Understanding 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 one, 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 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:
- Criticism – usually used as a power tactic to make the partner feel belittled and worthless through verbal attacks
- Stonewalling – serves as a silent rebellion against resolution, either by ignoring the partner or sulking
- Defensiveness – a way of avoiding taking on accountability and putting blame on the partner instead
- 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:
- Feeling unwell / disconnected
- Muscle tension around your partner
- Feeling unloved and unworthy
- Loneliness and isolation
- Feeling misunderstood
- Being controlled or controlling
- A sense of bringing out the worst in one another
- Acting defensively
- Constant judgement and blame towards partner
- Unequal give and take
- Physical, verbal and emotional abuse
- Avoiding or clinging
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.
“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 a psychologist for relationship problems
Whether you’re single and looking to date more stable and secure partners or you’ve run into difficulties in a long-term relationship, therapy can help. For individual therapy, there are a number of different approaches that will help you explore the root of what might be causing your difficulties.
Following your initial assessment, we’ll match you to an approach that we believe best suits you and your needs. To learn more about couples therapy head here.
Frequently asked questions
If you have noticed recurring patterns across different relationships and you’re struggling to make sense of things, this can be an important sign to seek therapy.
Likewise, therapy can also help if you are experiencing a lot of conflict in your relationship and find yourself getting stuck in the same behavioural loops with your partner.
Schema Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT), Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy (DIT), Mentalisation Based Treatment and Narrative Therapy are generally the most effective approaches to therapy for relationship difficulties.
If you are in an existing relationship, it’s always helpful to have an assessment for couples therapy first so that we can assess what issues might be at play in the relationship. We may decide that individual therapy is more appropriate for you or even a combination of both. Ultimately, it also depends on whether both of you want to engage with couples therapy.
It isn’t uncommon for people to start coming to therapy on their own but when it becomes clear that something needs to happen in their relationship, the focus of the work can change and we may decide that couples therapy would be more beneficial.