5 Emotional Signals a Relationship Needs Help

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 9.50.31 AMWhen you and your loved one said ‘I do’, you already knew that marriage would take hard work. But you saw something special and important in your love. Every couple has their ups, downs and rough patches. You planned to work through them together.

You may not have known then just how difficult those tough times could feel later on.

Some fighting and arguing is normal – even healthy. But the point of airing disagreements is to get back to being happy together. What if that’s harder than you expected? When is it time to ask for help?

Research shows there is no single top reason that most couples seek counseling. Instead there are two number one reasons: A loss of good feelings and affection, and trouble communicating. No matter who you are — a military couple, a civilian couple, newlyweds or long-time spouses, you have probably faced one or both of these challenges.

Struggling On Your Own for Too Long?

On average, couples struggle in their relationship for 6 years before seeking help. We know this from the work of marriage expert Dr. John Gottman and other researchers. Being unhappy for so long is not only unfortunate, but extremely painful. This pain registers in our nervous system as a threat, and sets off a cascade of primal survival panic – our alarm system to protect ourselves from perceived danger at all costs.

Longstanding issues can literally wear down your body, and your love and good will — but they don’t have to. Any couple would be hard pressed to fix them without trained guidance.

How can you tell when to get help for your difficulties? You have to learn to pay attention to the emotions you and your partner are experiencing. True, this will not be easy or pleasant. But if fighting isn’t solving your problems, you can still learn something helpful by noticing what is happening emotionally, and what each of you is doing in response.

5 Emotions That Show Your Relationship May Need Help

You may find you and your partner fight about communication, sex, finances, parenting, and family relationships, or maybe you don’t talk at all. But what is really happening behind what you see each other doing? What does is FEEL like when your relationship is no longer adding to your joy and happiness?

  1. Disappointed and Sad – You’ve lost the feeling that your partner “has your back.” When you reach for connection over small daily occurrences or over larger life issues, you may experience them as disinterested, trying to fix it or they want you to get over it, or not even noticing you at all.
  2. Dismissed and Unheard – Conversations are filled with two people talking and no one listening. You feel like your partner argues their opinion and gives advice, or shares their feelings without first trying to understand yours.
  3. Numb or Angry – You feel shut down, withdrawn, numb and “nothing” most of the time. Or you may notice constant anger, which shows up as heighted annoyance, irritability and frustration. You may even find yourselves alternating between these with frequent changes between feeling “nothing” and intense anger.
  4. Isolated and Alone – You and your partner spend more and more time apart to calm yourselves and lower your stress, instead of with each other.
  5. Unsure and Anxious – You are afraid or uncertain about how to share your needs. You may not even think about or know what you need. You keep your pain and uncertainty to yourself, and only talk about “surface” things or daily logistics, if even that.

If any of these feelings outweigh the times you feel content and connected, then it’s time to seek help from a couple’s therapist.

How Couples Therapy Can Help

Relationship research shows us much about cycles of interaction that can mire couples in emotional distress. Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, shows us how patterns of pursuit and withdrawal can form and take over, even when partners love each other very much.

With EFT, couples learn to identify the painful processes that they are caught in. They work together to identify and step out of their negative cycles, and find ways to share the deeper emotions that are fueling their behavior. Even painful feelings, when shared so the other can hear them, can nurture the partnership instead of fuel more anguish.

EFT can help couples:

  • Identify and de-activate patterns of “escalation” – the negative interaction cycle and “dance” you are stuck in. You are in the cycle when one person feels numb and withdrawn, and the other is angry, which typically leads to a “pursuer” and “withdrawer” in your relationship. Partners can even shift between these two roles.
  • Learn to share your emotional experiences and needs with each other. By gently gaining access to and allowing your deepest needs and fears to surface, you allow your partner to understand how to be there for you. Your partner then learns how to respond to your emotions and needs in a way that is accessible, responsive, and engaged. This decreases your nervous system’s sense of primal survival panic, increases your sense of emotional safety and security in your relationship, also known as the attachment bond and instills the feeling that your partner “has your back.” Learning to explore your underlying feelings together helps you understand and accept each other’s experiences.
  • Integrate gentler ways to engage and support each other around past and current issues. You can use your new ability to respond to emotions to heal conflict that has previously gone unresolved. Going forward, you are better able to reach toward and respond to each other in small but deeply nourishing ways, in both the large and small aspects of daily life.

What A Loving Partnership Feels Like

By working with a skilled couples therapist, your emotional “attachment” bond feels stronger Your partnership becomes a safe haven to return to, for sharing the ups and downs of daily life, and secure base to go out from to explore and engage in the world.

This is what you had in mind at the outset, on that day you made a commitment to each other to share your lives together.

Now, instead of the unpleasant feelings that permeated your relationship before, you FEEL understood, accepted, validated, comforted, valued, and trusted. This deep sense of belonging and safety, that grows as you share your vulnerabilities — this is what it feels like to be connected and loved.

About the Author

Leigh Conant, LMFT at Mount Vernon Family TherapyLeigh Conant, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Mount Vernon Family Therapy Associates. Leigh’s passion is to help couples and families create stronger connections. She is a certified as an Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapist (IBCT) and ICEEFT Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist. She has extensive experience working with military families and couples. To out more about working with our therapists, call us at 703-768-6240

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