In every relationship, there are challenges of one type or another. All of us are flawed and imperfect, and in trying to maintain a long-term relationship, conflict is bound to happen. Some distress signs in a relationship may emerge subtly over time, making it more difficult to clearly identify. These types of difficulties can cause people to feel generally dissatisfied with their relationship, but without a solid explanation for why they feel that way.
Relationship patterns begin early-on. As people get to know each other, the desire to impress is strong; most of us do not actively try to deceive our prospective partners, but we certainly put our best foot forward and expend more effort to present in a pleasing way. These early patterns and interactions set an unspoken assumption and play on the most hopeful parts of ourselves. If people presented their full array of flaws from day one, there may never be a second date. In a sense, the dance of best-presentations is an evolutionary relationship-saver.
Overlooking Early Signs of Distress
Some of the earliest signs of relationship distress are overlooked or dismissed because of the desire to believe in the other person’s worthiness as a partner. Idealizing a new partner and making exceptions for their flaws is an early sign that distress awaits. That’s not to say the relationship is doomed, but it indicates that the hope for an ideal partner may outweigh the ability to look at the situation objectively.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Studies have shown that most people entering a relationship overlook flaws and place greater emphasis on their potential partner’s positive traits, even changing their standards to reflect their partner’s characteristics.
Relationship Red Flags
Whether you are in a relatively new relationship or have been with your partner for many years, there are benefits to facing the distress signs in your relationship. There are many relationship challenges that can be addressed and repaired. Common distress signs in relationships can include:
- Feeling unheard/invalidated: You notice that your partner does not seem to respond to you in ways that feel validating, or they seem unaware of your needs.
- Emotional unavailability: Your partner struggles with feeling and expressing emotions and it gets in the way of your connection as a couple.
- Incompatible values: You and your partner have values that differ so much that it alters the way you see one another.
- Lack of trust: You observe challenges with honesty, a sense that your partner is not being forthright about themselves or nagging suspicions about their behaviors at times.
- Communication problems: You and your partner struggle with talking about important topics relevant to your relationship.
- Feeling as if you cannot or should not be your true self: If the feeling of needing to be perfect for your mate continues, that could be a sign that you are not feeling accepted by them “as you are”.
The Impact of Cognitive Distortions and History
As we examine our relationships, it is also important to consider other factors that influence the way we think and feel. At times our views, interpretations and viewpoints are biased because of our lived experiences or emotional factors. All of us fall into unhelpful ways of thinking at times, and the term for this is cognitive distortions. Some types of cognitive distortion include all or nothing thinking, disqualifying the positive, overgeneralization, mental filtering, jumping to conclusions (mindreading/fortune telling), catastrophizing or minimizing, emotional reasoning, “should” statements, personalization, labeling or mislabeling, fallacy of change and control fallacies.
Cognitive distortions can factor into the way we cope in relationships. Defense mechanisms from past relationship challenges along with our views of self can make objectivity nearly impossible. Cognitive distortions, when identified, can be adjusted to a more balanced way of thinking. Though it takes practice, we can use cognitive distortions as indicators to show us where we may need healing within ourselves. For example, if someone is catastrophizing an issue in a relationship and recognizes that tendency within themselves, there is greater room for considering other possibilities than the worse-case scenario. Often when we can identify our cognitive distortions, we can deconstruct them and recognize an underlying source of insecurity or fear.
In addition, observing the ways in which life history can impact relationships is an important factor. Men and women raised in stoic environments as children may not have learned how to communicate emotions effectively. Sometimes in military families, the culture of strength and stoicism makes it challenging to talk about feelings openly, or even acknowledge feelings in the moment. All these dynamics play into the ways in which we function as individuals and as part of a couple.
Repairing Signs of Distress
With greater awareness of one’s own cognitive distortions and the relationship challenges you face as a couple it is entirely possible to repair many of the distressing aspects of your relationship. This may be an intimidating process, but the end results could be a healthier partnership. Some methods for addressing relationship challenges include:
- Offer vulnerability and you are more likely to receive it. If you want your partner to be more open with their feelings, invite them to do so in a straightforward manner and demonstrate how to express yourself with kindness and empathy. Asking your loved one to sit with you with an open heart is a huge request for someone who may not know how to do it. If you go first, it will make it easier for them to give it a try.
- Express your needs directly. When you notice yourself feeling resentful for your partner’s inability to understand your needs, it may help to explore whether you have been as direct as you can about them. Our partners cannot read our minds and often appreciate it when we are more of an open book about what we need from them. Try to avoid falling into the trap of expecting your partner to intuitively know what you need at any given time.
- Trust issues are not always indicative of fowl play. Be sure to check in with your cognitive distortions when it comes to trust; are you engaging in any thought patterns that assume the worst or generalize about others? If there are good reasons to be distrustful of your partner, it may be worth considering that this is not the person for you. You may also decide that the persistent doubt is worth it and then it will be imperative to find ways to build acceptance around these feelings.
Regardless of your relationship status and how you decide to manage the difficulties you face as a couple, remain true to your values and your sense of self. If you find that you cannot be yourself with them and this feeling persists, it may be important to examine whether being with this person is worth compromising your ability to be genuine and comfortable in a relationship. Commitment to a partner is only worthwhile when you are honoring yourself in the process.