Things were going OK in your relationship but recently, what started as a niggling feeling in the back of your mind has been growing bigger. Then, one day you wake up and find yourself surrounded by doubts. So, what’s happened? Is the relationship really “in trouble?”
Ups and downs in relationships are surprisingly common. In a recent study by Relate, Marriage Care and Relationships Scotland, 15 per cent of respondents said they regretted being in their relationship occasionally, more often than not, most or all of the time. Generally, we come through tough times and often find that as a couple we can be stronger as a result. But sometimes those nagging doubts start to grow legs.
Communication break down
Most of us can recognise what feels “normal” in our relationship. This isn’t something that is possible to describe because every couple is different – some couples declare their love for one another every time they put the phone down for example, whereas others don’t find it necessary and show their love at other times or in other ways.
Often the first thing people notice is that communication has changed.
Conversations get closed down by a partner and things that have seemed easy to talk about start to feel uncomfortable. It might be a specific topic that starts to get tricky. Perhaps you’ve always been able to talk about sex or money but now there are arguments and both of you feel that something’s wrong, but are unclear about how to sort it out. That’s because we’re often waiting for our other half to make the first move.
We can probably all testify to sometimes thinking that we’re in the right and that if only our partner could or would agree, then it would blow over and get resolved. Maybe this is a dynamic that you recognise as being part of the norm for your relationship. Right from the start, we all play roles. In some relationships the dynamic is that there have always been rows and stand offs. For some couples it’s this constant frisson that provides the energy to keep the show on the road. Although this might sound like an exhausting and even painful kind of relationship, it keeps the energy flowing. So for couples like this, suddenly noticing that a partner just wants a quiet life might signal that something is wrong. In other words knowing the relationship is in trouble is probably because someone is doing something different. At the other end of the spectrum, if, like 50 per cent of couples that took Relate’s The Way We Are Now 2015 survey, you rarely or never argue – a sudden wave of constant rows may be a sign that there’s something which needs addressing.
Trust wearing away
One of the most common worries people have about their relationship is that a partner may be having an affair. Finding that they don’t want to engage sexually or even verbally with you can often lead to a lot of suspicion and result in all kinds of accusations being thrown around. Of course, once this starts happening we’ve added another layer of difficulty because a partner now has to field questions about something that may not be happening at all. This can mean we miss out on the opportunity to find out and to understand what’s actually wrong. Perhaps they’ve gone off sex because of stress at work or body confidence issues.
And what happens most is that we make assumptions about why a partner is acting differently and maybe because of our own vulnerabilities, which can often be connected with the fear of being abandoned, we go on the attack. It starts to feel vital that we get the information we seek from our partner immediately. We stop thinking and through our understandable anxieties, we invite them to do the same. Before you know it, no one can talk about anything.
So what’s the thing to do most when you start to notice something isn’t quite right? Take a step back. OK, so you’ve found a load of messages to someone else on their phone. But what were you doing looking in the first place? When you’re in that situation you may have proof of something, but the trick is not to assume you have the truth. Finding worrying stuff of any description clearly gives us something to ask a partner about directly. But the less clear-cut signs are often the ones that help us to avoid problems getting more serious and lead to us potentially finding that things have gone a stage further.
It’s not me, it’s you
It’s surprising how often we don’t want to raise worries with a partner. Maybe you are concerned about hurting their feelings or giving them relationship doubts themselves. Maybe you’re a couple where talking about difficult things feels embarrassing or likely to end in conflict. But if you don’t address your doubts head on, the likelihood is they will bubble away under the surface and come out later on in a more painful and destructive way.
So, choose a time that’s not fraught with other things going on, and don’t let a busy life be an excuse to not get your partner’s attention. Try and be calm and straightforward and given them a chance to respond. For all you know, they may have thought that it’s you who has changed. It’s curious how we often think we have the copyright on noticing things. So it’s best not to try not to be too taken aback or defensive if your partner shares something that they feel uncomfortable about with you too.
In many ways, deciding that the relationship is in trouble doesn’t come down necessarily to noticing specific things. In the absence of irrefutable “proof”, mostly it starts with just a feeling and that’s where its best addressed. Be clear about what’s going on for you and be prepared to listen. Of course if you don’t like the answer you’re getting from your partner and keep having to revisit the same thing, that’s another sign that things aren’t all they might be.
But remember that we often look for things that aren’t really there, so if you can’t be reassured by your partner, have a think about whether your worries might be a result of your own insecurities. And of course, seeing a counsellor at the earliest stages might also be a useful option. If this seems like too much of a scary step, then why not start by taking Relate’s simple relationship MOT. The longer unresolved anxieties go on, the more unmanageable they get.
Ammanda Major is a relationship counsellor and Senior Consultant on Sex Therapy at Relate. She has a regular agony aunt column on the Relate website Ask Ammanda, which deals with common relationship and sexual problems.