If your intimate relationship or marriage is suffering my guess is that your problems didn’t appear overnight. Most serious relationship issues don’t surface suddenly but are the result of buried resentment, followed by a loss of fondness and admiration for your partner.
Factors such as betrayal, poor communication, or a lack of emotional attunement can lead to one or both partners questioning whether or not they should end the relationship.
How do you know your relationship is over? In a general sense, most experts agree it’s when bad experiences with your significant other outweigh the good. However, how this plays out for each couple varies greatly depending on the length of the relationship, whether or not they are married and have children, finances, etc.
Since few people take the decision to end a marriage lightly, you can assume most married couples have given it plenty of thought. However, recent research from the Rand Corporation demonstrates that couples who cohabitate are substantially less certain about the permanence of their relationships than those who are married; they report lower levels of complete commitment to their partner, especially if they are males.
Results from the Rand study also show that cohabiting relationships are associated with lower levels of reported closeness, love, and satisfaction in the intimacy dimension. They also discovered significant gender differences and found that men who cohabitate are more likely to see it as a test drive, whereas women are more likely to see living together as a step toward marriage.
If you are trying to decide whether you should end your relationship, take the following inventory and ask yourself these questions:
- Do you see yourself with your partner in five to ten years?
- Do feel you are just going through a rough patch or are your problems persistent?
- Have you had a recent honest conversation with your partner that included expressing your concerns and willingness to work on your relationship?
- Can you be vulnerable with your significant other? If not, it’s likely that you have lost trust – a key ingredient in intimate relationships that will allow you to feel safe and loved.
- Have you owned up to your part in communication breakdowns or lack of emotional or sexual intimacy? If you accept your part in the problems, it can shift the dynamic from blaming each other to finding solutions to your disputes.
- Are you holding on because you’re afraid to be alone; or, do you really love and admire your partner?
- Will staying together be more harmful than positive for you and or your children?
- Have you exhausted all efforts to work on our relationship? Consider professional help, especially if you have children. If your partner refuses, your communication has probably broken down to the point that it can’t be repaired.
One of the most common reasons for the erosion of intimacy in relationships is resentment because it often leads to withdrawal and a lack of vulnerability. According to Claire Hatch, LCSW, "If you’re bottling up feelings of sadness or anger, you end up suppressing all your feelings. You’ll find yourself feeling less joy and love, as well.” Along with this comes less warmth, affection, and over time less fondness and admiration for your partner.
Another factor that can cause couples to give up on their partner is mistrust. For instance, thirty –six year old Maura came into a counseling session complaining that her husband Conner didn’t have her best interests at heart. She said: “When I reveal my true feelings to Conner, he puts me down and I feel rejected by him. Then I lose faith in us.” In response, Conner expressed angry feelings over what he perceived as Maura’s constant criticism. He said: “I just don’t seem to do anything right” and “I don’t believe that she really loves me or values me.”
During our counseling sessions, I advised Maura and Conner to ask themselves if their feelings of mistrust were related to the present or could some be remnants of the past since they were both raised in divorced families and Maura was divorced two years prior to meeting Conner. Rather than disengaging and harboring feelings of mistrust, they decided to rebuild trust in small steps by taking responsibility for their own actions and trying to see the best in each other.
If you decide that your relationship is worth saving after taking the inventory above, try these strategies:
10 ways to restore positive feelings about your partner:
- Make a list of everything you like and admire about your partner.
- Practice being vulnerable in small steps so you can build confidence in being more open with your partner. Discussing minor issues (schedules, meals) is a great place to start before tackling bigger matters such intimacy.
- Honesty and communication are key issues in a relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about finances, your past, and concerns about extended family.
- Practice Forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it will allow you to move on. Try to remember you are on the same team.
- Take time as a couple to do things you enjoy without others (including children).
- Increase physical affection. According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, physical contact releases feel good hormones. Holding hands, hugging, and touching can release oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation. Studies show it’s released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones – lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Express thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Resentment can build when couples sweep things under the rug, so be vulnerable and don’t bury negative feelings.
- Accept that there will inevitable ups and downs. Try to be more understanding with each other – and express empathy. For instance, when your partner has a rough day, offer them a cool drink and say, “If you feel like talking about your day, let me know.”
- Don’t issue ultimatums such as “I’m leaving if things don’t improve.” Take the “D” word out of your vocabulary. According to researcher E. Mavis Hetherington, seeing divorce as an option and talking about it can increase your risks for breakup.
- Make a commitment to practice resilience and patience. In time, many of the kinks inherent in intimate relationships will smooth out.
In closing, trust and vulnerability are essential aspects of achieving intimacy in a relationship. Opening up to your partner may allow you to feel close and connected to him/her. According to renowned author Dr. Brené Brown, disengagement is the most dangerous factor that erodes trust in a relationship. The opposite of vulnerability is being paralyzed by fear and being unable to risk revealing yourself to your partner. Restoring love and trust in a relationship takes time but can be done with courage and persistence.
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More from Terry
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