Love. It can be the best feeling in the whole world. We can’t quite find words to explain it, although infinite poets, musicians, song-writers and artists have tried to describe it. We love to love and be loved. But when we are in a troubled relationship, love can quickly turn sour.
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The great paradox of love
Love is quite the paradox. It can be the best feeling in the world. But it can also be the worst feeling in the world. Sometimes these two states of best and worst coexist side-by-side. Love can create unbelievable amounts of suffering. There is no feeling in the world more painful than unrequited love.
Inside of a deeply troubled relationship, people can be driven to utter distraction. Obsessive thinking, uncontrolled longing, jealousy, bitterness and anguish can ensue. Love can be confusing. We agonize over the idea of leaving someone yet are terrified of making the wrong decision. Meanwhile staying keeps us miserable. Unable to stay, unwilling to leave. We hold on for sentimental reasons. This can lead people to stay suffering in a deeply troubled relationship for decades.
All that pain, just because of love. Love clouds our judgment. It can cause us to make terrible decisions. These decisions sometimes impact us for the rest of our lives.
It can be hard to pick up on the signs that a relationship is troubled. The more you love the person, the more murky the waters become. We can become unsure as to what is healthy and what is not.
Today, I hope to help some of you by addressing troubled relationships. I’ll explain why relationships become this way. I will give you 5 of the key signs of a troubled marriage or relationship. I will also explain how you can fix things, and when it might be time to walk away.
What is a troubled relationship?
Having conflict in a relationship is normal. All couples disagree from time to time. It is the handling of disagreements that matters. Can they be moved past quickly and smoothly? Or are old issues dragged out from under the carpet and used for punishment?
Occasional disagreements are not a problem. These can even be considered healthy. Contrasting points of view tend to encourage more critical thinking and discernment. This is a good thing!
It is the frequency, scale and handling of disagreements that determines things. When one or both partners resort to raised voices, manipulation, name calling and put-downs, this is a red flag.
At the same time, biting your tongue and not saying voicing your concerns is also a red flag. No one likes walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting someone. Communication is the glue that holds a relationship together.
What are The Four Horseman of relationships?
These are the four scientifically proven signs of a troubled relationship according to the Gottman Institute.
Why do relationships become troubled?
Busting the myth that love conquers all
There is a misconception in the 21st Century that ‘love conquers all’. I wrote about this in a previous blog post. And I will continue to hammer my point today. Love alone is never enough.
I am sure that most of you reading this now will have loved many people in your life. Most of them you didn’t stay with forever. The love alone was not enough to hold things together. Love cannot overcome challenging circumstances. Some obstacles such as poor timing, huge physical distance or emotional unavailability are simply too big to conquer.
The ingredients of a strong relationship
On top of love, there need to be many other ‘ingredients’ to make a relationship work long-term. Some are more important than others. In this MindValley Talk, relationships expert Esther Perel named the ingredients she considers essential for a strong relationship:
- Similar lifestyles or habits
- Shared religious or spiritual beliefs
- Being on the same page about having children or not
- Relationship trust
Without these, it is very hard to maintain a partnership. Two people could be absolutely besotted with each other. But if they differ greatly in these areas, impossible conflicts will eventually arise. Imagine one partner waking up at 5am and going to bed at 9, whilst the other wakes up at midday and goes out partying until the early hours. How do these two very different people build a harmonious coexistence? Resolving clashes like this would involve one partner changing their very human nature. This is a difficult thing to do.
Conflicting attachment styles
Another reason why relationships can become troubled is if both partners have differing attachment styles.
In the book “Attached”, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller outline the anxious avoidant trap. This is a pattern that many couples fall into. It is characterized by a runner chaser dynamic. There is a lot of detail to go into on this subject. Too much to go into today. But I’ll give you the basics below.
What you need to know is that this dynamic can wreak havoc on a relationship.
Basics of the anxious avoidant trap
To summarize, the anxious avoidant trap looks a bit like this:
- One partner (anxious) is very comfortable with intimacy. They want a great deal of closeness. When their partner pulls away they feel threatened. They use activating strategies to pull the partner back in
- Activating strategies can be things like: texting or calling a lot, attention seeking behavior and dropping by unannounced
- The other partner (avoidant) is uncomfortable with intimacy. They feel threatened by high levels of emotional closeness. When a certain level of intimacy is reached, they retreat. They pull away in order to feel safe. The avoidant partner uses deactivating strategies. These help them to maintain distance from their anxious partner
- Deactivating strategies can be things like: not responding to text messages for days in a row, ignoring calls or asking for physical space
- Anxious partners tend to have a weak sense of boundaries. They are prone to codependence
- Avoidant partners have vey strong, rigid boundaries. They usually have no problem enforcing them. This can trigger the anxious partner to feel threatened
- And so the cycle continues…
Many troubled relationships have problems due to this very dynamic. Unfortunately, anxious and avoidant partners tend to be very attracted to one another. These kinds of relationships are very common and can involve an immense amount of emotional suffering – particularly on the part of the anxious partner, as they are more acutely aware of their emotions.
5 signs of a troubled marriage or relationship
If you are reading this with a heavy heart because you think your relationship may be in trouble, I’m sorry. I have been there myself and I understand how gut-wrenchingly difficult it can be.
However, knowledge is power. Recognizing that you are having relationship trouble is the first step in alleviating it.
Here are 5 key signs that your relationship is really struggling, and that you might need to take action:
1. Banned conversation topic
If there are certain topics that you feel you are not allowed to raise, this is a warning sign. Are you unable to have a difficult conversation without your partner become incredibly triggered, defensive, emotional or angry? If so, you have a wider issue than the subject of that conversation. Relationship problems cannot be swept under the carpet.
2. Feeling lonely
Does your partner or spouse feel more like a housemate than a passionate and supportive lover?
Where there used to be deep and intimate conversations about your aspirations, fears, hopes and dreams, there are now only discussions about parenting or the bills.
Big lifestyle changes like having children or buying a house can certainly change the direction of a relationship. But if you find yourself having been replaced by your child in your marriage or partnership, you must take action.
Many people who have been through divorce cite having felt incredibly lonely, or having been in a sexless marriage. This is a very sad state of affairs. When not addressed, it can result in cheating, mental health issues and even suicide.
According to the 4 horsemen of relationships (Gottman Institute), contempt is the number one predictor of a failed relationship or marriage.
Contempt can be subtly woven through communication. Often it is disguised as sarcasm or light-hearted mockery. Sometimes it is more overt and takes the form of direct attacks.
Regardless of how it is delivered, at it’s core is meanness. Contempt can make the receiver feel utterly worthless. Worse still, it is often barely noticeable. The person under attack can often feel like they are being overly sensitive. They may believe they have done something wrong or that the are deeply flawed.
To perpetuate the suffering even more, those who dish out contempt towards their partner are often themselves deeply emotionally troubled. They may have a narcissistic streak and gaslight their partner into believing that their feelings of hurt are inappropriate.
4. Lack of physical intimacy
The main distinguishing feature of a romantic relationship is emotional and sexual intimacy. Alongside sex this includes things like kissing, cuddling and holding hands. Otherwise, there is very little that sets romantic partners apart from friends.
Physical intimacy is natural to happy couples. It should be desired by both partners. Withholding of intimacy is a sign of underlying frustration.
5. Passive aggressive behavior
Passive aggression is another one that is tricky to spot. In some cultures, passive aggressive communication is commonplace. This is usually through sarcasm. Passive aggression is often meant in a non-threatening way. But it is still a way of non-directly communicating dissatisfaction, or criticizing someone.
Alongside passive aggressive words, passive aggressive behavior also includes:
- Frequent and timed sighing
- Eye rolling
- Demeaning facial expressions
- Laughter and mockery
If you notice any of the above from your partner, they may have some frustrations they are not sharing.
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How to save a troubled relationship
Improve your communication to heal a troubled relationship
Do you recognize two or more of the above signs? If so, your relationship needs some work.
The common thread between the 5 signs above is poor communication. Most relationship problems have communication issues at their core. This is regardless of the individual form their problems may take.
I do believe that human beings are inherently good. We don’t mean to hurt each other. But when communication doesn’t flow, issues go unresolved. Negative emotions build and relationship problems creep in.
You can think of communication as the foundations for a strong relationship. It’s not enough alone to build a relationship. You need other things as well. But without it, things will inevitably crumble.
Three simple steps to improve your communication:
1. Be able to communicate your feelings openly, honestly and with kindness
2. Listen in a non-defensive way when your partner talks
3. Treat your partner with respect at all times.
If you are implementing the above steps and still having trouble, couples therapy could help. Sometimes the presence of a qualified psychotherapist can encourage both partners to open up. They can also mediate when things get tense. By giving tools and practical exercises, communication can become more free-flowing.
When there is free-flowing communication, we will inevitably hear things we don’t want to hear. But a difficult conversation is almost always a productive one. Knowledge is power. When we discuss rationally and without emotion, we are better equipped to walk in a new direction.
When it might be time to walk away
Sometimes, that direction is not one we want to head in. We would consider anything and everything else.
Listen. I know how difficult that choice can be. Breakups are the epitome of suffering. Life’s other challenges pale in comparison. Often we’ll do anything to avoid that excruciating pain.
Relationship trouble or emotional abuse?
This is understandable. Of course it is. But sometimes, staying in the wrong relationship can be even more agonizing as leaving. But this agony is persistent and chronic. If you are frequently fighting, being shouted at, demeaned, made to feel small, constantly criticized and put down both on your own and in front of others – this is emotional abuse.
The saddest thing about emotional abuse is that the sufferers do not even realize what is happening. Their self-esteem becomes low. They believe that they are deserving of the poor treatment. They stay trapped in desperately unhappy, unfulfilling relationships because they are afraid that no one else will ever love them. By believing this, we are depriving ourselves of the happiness we could feel elsewhere. Be this with someone else or alone.
When children are involved, the collateral damage is even greater. It is incredibly hard to grow up in a home where there is emotional abuse. But it’s a sad reality many children live through. And it affects them for the rest of their lives.
The abused person believes themselves to be at fault for the troubled relationship. They may seek relationship counseling and go to extreme lengths to ‘fix’ things. But it isn’t the relationship that is troubled. The abuser is the troubled one. And until they own up to that fact, the best thing to do is leave.
How to get out of a bad relationship
Most of us have at some point, clung onto a relationship for reasons that ultimately do not serve.
We may feel that we have already invested a great deal of time effort in a person. In our mind, this can justify us enduring decades of more misery.
Other times, the sentimental part of us romanticizes ‘the story’. Maybe we met our partner in a weird and wonderful way. Perhaps we overcame great odds or obstacles to be together.
But if our daily reality is full of suffering, anxiety and sadness? Then it is time to forget the investment. Forget the story. Get out of the relationship.
Sometimes we need to cut our losses and move on. After all, if we are devoting all of our time, energy and thoughts to someone who is wrong for us, it blocks the way for someone more suitable to enter our life.
Some mindset shifts to make leaving a troubled relationship easier
When you have decided it is time to leave, you will likely have strong emotions. Grief, loss and fear can pull you back in. Don’t listen to them. Ration and reason are your best friends. Remember these simple mindset shifts:
- You cannot will a relationship to work. Sometimes, two people are just too incompatible to be together long-term. That doesn’t detract from the meaning or the depth of the relationship. So don’t feel like you have failed, or that your connection meant nothing
- There are literally billions of people in the world. By staying in an unhappy relationship, we are limiting our potential happiness. Fear of being alone is not a reason to remain miserable
- It is often a split second choice in which two people meet. The opportunity to meet potential partners is everywhere. You simply need to get yourself out into the world
- Breakups are hard, yes. But they are part of life. Most people experience a few before they eventually settle down. Usually they say that the breakups were for the best, and that they taught them something
Trouble in a relationship does not mean a troubled relationship
Remember, trouble in a relationship does not necessarily mean that a relationship is troubled. Human beings are vastly different from each other. Our minds and emotions are vast networks of complexity. Misunderstandings, clashes, arguments and power struggles are normal.
Passive aggressive communication, withheld affection, criticism and contempt are red flags. When these appear, you must work on your communication. You could also take a look at your attachment style. If your relationship falls into the anxious avoidant behavior category, you can do some self-work on becoming more secure. Couples counseling can help with both communication issues and moving towards a more secure attachment style. If counseling doesn’t work or if you feel you are being emotionally abused, it could be time to leave.
Another alternative to saving a troubled relationship is the tantric path. When it comes to spicing up the bedroom and creating deep intimacy, tantra is second to none. I have seen clients pull their relationships back from the verge of a breakup and enter a true spiritual relationship. My single clients called in soulmate relationships. Whether you are single, married or in a relationship, take my free training for men now to get a flavor for what the tantric path can offer you and your relationship.
Why do some relationships fail?
Most relationships end. During our 20’s and 30’s, we are often emotionally immature. We do not have the communication skills to make things work. Fundamental incompatibilities and differences in lifestyle can also cause relationships to break down.
Why do people feel trapped in relationships?
- Not knowing how to exit the relationship
- Fear of being alone
- Family/friendship ties
- Children and financial reasons
How can struggling relationships turn around?
Strengthening your communication is the first step. If there are unspoken problems, resentment and tension can creep in.
Why are the first two years of marriage so important?
The first two years of marriage usually make or break it. Couples sometimes get married for superficial reasons. Once they are married, the cracks start to appear.
Trouble in a relationship vs a troubled relationship
Trouble in a relationship can be loosely defined as arguments, clashes of opinions, etc. It does not necessarily equate to a troubled relationship. A relationship becomes troubled when partners cannot argue well.
How do I find the strength to leave an unhappy relationship?
Ignore the strong emotions and feelings that tie you to your partner. Time heals all and they will fade. Consider how you feel on a daily basis. Do you want to feel like this for the rest of your life? If not, the logical thing to do is exit.
What is the difference between arguing and emotional abuse?
Arguments happen and are unavoidable. They are a normal and part of a healthy relationship. Emotional abuse is chronic and takes place over a long time.