Romantic relationships can be some of the most fulfilling of our lives, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their ups and down, and navigating them can be tricky. Even the most loving relationships have bumps in the road, especially when the same pain points keep cropping up.
If you feel like your relationship can use some TLC, you’re not alone—around 30 percent of U.S. married couples report severely discordant relationships. The good news is that working with a therapist can help. Here are a few anonymized examples of how therapists from the MyWellbeing community helped their clients navigate the twists and turns of their romantic relationships.
While positive relationships can boost health, the opposite is often true when it comes to more problematic relationships, and experiencing long-term emotional stress may put you at higher risk for a number of health problems. In one study, women who reported having high levels of social strain were more likely to have a heart attack or die of cardiovascular disease during nearly 15 years of follow-up than women who did not.
While elements of our relationships often feel outside of our control, there are things you can do to move in a more positive direction. The first step is identifying any problematic dynamics and recognizing the warning signs. These can include:
It can be hard to know whether what you're going through is "normal" or whether you feel like you have enough of a problem to work with a professional. But contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to wait until there’s a serious problem to work with a therapist about your relationship! If you feel like you need support with your relationship, warning signs or not, it's a good indicator that a therapist can help.
In couples therapy, a licensed therapist—often an LMFT, or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist—with clinical experience working with couples helps two or more people involved in a romantic relationship resolve conflicts, work on communication skills, learn about one another’s behaviors and pasts, and overall strengthens the relationship.
While there are a variety of types of couples therapy that can help with relationship anxiety, working through individual therapy can also help you address some of the stressors in your relationship.
“Therapy is the process in which a trained professional uses their skills and abilities to support individuals, couples, and groups in the process of healing and transition throughout the life cycle,” says Melissa Weisel. “It is a safe place where the client or clients are the focus, and their goals and wellbeing are primary, unlike most other relationships and settings.”
If you’re wondering if couple’s therapy might be right for you and your partner, this quiz can help.
In order to be truly responsive to the needs of a loved one, one must understand what he or she is thinking and feeling. What can this look like in-session?
“One of my clients talked about being upset by his girlfriend’s 'clueless' reaction to a story that he had told her about something that had happened to him at work,” said Rachel Wiss. “He angrily stated that he couldn’t believe her insensitivity. I asked him what it was that he was trying to express to her that she didn’t pick up on. ‘That I was hurt!!!’ he exclaimed. I responded by acknowledging his hurt and saying, ‘You know, I’m really glad that you told me that you were hurt, because I wouldn’t have known it otherwise.’"
"He was surprised by my words and wanted to know what it was that I had thought he was feeling. I told him that I sensed a lot of anger, but the hurt part hadn’t been clear to me. After considering this, he had the idea that his girlfriend might be more responsive if he let her know more clearly that he felt hurt. This was new information to him that could be useful when communicating with his girlfriend.”
It might seem like talking to your partner should come easily to you, but if you’re in a rut, sometimes it can be hard to talk about anything other than daily to-dos. If you need a little nudge, go through some prompts or questions, such as:
That doesn't mean you should avoid bringing up difficult subjects. Keeping concerns or problems to yourself can breed resentment. When discussing tough topics, though, it pays to be kind. Research shows that the way you communicate with your partner is important and that negative communication patterns can have a negative effect on the relationship.
“With one client, we explored her tumultuous on-and-off relationship she had with a partner for a period of a decade,” said Sung-Mun Choi. “By exploring her relationship patterns with this individual as well as her relationship experiences with other intimate relationships in her life, we were able to see that the relationship patterns she had with this individual (constant yelling, arguments) was unique to this individual and that they have been shaped through the years by each traumatic experience she had with them.”
“Her reaction to this individual today was a symptom of the interpersonal pain she had experienced with them in the past. Once she recognized this, we were able to further connect that the closer we get to someone, the more old wounds are activated. Thus, the behavior pattern of yelling was the client putting up her defense mechanism to protect herself from re-experiencing that pain. She was able to recognize that in order to make this relationship work, that both she and her partner needed to put in a lot of conscious effort in order to heal.”
At MyWellbeing we support all kinds of relationships, but especially the relationship you have with yourself. While romantic relationships are an important part of life, our relationship with ourself must be nurtured and protected.
“One client was in an unhealthy relationship with a partner of three years,” said Sohaula Depeyster. “The client feared being alone, but was also being emotionally abused in the relationship. We first explored the dynamics of their relationship and then discussed what an ideal relationship looked like for the client. The client and I discussed boundaries that were needed in the relationship, as well as how to effectively communicate. The client came to the ultimate conclusion that she needed to leave the relationship. The client and I ended sessions by discussing how to leave, fears of loneliness, how to improve other close relationships and how to be comfortable alone.”
Breakups—we've all been through them or know someone who has. Breakups can serve as comic or heart-wrenching plot lines for TV and film, fuel the creative behind some of today's biggest hits, and serve as instrumental life lessons. They can also be some of the most difficult life transitions to manage.
“A young woman felt distraught after the break-up of a long-term relationship,” said Vivan Bader. “She felt lost, unsure of herself, and had difficulty concentrating. Within the confines of a safe, confidential, therapeutic relationship, she spoke freely about her feelings, and this helped to shift her feelings of self-worth.”
Regardless of whether you ended the relationship, you were broken up with, or you and your partner made a mutual decision to part ways, a breakup can be a very challenging time. While it might not seem like it in the moment, there are ways to come to terms with a breakup, cope with any emotions you might be feeling, start to move on, and even use insights and lessons you learned from the relationship in future relationships.
“This client began to have a better understanding of what the relationship meant to her and why they broke up. She was able to challenge some of the negative feelings that she had about herself and her self-esteem strengthened. This helped her to begin to flourish in other ways in her life. She began to reach career goals, she started dating again, and eventually she fell in love with a young man and got married. The satisfaction and healthy self-esteem that she achieved has continued to this day.”
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory, a ranking system of 43 events that can contribute to illness, give divorce and separation from your partner the second and third highest rating. Breaking up is stressful, and that stress can sometimes impact our self-worth—but it shouldn’t.
“A young woman came to see me because she felt like she ‘messed up’ every relationship she had,” said Irene Zelterman. “She was sure she just didn't know what she was doing wrong because she had not learned to ‘act right.’ While she was in such a self-blaming place, she could not look at what was happening. She eventually worked towards softening the self-blame just enough so that she could objectively look at what was happening. This new view allowed her also to see what the other person’s role was in the failed relationship.”
“We are now working on her seeing her value as well as what the essential parts are of who she is. She is seeing that she is not what other people say she is. She is working on valuing her unique qualities that make her who she is. She is seeing that she can adjust her interactions if she approaches herself gently and with compassion. It is easier to learn, grow, and change in an environment of self-love and self-respect.”
Our relationships don’t happen in a vacuum; they’re part of our lives. When it comes to relationships, a therapist can help you:
“A newer client spoke for several minutes about his anxiety in his new relationship,” said Rachel Wiss. “He seemed agitated, mentioning feeling very ‘thrown off’ by not knowing clearly how his romantic interest was feeling towards him. I said, ‘It sounds like not knowing is really uncomfortable for you, a really hard place to be…’ He agreed, ‘Yes, I absolutely hate ambiguity.’ I wanted to relate with him directly and check in to see how he might be experiencing his interaction with me, so I asked, ‘How are you feeling about our interaction right now? Does it feel clear to you, or is it also ambiguous?’ He responded, ‘Actually, I don’t know, and it’s making me a little nervous.’ I wondered aloud if maybe he needed more clarity with me also. He responded by saying, ‘Yes, I would like to know more clearly what you are thinking about me in this relationship so far.’ I responded by sharing my thoughts with him.”
A therapist can help you with boundary-setting, coping strategies, self-awareness, and more. They can work with you to see the big picture and ask you questions that can help you develop clarity around your situation. They can help you learn more about you own needs, your partner’s needs, and how to communicate with them. Things in your past or your partner’s past might resurface in ways that might surprise both of you and your therapist can help you work through them. Ultimately, working with a therapist can help you and your partner grow closer and more intimate together.
And even if there is no pressing issue or you talk about your relationship in individual therapy, you can still learn to understand what makes your partner tick, how to de-escalate when arguments arise, and how to better communicate your wants and needs so that you thrive in a relationship that is fulfilling to you.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.