Is the problem the relationship or life hassles?

I’ve been a Couples Coach for several years now and there’s a pattern that I frequently see so I thought I’d write about it. 

Often couples can bumble along happily enough for a few, or lots of years. All seems fine, no major problems, fairly compatible. Hurrah, we made a good choice!

But then things start to go wrong. They might start to argue or snap at one another. Or perhaps not repair disagreements so well. This may cause them to withdraw from one another a little. They may feel a bit lost. In turn they think their partner couldn’t care less. They stop feeling intimate. They might start to complain more to friends who agree he/she is in the wrong. They don’t feel loved. Then they feel less inclined to do nice things for one another. And so the spiral downwards can continue and deepen very easily. 

And once you’re in it, it’s a difficult pattern to break. It generally takes a lot of effort by both parties to stop the rot and get back on track. Often this is where some outside help can be really useful but if that isn’t an option even just reading a relationship book and working through it together can help. (I highly recommend John Gottman’s ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’). 

But the real question for today is what caused the negative spiral in the first place? Couples can assume that it’s a fundamental issue in the relationship or they married the wrong person, or have grown apart or they’re not compatible after all. However often what we find is it’s simply life stress from elsewhere. External stressors can have a really negative impact on our relationships. These stressors can take many forms:

* Having babies or young children with associated lack of sleep, lack of free time, change in lifestyle, impact on careers etc 

* Any concerns or difficulties with children or teenagers of any age

* Health problems in either partner

* Ageing parents needing care / life admin etc 

* Job losses, job stress, long working hours, out of hours emails, job travel

* Bereavements 

* Mental health issues

* Lack of fulfilment for either party

* Lack of free time either for each person or together

* Financial stress

* Moving or renovating house

* Lack of sleep 

* Poor relationships with in-laws or extended family etc.

This list could go on for a very long time and any of the items on it can have a major impact on our relationships. At a minor level we could just be more stressed or sleep-deprived and that in turn can lead to less tolerance, more grumpiness, more snappy behaviour. If that continues for a certain period of time then this relatively minor thing can start to spark the spiral downwards. Most people can tolerate a grumpy or ill partner for a while but eventually get fed up.

Worse still the same life stress can be impacting both partners at the same time. Eg a new born can mean the whole household is sleep deprived and on edge. And hence both partners are the classic combination of less tolerant AND more snappy. I think we can all agree, it’s not a great mix. 

You may also have very different approaches to how to deal with a particular life event. Eg. one may want their ageing parent to come and live in the house while the other partner thinks they could go into a care home. With many of the stressors listed about there can be big decisions to be made with huge consequences, financial or otherwise, and this in itself can lead to conflict. It’s one thing to disagree about what restaurant you want to go to, it’s quite another to disagree about who is moving in. 

Similarly if one person is going through something difficult their partner may not know how best to support them, hence giving rise to a lack of connection.

This might all sound a bit gloomy. However the really cool thing, that I’ve witnessed so many times, is that when the couple recognise how it is an external stress that has impacted the relationship, and not a fundamental problem between them, they can change the pattern. Instead of fighting or withdrawing they can choose to align and support one another, listen for what their partner needs & act on it, or choose how they want to approach the challenge together. When they do this a couple can quickly start to reverse the pattern and get back on track. And it’s truly magical when it happens. 

My question if you fancy a ponder is: how might external stressors be impacting on your relationship and how could you support one another better to face the stress as a team? 

Thanks for reading and please like/ comment / share incase it’s exactly what someone needs to read today. Sue x