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Relationship Difficulties

The ability to establish and maintain loving, healthy relationships – whether that be with family, friends or our partner – is central to our wellbeing. 

As children, we’re dependent on our care-givers to listen, understand and fulfil our physical and emotional needs. As adults, that dependency transfers from our primary caregivers onto our romantic partners. 

Difficulty maintaining relationships: what might this mean?

Psychologically speaking, we have a tendency to seek out and repeat what is familiar to us. This is all well and good if we grew up in a warm, supportive household – but less so if our needs were not met sufficiently in childhood. 

Unfortunately, if we haven’t been provided consistent love and attention from our primary caregivers as children, we might end up having difficulties forming and maintaining healthy attachments as adults. 

If you find yourself always falling into intense, short-lived flings and find it hard to maintain stable relationships, therapy can help you get to the root of why this is happening and guide you towards choosing healthier partners.

Common long term relationship problems 

All relationships go through ups and downs, and reaching a mutual place of commitment and trust can take work.

Relationship difficulties can happen for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes issues arise following a sudden, unexpected life event: the death of a loved on, a new opportunity at work which involves taking on more hours, infidelity… Other times, difficulties can seep into the relationship gradually and you can grow apart without even realising it.

All couples fight, and conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative. In fact, sometimes it can end up strengthening your relationship by improving the way you communicate and connect as a couple. However, when fighting becomes the norm it can feel like you’re stuck in a vicious cycle.

The 4 main destructive relationship behaviours are: 

1.Criticism – usually used as a power tactic to make the partner feel belittled and worthless through verbal attacks.

2. Stonewalling – serves as a silent rebellion against resolution, either by ignoring the partner or sulking.

3. Defensiveness – a way of avoiding taking on accountability and putting blame on the partner instead.

4. Contempt – a build up of negative emotions that are not properly shared with the partner and ultimately turn into resentment.

Remember, fighting with your partner doesn’t mean you have an unhealthy relationship. Instead, it’s about the way you manage fights. Learning how to communicate your needs in an assertive, and non-threatening way is an essential component of building a healthy, stable relationship.

Signs you’re in an unhealthy relationship 

We’re all different, which means we all experience difficulties in different ways. If you feel like you’re in an unhealthy relationship – you most likely are, and it’s important to follow your gut instinct. 

Below we’ve listed some of the common signs and symptoms:

Physical Symptoms

  • Feeling unwell / disconnected
  • Muscle tension around your partner

Psychological Symptoms

  • Mistrust
  • Feeling unloved and unworthy
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Feeling misunderstood

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Being controlled or controlling 
  • A sense of bringing out the worst in one another
  • Acting defensively
  • Criticism 
  • Constant judgement and blame towards partner
  • Unequal give and take
  • Physical, verbal and emotional abuse
  • Avoiding or clinging

How does couples therapy work?

Love is a skill, and as with any skill it needs to be learned and cultivated. Some couples are naturally more aware of their needs and better able to communicate them to their partners. This ability largely rests upon the way in which someone grows up – what kind of childhood they had, whether their emotional needs were met and whether they were given the power to voice them. 

Being able to form a safe, healthy relationship is vital for our mental and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes bringing an objective voice into the equation can guide you in uncovering and identifying the underlying causes of relational tension. And when that happens, you’ll have greater clarity to make a decision on how you’re going to manage the relationship going forward.

Couples therapy in London: what types of therapies are there?

Emotion Focused Couples Therapy

Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is a form of therapy which will help you better understand each partner’s needs in the relationship. It is especially helpful for couples wishing to better connect emotionally with each other, helping them form a deeper bond that has perhaps not yet been established in the relationship. EFT is a short-term therapy and will usually last anywhere from 8 to 20 sessions.

Schema Couples Therapy

Schema Therapy works on the understanding of schemas. A schema is a “life-trap” or belief about the world (or ourselves) that we adopt in response to the difficulties we experience in life. Our schemas can be traced all the way back to our experiences in childhood, and they develop according to our how our emotional needs were met – or unmet. 

Schema therapy will help you and your partner identify your core schemas so you can get a better understanding of how they are impacting your relationship. Your therapist will work with you over a longer period of time, using experiential and behavioural interventions, as well as cognitive strategies, in order that you can both get your emotional needs met in the relationship. This therapy works to change how you feel, as well as think and behave. Schema therapy is a longer term approach and sessions can last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

Behavioural Couples Therapy

Behavioural Couples Therapy (BCT) focuses around working on unhelpful behavioural patterns which may be impacting the relationship, particularly in cases where one partner is struggling with depression. It works to help you get a better idea of where you stand in the relationship – and ultimately decide if you both want to work to find a resolution or to exit the relationship. With your therapist, you’ll work to get a better understanding of the relational impact of depression and developing better communication skills. BCT is a solution-focused therapy and will typically last anywhere between 8 to 12 sessions.

To find out more about which approach to therapy might be best for you, contact us here or call 020 3930 1437 for a free phone consultation.

Relationship statistics in the UK

  • It’s estimated that around 25% of people find themselves in ‘distressed’ relationships.
  • 66% of people agree that “everyone could benefit from support with their relationships”. However, only about a fifth of people would consider seeking support if their relationship was ‘under strain’.
  • 42% of marriages end in divorce.
  • The chances of divorce are highest between the 4th and 8th wedding anniversaries, and the most common age to get divorced is between the ages of 40 to 44 years old. 
  • The most important factors in a relationship are trust (67%), followed by communication (52%), commitment (37%), shared values (34%) and personality (28%).

Common relationship myths 

“You need to be at breaking point to go to couples therapy’” 

The reverse is true: the earlier you start couples therapy, the better your chances for faster and more effective results. 

“50% of marriages end in divorce”

In the UK, 42% of marriages end in divorce. Marrying before the age of 20 is a significant predictor of divorce, while couples who marry after 30 are much less likely to get divorced. As a general trend, divorce rates are decreasing. However, for the older generations it’s actually increasing.

 “Once the passion’s gone, it’s gone”

Whilst there’s some truth that the initial infatuation that comes with starting a new relationship doesn’t last forever, it doesn’t need to mean that the passion completely disappears. It’s about learning how to balance the comfort of creating a “safe space” together with the desire for mystery and unpredictability. There are always fresh and exciting ways to reignite the passion.

“Happily ever after exists”

There’s a modern day fantasy that we’re going to find the perfect partner who meets all of our needs. Romantic comedies conveniently end at the start of marriage which means they tend to omit the less sexy parts of being in a relationship, like shared chores and responsibilities. Instead of fooling ourselves with the illusion of a perfect relationship, we’re better to set healthier expectations for love. We can substitute this idea of the “perfect partner” with the “good enough” partner – the one who’s up for working through challenges when times get tough. This allows us to see that we have a choice in who we build a relationship with, and also helps us understand that it takes respect, commitment and investment from both parties to create and nurture the future you want.

“If we are having serious problems in our relationship it means we should breakup”

Of course, in some cases, when difficulties arise some relationships need to come to an end. But this certainly isn’t the case for all relationships. Recognising something is wrong means you have the opportunity to change it. And if both parties are willing to do the work this can actually end up strengthening a relationship. Seeing challenges as an opportunity to change rather than a diagnosis of failure is key.

Self-help tools

Relationship difficulties can have a significant impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing, and if we don’t look after ourselves properly they can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders etc. If struggles in your relationship are taking their toll, it’s crucial that you prioritise taking care of yourself. Doing so is going to benefit both you and your partner as it will allow you to engage and work on the relationship from a healthier, stronger standpoint.

Self-care comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes – so it’s all about finding what works for you. If you’re still in the process of working out whether therapy is right for you, we’ve included some tips for what you can be doing to take care of yourself in the meantime:

  • Take some space (emotionally or physically) – reconnect with yourself as an independent individual rather than simply identifying as your partner’s other half.
  • Increase your self-awareness – educate yourself about what it really means to have a healthy relationship.Most importantly, take time to think about your needs, and how they are or are not being met currently.
  • Identify triggers (yours and your partner’s) – consider keeping a diary of your fights and reflect on how both you and your partner play a part in reinforcing an unhealthy dynamic. What could you improve? How would you like to see them improve?
  • Work on changing the way you communicate – when the gloves are off and you find yourself fighting with your partner, try reframing your thinking and perception. Notice if any of these behaviours are happening and try to change the way you communicate accordingly:

Labelling – instead of using you-statements, try using I-statements e.g. Instead of saying “You are horrible,” consider saying “I feel unloved when you do this [behaviour].”

Catastrophising – involves instinctively thinking that something is meant in a more vicious way, or has far worse consequences, than it actually does. Try to take some space or call an objective friend before reacting in a way you might regret.

Fortune-telling – assuming that you know what’s on your partner’s mind or why they’re acting in a certain way is a sure-fire route to getting the wrong end of the stick. Instead, try having a conversation and ask open-ended questions. That way your partner will feel heard and you can also describe where you are coming from.

All-or-nothing speak – making all or nothing statements are not conducive to effective communication as our initial reaction is to prove the other person wrong with a counter-example. Instead, try describing that you feel there is a pattern of behaviour that you would like to work with your partner to overcome.

Focusing only on the negative – instead try acknowledging aspects of your partner’s behaviour and efforts that you appreciate, and admit to areas in which you can improve. This way they’re likely to feel like you’re both in a team and more likely to take on your request.

Bringing up unrelated past incidents – far-sightedness is likely to increase the chances of feeling like you are stuck in a negative situation. Try to let bygones be bygones, or, if you feel like there may be a deeper issue at hand (eg. you don’t feel safe or heard in the relationship), discuss the deeper issue and work towards a resolution rather than layering past incidents to prove your case.

Relationship psychology books: recommended reading

The following books are a great way to start understanding your relationship dynamics better:

  • Mating in Captivity (Esther Perel, 2006) 
  • What Makes Love Last (Dr. John Gottman, 2014) 
  • Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love (Dr. Rachel Heller, Dr. Amir Levine, 2012) 
  • The Course of Love (Alain de Botton, 2016) 
  • Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships (Dr. Sue Johnson, 2011) 

Podcasts and audible guides

Apps

  • Gottman Card Decks. This fun app offers helpful questions, statements, and ideas for improving your relationship. The material has come from research from the Gottman’s highly reputable Love Lab. Similarly, you can sign up for their Marriage Minute newsletter online. 
  • Wunderlist. This app is specifically designed for couples to create ideas and do things together. Wunderlist can help you bring more lightness into mundane tasks like grocery shopping or to keep the excitement up for future holidays. 
  • Calm. The #1 app for sleep, meditation, and relaxation – helps to make you more present by lowering stress and reducing anxiety through guided meditations, stories, breathing programs, stretching exercises, and relaxing music. 
  • Headspace. Another great mindfulness app or “gym membership for the mind”. Using different mindfulness techniques, Headspace teaches you how to slow down, bringing calm, wellness, and balance to your life. 

We have a number of psychologists who specialise in Couples Therapy – if you’d like to learn more, contact us here or call us on 020 3930 1437.