How do you know when your relationship is in trouble and when you should get professional help?
Can you and your partner can work out your conflicts on your own, or is it time to seek couples counseling?
There’s no easy answer to these questions. All healthy couples have arguments or heated discussions from time to time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to commit to couples’ therapy.
On the other hand, working through relationship issues with the help of an experienced professional can help you and your partner build a strong, loving partnership, so that disagreements and arguments don’t become toxic deal breakers that derail your relationship.
Relationship breaking points and how to spot them
If you’ve been asking yourself, “How do I fix my relationship?,” you may already be at a breaking point.
A breaking point is when an argument or disagreement starts to become invasive in your life. Is it impacting your other relationships? Is it impacting your work? Is it impacting your health? Those are the three main areas we look at.
In order for us deliver a diagnosis, some area of your life has to be negatively impacted. According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), for example, if someone comes in and says, “I’m crying all the time, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat and I’m a mess,” but they confirm this state of mind is not affecting their work or their relationships, we couldn’t give that person a diagnosis of depression.
The definition of “breaking point” we rely on comes from the DSM, and it’s when a conflict is beyond merely an argument or a healthy discussion. If an argument, recurring feelings, or anger you’re experiencing is affecting your work, if you can’t go from work to play, if you can’t let the argument go and still function at work the normal way – that’s very telling. Being stuck in this pattern is challenging, and it’s an ideal time to take stock and realize this may be your breaking point.
What we see frequently with couples that seek our help is that they’ve been doing the same thing over and over and over – not just arguing repeatedly, but having the same argument, only with different details. For example, one person is late, so the other person gets angry about that, and the person who is late feels chastised or scolded, so there’s no communication for a day or two. Then everything’s fine for a few days, until another conflict comes up and the same cycle repeats itself.
This is what’s known as “burying,” and it’s a big part of emotional and relationship problems. But if you can spot this pattern, you can address it. A healthy approach is noticing the pattern, then thinking, “I’m going to try this a different way, I’m going to try a new approach, I’m going to handle this differently.”
Our approach to creating healthy relationships
Trying a different approach is what we do in therapy. We can’t predict the future or read minds, so we don’t say, for example, “Do this exact thing and your relationship will improve.” It’s a more collaborative process – we’ll make suggestions for things to try, then come together to assess the results. Did things get better? Did the discussion go better? Was there less volatility? The goal is to come up with an approach that works for both of you, to create a series of “baby steps” both partners feel comfortable taking.
Making small changes, smart choices – that’s the key. If you take the incremental steps we create together in therapy, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t, and recalibrate from there. It’s very important to have this trial and error approach, because what works while your children are small, or while you’re in the early stages of your relationship, may not work when you’re in the middle stages or the mature stages of your relationship.
Let’s look at the argument that arises from one spouse being late. In that case, I might advise the husband who complains about his wife’s tardiness to try the “I feel X when you do Y” approach, rather than attacking, criticizing, or scolding her.
For example, he could say something like, “I get really irritated when you’re late for our dates, it makes me feel like I’m not important or our date isn’t important.” If you’re the husband in this scenario, taking it on as your issue, your hurt, your problem, will help make your partner less defensive and more agreeable to engaging in the discussion with you. She’ll be much more willing to change than if you approach the problem with an accusation of, “You’re always late.”
Is it time to get professional help?
If you’re starting to question whether you’ve arrived at a relationship breaking point, that may very well be the breaking point. This is an ideal time to reach out for help in navigating the situation, so you can figure out how you got here, and how you and your partner can work together to move forward.
We’d love to support you in this process. You can call us, and we’ll guide you in determining if you’re ready to seek couples counseling. And remember – just because you call a mental health professional doesn’t mean you’re committed to a lifetime of therapy. There are many stages between reaching out for direction on the best path forward and making the commitment to therapy.
These stages can include talking on the phone, emailing, or coming in for one assessment or meeting. We’ll support you in finding the best solution for your situation, whether that means one session or a longer commitment to therapy.
Begin the path to a healthier, happier relationship
Breaking the pattern that’s keeping you and your partner stuck in an unending cycle of conflict is key, but you can’t break the pattern if you’re not aware of it in the first place. That’s a big part of what we do – we help you see the pattern, then work with you and your partner to determine ways to overcome it.
If you’re in a rut and having the same argument over and over, or your heated discussions are negatively impacting your work, your health, or other relationships, we’d love to help.
Here are a few resources to support you on your journey to a happier, healthier relationship:
If you want help identifying relationship red flags and behaviors, check out our guide, Read the Red Flags: How to Spot and End a Toxic Relationship here.
If you’d like to set up a coaching appointment or get other one-on-one assistance, check out your options here.