In the beginning of a relationship, you tend to overlook your partner’s flaws. As time passes, it becomes harder to ignore the things that make you mad or frustrated. As partners, your lives together won’t always be perfect, but it’s important to feel heard and loved in a relationship. Winifred M. Reilly, a marriage & family therapist and the author of IT TAKES ONE TO TANGO, shares signs your relationship could use some help–and explains what to do next so that you can turn things around.
People say it all the time: Relationships are hard. But how hard is too hard?
With all the demands and frustrations we juggle—managing children and work, finances, in-laws, and who’ll do what, when–it’s no surprise that we’re not head over heels, 24/7.
“I never expected to be madly in love for a lifetime,” one client said recently, “but I didn’t expect madly in love to become just plain mad.”
While every relationship will have its ups and downs, here are some serious downs you don’t want to ignore:
#1: Small conflicts turn into big ones.
No matter how compatible you are, the two of you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye about everything. Sometime you’ll talk things out, sometimes you’ll fight. The red flag is when conflicts get mean, when attacks get personal, and when “I don’t like what you did” becomes “I don’t like you.”
#2: Important issues never get talked about.
Avoiding conflict is just as troublesome as indulging in conflict. It takes courage to tackle difficult issues head on. Especially when one or both of you get highly reactive. Sex, money, how many hours your partner spends on her or his phone, how much is too much alcohol… left unaddressed, these issues don’t get better and likely get worse.
#3: You’re so busy thinking of your retort that you can’t listen to what your partner is saying.
We all want to be understood. We want our partner to listen to us, to take our concerns seriously. In order to listen, we need good self-soothing skills, an ability not to take everything personally, and a capacity to tolerate difference. When these skills are lacking, your relationship will feel more like war than love.
#4: You shut down or lash out under pressure.
When the going gets rough, it can be difficult to remain steady and calm. Faced with anxiety, most of us either blow up or give up. The middle path is to increase our capacity to tolerate difference and discord. Otherwise, anxiety runs the show.
#5: You expect your partner to do what you want.
Why? None of us does everything we’re asked to do. Getting what you want is a negotiation, not a command. And yes, sometimes one person digs in and resists all influence. Or one person aims to overpower the other—two additional signs that your relationship needs some help.
#6: You hear yourself saying things like “if you loved me, you would….”
As the saying goes, what’s love got to do with it? Your partner may well love you and still not put away his shoes, agree to have dinner with your sister, curtail her spending, have sex while the kids are downstairs watching TV. Getting what we want via coercion erodes good will.
#7: You keep an emotional ledger, tracking who did more, who’s getting the short end, worrying that you’re giving more than you get.
Like it or not, what your mother told you in third grade is true: Life isn’t fair. Getting stuck on fairness will give you a relationship based on stinginess instead of generosity. Unfortunately, stinginess begets more stinginess, which is a miserable way to live.
#8: Conflicts end with a winner and a loser.
While victory might be sweet, your delight will be short-lived. A win-lose dynamic destroys trust and engenders resentment. If you win and your partner loses, it turns out that both of you lose and so does your relationship.
#9: You think you shouldn’t have to ask for what you want. Or you think asking once should be enough.
Your partner cannot read your mind, nor will he or she anticipate your every desire. It’s your job to advocate for your concerns, even though you have no guarantee that your requests will be granted. As for needing to ask more than once? It’s part of being a grown up. It’s your job to try to influence your partner and it’s your job to accept disappointment gracefully.
#10: You want things to get better but you can’t get your partner to join in the effort.
Conventional wisdom says that “it takes two,” that in good relationship partners meet in the middle, put in a 50-50 effort, do their fair share. The trouble with this way of thinking is that it keeps people stuck, needing their partner to take action before they do. The alternative is that one partner takes the lead. One partner advocates for change, changes his or her behavior or ways of responding, sets a high bar, and aims to meet it.
The good news: no matter how many of these ineffective behaviors are at play in your relationship, you can learn healthier ways to relate. No matter how stuck you are, no matter how hopeless you feel, whether or not your partner joins in the effort.
Ready to take the next step? IT TAKES ONE TO TANGO will show you how.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy an excerpt from IT TAKES ONE TO TANGO called “Why Marriage is a Choice.”