At some point in your life, you’ve likely attended a party or family get-together, and everything was going great — at first. The hors d’oeuvres tasted delicious; the atmosphere was calm and relaxing; and mingling with friends and family couldn’t have been smoother. But then one of your couple friends started fighting, right there in front of you and all the other guests.
And this wasn’t merely upset, irritation or anger about small annoyances. This was about something much deeper that unfortunately took the focus off the party and turned heads toward them.
“Typically, couples have one or two areas that they have difficulty seeing eye to eye in which they get caught in a ‘cycle’ of back and forth trying to be heard or make their point,” says Christina Vazquez, a psychotherapist based in suburban Chicago who specializes in relationships and women’s midlife issues. “It is within the inertia of this cycle that resentment can build.”
It’s common to argue with your significant other — some research shows it can actually be healthy for relationships. But when there’s emotional withdrawal; more frequent snapping at each other; less giving a partner the benefit of the doubt; and just generally more irritation, pain or anger, it could be time to seek professional help.
Couples often come to therapy because they are stuck in negative communication patterns they don’t know how to break, says Traci Maynigo, director of the Supporting Healthy Relationships Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
“Healthy communication is not necessarily a natural or intuitive skill,” she says. “Couples therapy, or other forms of couples treatment, like relationship education workshops, can help couples identify patterns and replace them with healthier ones. Many MRI studies have shown that couples who are initially distressed and then engage in couples therapy actually not only feel safer with each other in their relationships but also experience the world as a safer place. The impact is so powerful that they even experience pain to a lesser extent than they would if they were still feeling distressed in their relationship.”
Couples might find themselves at an impasse and unable to successfully resolve their issues and challenges, and this is when it may be beneficial to seek professional support, says James C. Wadley, a licensed professional counselor who has offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“A therapist will be able to help them unpack and unravel each person’s sentiments so that the other can hear exactly what the other’s position is,” Wadley says. “Moreover, a good therapist will help enhance the couple’s capacity for empathy, compassion and possibly move towards a potential compromise.”
Making the choice to go to counseling can feel like a big step because it means having to admit things aren’t perfect in your relationship, which can be scary.
“Partners need to be willing and motivated to do the work — talking and listening openly and empathically around the past, current and anticipated dysfunction,” he says. “If partners are open and willing to work towards a successful resolution, therapy can help them sort and manage unmet relational expectations.”
Conflict is inevitable in relationships, Maynigo says. “It is the ability to ‘fight fair’ that contributes to relationship health. If you can initiate tough conversations gently and respectfully, take the time to truly listen and understand your partner’s perspective regarding the particular issue, and collaborate in coming up with a compromise together — rather than focusing on who is right and who is wrong — you are ‘fighting fair,’” she says.
Vazquez says each person in the relationship is responsible for managing or addressing their own issues, emotions and needs.
“This is what it means to be an adult emotionally,” she says. “Their partner, of course, supports, validates and actively listens while not trying to fix or rescue them. This avoids the relationship falling into co-dependent patterns.”
According to Wadley, after seeing a therapist, people may be given homework to complete, too.
“The homework can be attempting to have a sensitive discussion and being willing to set and adhere to boundaries, reflective writing for each person in a journal, or even taking a time out when conversations are filled with anger or rage,” he says. “Whatever the task may be, the therapist can help the couple monitor, assess and evaluate each person's investment into developing a healthy relationship.”
Working for each other
Common signs and symptoms of a fatigued relationship can include an indifference or apathy to participate in the relationship, failing to prioritize each other, a lack of appreciation and resentment (overt or covert), according to Vazquez.
Wadley adds that a relationship might also be in trouble when one or both partners are unwilling to talk to one another to successfully resolve issues; when there is a lack of intimacy, vulnerability or possibly sex; avoidance by watching excessive amounts of TV or playing video games; working long hours; increased alcohol consumption or recreational drug use; compulsive eating or loss of appetite; or long hours spent sleeping.
If someone ever feels there is a potential for their relationship to lead to mental or emotional abuse, know the signs and identify the red flags early and quickly, says Angela S. Taylor, a licensed professional counselor in Dallas.
“Once a person in the relationship starts to display that behavior, he or she has already established an unhealthy and toxic mindset about relationships,” Taylor says. “This type of mentality is consistently, deeply ingrained and needs intervention to be changed. There is a distinct path that this abuse takes often culminating in physical abuse and death. ... There are many places to go if you feel like you’re in this relationship. Most cities have free services for abuse survivors, or look for a therapist that specializes in abuse. There are also various hotlines that can point you in the right direction for your needs.”
But couples can take steps to maintain a healthy relationship, and Taylor says to keep the relationship at the top of your priority list.
“Regularly make quality time for each other,” she says. “Date nights are extremely important. Couples tend to think that being together after work is enough, but it’s just not. That time is often not quality because the couple is not actively investing in each other. They’re busy doing dinner, taking care of kids, watching TV, doing chores, looking at phones, etc. Carving out regular time for dates, that don’t include movies, allows for concentrated connection.”
Taylor says be honest about things that bother you — big and small. Look for the good in your partner and learn their love language. Have fun and laugh together, too. Lastly, know what the boundaries of the relationship are and maintain them. Have open communication about this often.
Maynigo says to learn from every argument. “Take the time to repair the relationship, take responsibility for any hurt you caused, and understand what was going on for each of you in that moment,” she says. “You’ll get to know your partner’s triggers and vice versa, and this kind of understanding will prevent future arguments from spiraling out of control.”
Overall, the responsibility is on the couple to do the work needed to progress outside the therapy room, according to Taylor.
“If a couple fully engages, their relationship can heal and frequently turns into something better and more meaningful than it has ever been,” she says.