player below), or on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

So, here are the most important changes you’ll see when your relationship is in distress:

Conflict Breaks Down 

Conflict is a natural and even healthy part of any relationship. When handled constructively, it can even strengthen the bond between partners. However, when couples lack the skills to manage disagreements respectfully, and repair their relationships after a fight, conflict breaks down. Unresolved issues and hurt feelings start to pile up, leading to resentment. 

One partner often becomes the “pursuer,” continuing to express complaints and criticisms, while the other withdraws or avoids confrontation. It can feel to the withdrawing partner like the pursuer is “always upset” or just trying to pick fights for the heck of it, but in reality, they are making desperate attempts to assure themselves that the withdrawing partner still cares and wants to fix the issues in the relationship. The more they pursue, the more the other partner withdraws, and an unhealthy “pursuer-distancer” pattern starts to develop. This is a bad omen for the future of the relationship and a sure sign that it’s time to seek couples counseling

Over time, the pursuing partner begins to get exhausted until they eventually give up. It can seem like the relationship just improved out of the blue, because the fighting has stopped, but in reality the conflict is still simmering under the surface, unaddressed. 

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Negative Narratives Develop 

Under these circumstances, couples begin to question each other’s intentions and character. They no longer have a way to work through conflict and come to understandings that would ultimately bring them emotionally closer, and without that, negative narratives about each other take hold. This is called negative sentiment override, and it creates a significant barrier to resuming “peace talks” so the couple can resolve issues. Now when tensions erupt, they quickly escalate. Conversations spiral into accusations, defensiveness, and hurtful words. 

This only reinforces each partner’s negative perceptions of the other. “Look how nuts he/she is! I can’t even talk to them,” they each think. Neither partner realizes that they’re caught in a predictable cycle that happens to all couples when relationships are in distress.

Emotional Disconnection

As time goes on, partners will stop sharing their deeper thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities  with each other. They stop trusting each other to be emotionally safe and stop turning to each other for emotional support. This is the beginning of emotional disconnection. The relationship will eventually feel empty and lonely, and the good times will be a distant memory. Couples often report feeling like roommates, or like they’re merely going through the motions or a relationship without any of the underlying feelings that make relationships feel meaningful and worthwhile. 

Hope Wanes 

As the relationship continues to deteriorate, the couple starts to lose hope of ever restoring it to a healthy state. They can’t see a way to get things back to the way they were, and it feels like their only options are to continue persisting in an unhappy relationship, or to end it. With minimal emotional investment and dwindling hope, someone will eventually decide to call it quits, and the relationship will fail

What to Do If Your Relationship is In Distress

My intention is not to scare you, but I do want to arm you with good information so that you can intervene in this process and restore the love, trust, and satisfaction in your relationship before it’s too late. The good news is that it’s possible to create change at any stage of this process and save the relationship with the right support. 

Seeking the assistance of a skilled couples counselor is a game changer for distressed relationships. If I could climb up on my soapbox for a moment, I would urge you to look for a marriage and family therapist, not an individually trained therapist who also sees couples. You need someone with a deep understanding of relationship systems and how to shift them in transformational ways. For more on that, I have an article for you here with everything you need to know about how to choose a marriage counselor

Don’t lose hope; you can pull a distressed relationship back from the brink if you are committed to doing so. And going through this process together will deepen your emotional connection and make you a more resilient couple than you can probably imagine now. If you would like to do this work with a couples counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby 

P.S. — For more tips on working through hard times together, see my “Relationship Repair” collection of articles and podcast episodes. I made it for you!

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