A red flag that your relationship is headed in the wrong direction is when you’re wondering why you’re in it in the first place, according to Daniela Roher, Ph.D, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who works with couples in Arizona.
Couples often see red (flags, that is) whenever they’re unable to connect to positive feelings about each other and feel negative feelings, such as fear, anger, disappointment or resentment, she said. Other red flags include feeling unappreciated, unheard or under-valued.
“All relationships go through crossroads, often more than once,” especially if partners have been together for a long time, said Roher, who’s also co-author of Couples at the Crossroads: Five Steps to Finding Your Way Back to Love.
If you feel like your relationship is in limbo, instead of dwelling on how you got here – because everyone gets here – ask how you can get out of this spot and fix your relationship.
While Roher acknowledges that being at a crossroads is painful, she believes that if couples are willing to work, it also presents an opportunity to bond on a much deeper level. “We grow more by going through challenging times and learning [from] them,” she said.
According to Roher, “one of the most important elements in a relationship is the feeling of emotional safety.” It’s the idea that “I have your back, and you have mine,” and we’ll be there for each other, she said.
“When [partners] are in a difficult place in their relationship, that feeling of safety is gone, [and they] can’t communicate well,” she said. For instance, you might feel like your partner isn’t listening to you, doesn’t seem to care about you or isn’t attuned to your feelings. This makes it really hard to open up, reveal your feelings and try to solve the situation. However, this doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, Roher said.
Even in the best relationships, partners feel really attuned to one another just a third of the time, she said. Think of the times, for example, when your spouse wants to talk but your mind is somewhere else (and vice versa).
Moving in the Right Direction
The first step in moving in the right direction is acknowledging that you love each other and want to work on your relationship, Roher said. When she starts seeing a new couple, Roher helps them reconnect to their positive feelings about each other. “When you hear your partner say they still love you, it creates hope.”
Sometimes couples can work on improving the relationship on their own. If you’d like to try, begin by rebuilding the emotional safety you’ve probably lost. Roher said that you can create some safety by talking about the least conflictual topics. Leave the big issues until you’re more comfortable together, she said. Also, reconnect by engaging in activities you both enjoy, she added.
Other times, Roher said, the relationship is so battered and bruised that it’s better to see a professional. Therapists can help couples “create an area of safety where they can open up and talk about [their issues].”
“Couples tend to have a Disney-like view of relationships,” Roher said. They assume that being great friends and lovers will last indefinitely, she said. Such assumptions prevent couples from working hard to improve their relationship or persuade them to call it quits too soon.
But, as she explained, people forget two important points: In the beginning of a relationship, we tend to minimize the differences and maximize the similarities, and, as the years go by, we also change.
“Every marriage is made up of several marriages,” Roher said, “because five or 10 years after you marry, you’re different than you were at the beginning.” This explains why after many years together, some couples feel like strangers. People change and go in different directions.
Growing apart isn’t inevitable. You can create bridges that keep you connected as a couple, Roher said. For instance, partners can show each other gratitude, appreciation and support, she said. They can text throughout the day, send flowers or extend other small gestures that let the other person know they’re thinking about them.
They can work on goals that are important to them as a couple, and avoid making threats, she said. (No one feels safe opening up after threats of breakup or divorce.) They can spend time together by going to the movies, eating out, biking or hiking, she said.
In fact, Roher said that “creating sacred spaces” is very important. Basically, these are activities for just the two of you, which let you genuinely connect, discuss what’s important and listen to each other. This takes you away from the rigors of daily routine.
Staying connected and sharing positive moments strengthens your relationship so that when problems inevitably arise, you’re better equipped to handle them, Roher said. This helps you put things into perspective and not catastrophize (“every time we’re together, all we do is argue”).
Being a Team
When partners are in a tough place, they often feel like enemies, Roher said. That’s why it’s important to remember that you’re on the same team. She encourages readers to focus on what’s good for our relationship.
According to Roher, wait to discuss important topics after both partners have calmed down, whether this means talking later that night or the next day. This way you can have a productive discussion about what happened. It’s also important to set ground rules and discuss how you’ll handle the same situation more effectively in the future.
Avoiding a touchy topic never works. “[Avoidance is] a short-term fix that maintains a long-term problem,” Roher said. “If you avoid discussing something because you’re afraid of having an argument, it will come back again, [but with] more force [each time].”
Again, all couples go through tough times. If you still love each other and are willing to work, you can use these times to improve your relationship.