Relationships have a certain ebb and flow to them.
They are not static. Much like any other organism in life, they have high points and low points.
The trick is to find a flow so that we are not stuck in the low points for prolonged periods of time. Sometimes, however, it seems that our relationship is at a low point and we can’t get out of it.
Almost all of us have woken up to a relationship that was hardly recognizable. It seems inconceivable how two people once so close, who shared everything, now scarcely know one another. Often it seems to be cruelly sudden and out of left field—as though we went to bed lovers and awoke strangers.
In truth, the decline of a relationship is typically not sudden. We simply have had our heads down and fail to notice what is taking place right before our eyes. We justify the growing discord and chalk most of it up to “being in a bad spot.”
There are always warning signs that things are declining. Signs that, when we notice them and do something about them, may help to correct the ship.
These signs should not be glossed over or ignored, but honored as opportunities to act upon.The benefit of the following five warning signs is that they are universal:
1. The two c’s: Criticism and contempt.
Relationships are meant to be empowering. They are meant to be portals through which each person feels seen and heard, and capable of reaching their highest potential. When a relationship begins to decline, however, we may be on both the receiving and giving end of ample criticism and contempt. We may go through our entire day without hearing a single acknowledgement of all we have done. Perhaps we poke relentlessly at our partner’s faults.
Regardless, constantly tearing down our partners, or being torn down, is a sure sign of a problem. It signals that there are issues or grievances which have not been effectively dealt with, and have festered.
Constructive criticism is a way of helping one become his or her best self. However, being disrespectful, nitpicking, and treating someone as though they are beneath you, is an effective way to make another feel worthless quite quickly. It tears the fabric which holds the relationship together.
2. Trust is where it begins and ends.
It may sound clichéd but, trust is everything. When trust is broken—and it can be broken in a multitude of ways beyond simply being unfaithful—it’s a sign that we have stopped considering what type of person our partner deserves. We stop being mindful of what they need and begin to do as we see fit, even when we know it will be hurtful to the integrity of our relationship.
Honest communication about how trust was broken and what we each need to regain it is essential, nearly as essential as each person’s commitment to working on trust in the first place. Trust is rarely restored through the efforts of one person.
Trust can be a tricky component of a relationship. When it’s in place and strong there is nothing but security but, when broken, we feel directionless. It’s easier to not break trust in the first place than it is to try and rebuild it.
3. Let’s get physical.
This is an important factor for me. I am a very emotive person and need the intimacy and connection that comes when two people touch one another. Biologically, we know that when skin touches skin our brains release a flurry of feel-good hormones, all of which help to precipitate attachment.
Sex is the means by which couples play with one another, find pleasure, and release. This helps us feel closer to our partner. Though our intimacy needs may not always be in sync, it’s crucial to show up for one another in a consistent way sexually.
Equally important is showing up affectionately for our partner outside of the bedroom—holding hands, a little nudge on our backsides, a tender rubbing of the back. All of these actions send a signal to our brains that this is someone we can safely be attached to. It’s also what allows us to feel comfortable and more open under the sheets.
Often called stonewalling, detachment is silent aggression. It is a distance or gap which arises when two people agree to disagree or simply refuse to engage about an issue. It happens quite frequently at the start of a relationship when couples are new to each other and are not yet sure how to handle conflict. However, when it is a consistent guest in an established relationship, you can bet the end is looming.
Nothing gets solved when a couple fails to engage with one another on a topic. Each partner must feel seen, heard, and supported. When they don’t, they detach. When one or both partners detach, the issue worsens to the point of no return.
We need to feel safe enough to be vulnerable. Detachment doesn’t save our hearts from being broken. It is important to get back in the game and engage and work with our partners to solve an issue.
5. Lack of empathy.
While we cannot expect our partners to throw us a pity party every time life does not go our way, the ability to empathize with one another is crucial. A lack of empathy leaves us feeling devalued, as though how we feel is not relevant or important.
Additionally, if there is a lack of empathy followed by a heavy dose of criticism, not only do we feel devalued but we feel ashamed. While the situation may be entirely our fault we do not need to be reminded of what we did wrong or what we could have done differently. Sometimes we just need someone to hold us tight and say it’s going to get better. We need to be reminded that our partner is by our side and has our back.
A lack of empathy is a sign that we’ve lost interest. We have allowed our history, mainly the bad times, to taint our images of our partners. Consequently, we fail to realize that no matter how many fights we’ve had, or how far apart we’ve grown, this is another human being with feelings. This is a person who sometimes makes mistakes and feels afraid—someone who needs our support.
If you recognize one or all of these signs in your relationship, the trick to correcting the ship, is motivation. The motivation to act. The motivation to see our own faults as well as theirs. The motivation to be vulnerable and say something. The motivation to leave if we find that we are not met on the same level.
Simply being aware is a huge step in the right direction. Awareness that rough spots are not meant to become the basepoint for a relationship and rough spots, no matter how much a part of the organic flow they may be, are ultimately signs—signs that there are ways we can improve our relationships and, in so doing, improve our ability to relate to others and ourselves.