Feeling like the love light has gone out? When relationships are in distress, it can seem impossible to turn things around. But with effort and an open heart, reconciliation is possible.
Read on to learn where this distress came from, the warning signs, and how to get your partnership back on track.
What Relationship Distress Really Means (and How Common It Is)
Let’s get one thing out of the way: “Relationship distress” is a rather broad term. It can imply conflict or disharmony in various interpersonal connections, whether with friends, family members, or romantic partners.
However, the phrase is usually used to refer to trouble connecting or overcoming differences in romantic relationships.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon, either.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) concurs that it’s among the “most frequently encountered” problems there is.
So, while it’s entirely possible for distress to affect friendships (which are incredibly vital for any integrated man), this post focuses on romantic relationships.
What Relationship Distress Looks Like: Know the Red Flags
So, what does relationships distress even look like? Here are some common warning signs that your relationship is headed into distress territory:
1. POOR Communication
Distress usually breaks down the communication, and we usually see this manifesting in two key ways:
First, arguments frequently become toxic and disrespectful. Arguing itself isn’t the kiss of death, but how you argue matters a ton.
So, when disagreements arise, are you and your partner able to have thoughtful discussions and express differing views calmly? Or do your spats turn nasty with defensiveness, criticism, and hurtful remarks?
Do you act out in ways meant to emotionally harm rather than resolve issues?
The second indicator of flawed communication is when you argue about the same old issues without actually solving anything.
In healthy, loving relationships, even serious issues get worked through via compromise so that disputes can be put to rest. But when the same sore subjects circle endlessly without resolution, resentment builds over time.
2. Feelings of Invalidation
Another sign of distress is that one or both partners feel dismissed, ignored, or invalidated.
Do you feel your needs and opinions don’t matter? Does your partner redirect conversations back to themselves often? Do discussions leave you feeling unsatisfied?
The inability to make each other feel understood and acknowledged during communication erodes emotional intimacy and trust.
3. Clashing Goals and Values
Remember when you two saw eye to eye? Now, it seems you don’t agree on much except to argue. Different views on money, family, or lifestyle priorities can make you feel like you’re on opposing teams.
Try to reflect on the sort of language you use when you’re talking about your plans. Do you use “we” often? Or is it that you no longer do (and discuss) things together? Is somebody trying to force the other to change to “fit” their way of thinking.
4. LOSS OF TRUST
Another glaring sign of relationship distress is that trust has been shattered. Infidelity can irreparably harm trust, but so can deceit of any kind. This includes constantly snooping through phones or emails.
Sure, it might be possible to reconcile and ask for a second chance. But that doesn’t mean the relationship won’t go through distress for a while first.
5. Putting on Masks
Finally, distress could leave at least one side afraid of being themselves, constantly walking on eggshells.
Maybe you feel like you have to monitor what you say and do just to avoid conflict. Or maybe it feels like your partner’s vision for you is stifling.
Either way, the ability to be real (and even vulnerable) with each other is essential. On the other hand, feeling constant pressure to be someone you’re not can corrode you from the inside out!
Where Relationship Distress Comes From
Relationship distress ultimately stems from conflict.
Of course, some conflict is normal. In fact, some experts would go as far as saying that a bit of conflict can be beneficial for the relationship—it’s a great opportunity to make real change. However, it becomes destructive when needs are expressed through criticism or contempt.
While research doesn’t point to one single cause of relationship distress, certain factors can exacerbate problems. Think of financial struggles, dishonesty, previous traumas, existing mental health issues, and so on. Even life transitions can strain relationships.
One issue here is that distress signs sometimes emerge subtly over time. Early on, people tend to idealize partners and downplay red flags, hoping flaws will fade.
Many people are guilty of overlooking issues—so much so that some evidence points out that most people aren’t as picky as you’d expect. Progression bias can make people more willing to enter and stay in relationships that don’t exactly meet their “standards.”
This might work for some folks, but it could also snowball into serious trouble later. After all, the behaviors you tried to ignore or force yourself to see as “cute” and “endearing” might become too much to put up with later, turning you and your partner into a distressed couple.
Possible Consequences & Outcomes
Letting relationship troubles fester can mess with both your mental and physical health. Research shows that couple dynamics can affect cardiovascular, endocrine, neurosensory, and immune functioning.
It’s not just the distressed couple affected, either—kids (if there are any) might struggle as well. Watching mom and dad constantly fight or seethe silently can breed emotional and behavioral problems, poor concentration, lower grades, and more.
Eventually, without fixes, all this hurt can snowball into a breakup or divorce, which can be a painful transition with long-lasting impacts in and of itself.
Coping With Distress in Relationships
Don’t lose hope if you sense your relationship is in distress. There are some interventions and tips that could help you salvage the partnership.
Seeking Couples Therapy
Consulting an accredited therapist or counselor trained in relationship dynamics can go a long way. If you go with therapy, your main options will include behavioral marital therapy (BMT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and emotion-focused therapy (EFT).
Unfortunately, many couples wait too long, thinking it’s “too late” to save their relationship. Others might try self-help first. So, get help as soon as the cracks appear in your relationship.
Effective communication means expressing needs assertively without attacking your partner. There are a lot of tips that can help you embrace an assertive mode of communication, from working on your body language to being purposeful with your word choice.
Even timing your message right and choosing the appropriate locations matter.
But the gist of all these tips is to make sure you’re really giving your undivided attention while your partner is speaking. When it’s your turn to speak, you need to accurately and respectfully convey your needs without dismissing theirs.
Tackling Conflict as a Team
Success lies not in the absence of conflict but in how disputes get resolved. So, you need to be willing to compromise when needed. And no, you shouldn’t be keeping score.
Try to approach all issues with an “us against the problem” mentality.
Beating the Four Horsemen
Renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman identified four toxic behaviors that often lead to distress and breakups: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Thankfully, though, each has an antidote.
Criticism attacks character rather than resolve issues or express needs. To beat it, use “I feel” statements to express needs non-judgmentally.
Meanwhile, contempt assumes moral superiority. The fix here is to practice gratitude for your partner’s positive traits.
But to overcome the defensiveness horseman, both of you need to take ownership of your mistakes and apologize rather than play the victim card when things get tough.
Finally, stonewalling can be defeated with self-soothing activities and briefly disengaging when emotions escalate.
Celebrating Wins With Active Construction
Some experts, like Martin Seligman, believe that there are four possible ways to respond when someone shares their victories with you:
- Active construction
- Passive construction
- Active destruction
- Passive destruction
The worst of all is, obviously, an active destructive response that delivers a message along the lines of “you don’t deserve that win.” That’s rare, and it hurts the most.
Meanwhile, passive construction responses can be something like “That’s nice, honey,” which might sound good on the surface since it’s not as mean. However, it lacks sympathetic joy.
Unfortunately, that’s a go-to response format in many distressed relationships.
What you need to do instead is to respond actively and constructively. Ask questions, offer authentic praise, and have them share details. Actively celebrating your partner’s victories, however small, can create a buffer during hard times.
Consider keeping a gratitude journal to remember all the seemingly tiny reasons you cherish your partner, too.
Relationship distress manifests in many ways and degrees. But without attention and quick intervention, communication breakdown and emotional isolation often worsen over time.
While some relationships can’t be salvaged, many can transition to healthier functioning through counseling and a quite bit of effort from both sides.
By developing assertive communication and compromising here and there, you and your partner can find your way back to each other, even after distress!
Tony Endelman is an author, blogger, entrepreneur, certified transformational life coach, certified No More Mr. Nice Guy Coach and the founder of The Integrated Man Cave.