Your relationship may be cruising along, so you’re not worried about your future together. But then you hit a snag and find yourself wondering how compatible you and your partner actually are. These ‘hotspots’ put your relationship under the microscope and sometimes you may not like what you see.
“We call it ‘pinch, pinch, crunch’ theory,” says Graeme Armstrong, a relationship counsellor. “A relationship can suffer a few ‘pinches’ and will probably recover, but if you don’t tackle any underlying issues it can reach ‘crunch’ time, when it may be too late.”
However, being prepared for these ‘pinches’ means you’re better able to face them together and come out stronger as a couple.
“Every relationship will go through these difficult stages, but if you can keep communicating with care and compassion, you’ll stay committed,” says Armstrong.
When you fall in love everything seems perfect – you want to spend every minute with your partner. But after roughly 18 months, these feelings fade. This can seem like the relationship is over, but it’s perfectly natural to feel this way.
“It’s partly biological,” explains Paula Hall, relationships psychotherapist and author of Improving Your Relationship For Dummies. “When you first meet, you produce hormones designed to keep you together so you’ll get pregnant. But it’s normal for those hormones, which generate lust and excitement, to wane and be replaced with deeper feelings of intimacy and attachment.”
The end of the honeymoon period also has a psychological basis, adds Armstrong. “When you first meet, you feel fulfilled,” he says. “This person meets your needs, such as helping you feel safe or supported. But once those needs have been met, it can feel as if you don’t need your partner anymore. It may seem like your relationship is over, but it’s actually only just beginning.”
First, try to work our whether your partner is simply meeting your needs. For example, if you always had a chaotic childhood, they may be very calm and offer you a sense of stability.
Ask yourself how they make you feel, or if there are any qualities about them that you really admire. If you’re struggling, a counsellor can help you spot unmet needs from your childhood that you’re seeking to fulfil with your other half.
“You can’t possibly get everything you need from your partner,” says Armstrong, “but being realistic about each other means your relationship can mature.”
If you’re always ending relationships once the initial sparkle has worn off, you might have deeper issues such as low self-esteem or a lack of trust. You need to work out if you’re in it for the long haul.
“You could be in love with the idea of falling in love, rather than being with a real person,” says Hall. “Falling for somebody is a lot more ‘real’, so you risk being hurt.
Write down what you have in common. Are you physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually compatible? Do you have the same goals? If so, your relationship can move forward.”
“A new baby brings a tremendous amount of love and joy into your relationship, but any unresolved problems can also be magnified,” warns Armstrong. “You’re no longer you and him, you’re now mum and dad,” says Hall.
“You’ll also have less social life, less time to yourself and less time together as a couple,” says Armstrong. “Not to mention the fact you’re so exhausted it can become hard to concentrate.”
If you haven’t discussed how you’ll handle all these changes before your baby turns up, it can be pretty stressful while you try to figure them out.
“The single more important thing is to be aware of what might happen,” says Armstrong. “Have an open and honest conversation with your partner about how you want to do things. And keep talking – this is a great opportunity to teach each other about how you want your new family to be.”
Think about where your ideas of parenting come from. Do you want your child to have a similar childhood to your own, or completely different? How does that fit in with your partner’s hopes and expectations?
If you keep using your child as an excuse to avoid dealing with problems, then it may be your relationship that’s the problem, not your child.
Think about whether you’re pushing your partner away, or is something else going on? The first step is to start talking again. If that’s hard, a relationship counsellor can help you work on these issues together or separately.
Just when your relationship is on track and things are going well, something like a redundancy or the death of a parent can seriously unsettle it.
“Anything that deeply affects one of you will affect the whole relationship,” says Hall. “The person it’s happened to may withdraw into themselves or become more needy, both of which will have an impact on the relationship.”
Bereavement and redundancy are both times of loss, so the person affected will experience a period of grief. “You may feel low or depressed, and experience low self-esteem too,” says Armstrong. “Your relationship often gets pushed to the sidelines and sex can go out of the window.”
If you were caring for a parent before they died, you may not have had much time for your relationship, so it may already be suffering.
“A parent’s death also pushes you up a stage, so you may be faced with new responsibilities, like caring for older relatives or dealing with their finances,” says Armstrong.
“Some people need more space when coping with grief, while others need more attention,” says Hall.
If it’s you who is experiencing the crisis, try to be honest with yourself and your partner about what you’re going through and what you need. If it’s your partner who’s suffering, it’s important to support them, but make sure you know what kind of support they want.
“The golden rule is don’t automatically do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says Hall. “You might think you’re being helpful, but they might feel smothered.”
Some couples go into ‘hiding’ during bereavement, says Armstrong. “You may distance yourselves from other friends and refuse to talk to people outside the relationship,” he says.
“But there will come a point when you stop only talking to each other and start enjoying life again.”
If you notice yourself withdrawing, is there a friend you trust? Ask them to give you both a bit of space, but to keep inviting you out. It can take more than a year for your relationship to recover, but if nothing has changed after a couple of years, it may be time to see a bereavement therapist or a couples counsellor.
Sometimes cracks appear in your relationship when it feels like nothing new has happened for some time.
“Once you’ve got the milestones of getting married and having children out of the way, it can feel a bit like, ‘Is this it?'” says Hall.
The regular routine of life can become predictable. It can also be hard to find your partner sexually attractive when all you talk about it who’s picking the kids up, what’s for dinner and when to pay the bills.
“You can find yourselves slipping into a brother/sister relationship,” warns Hall. “You still care for your partner, but you’re no longer sexually excited by them.”
You may find yourself questioning what your relationship is all about. “This is when real life hits home,” says Armstrong. “But it’s essential for your relationship to go through this stage. It’s all about resurfacing and rediscovering who you both are.”
It’s important that you both recognise what’s happening. Talk to your partner to see if they also feel stuck in a rut, and if there’s anything they’d like to do differently. “Your relationship is still young – it’s not a slow slide into old age from now on!” reassures Armstrong.
While family is important, don’t get ‘lost’ in being a wife and mother. “The more activities you do by yourself, the more you have to bring to the relationship,” says Hall.
Start making plans as a couple too. “If the kids are old enough for you to leave them, why not to that Machu Picchu trek?” says Armstrong. “Doing something challenging can revitalise your relationship.”
Make sure you also give each other enough space. Hall says, “If you’re in constant contact with your partner, you don’t have time to miss them. Banning texts or emails means you’ll have more time to catch up on at the end of the day.”
This should also help your sex life. “Sexual desire needs difference and yearning,” says Hall. “The more you can do to stop yourself slipping into the brother/sister mode, the better.”
When ’empty nest syndrome’, hits, you can experience grief, but it also brings up worries about the future of your relationship. “When the kids leave home, you may discover you don’t know each other very well,” says Armstrong.
Hall adds, “Some couples realise that they’ve drifted apart, and all they’ve really had in common for a long time is the children.”
Being along together for the first time in years can raise several big questions. “It uncovers feelings of ‘What do we do next? Will this give us the freedom we want, or did having children actually help us avoid having to face each other alone?” says Armstrong.
Don’t panic if you’re experiencing these emotions. Instead, use those feelings to drive your relationship to the next level.
First of all, see this hotspot as a time of celebration – and a chance for your roles to shift as a couple, as your traditional labels of ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ are no longer necessary.
“You’ve been together a long time and successfully brought up children, so your relationship does work,” notes Armstrong. “Quite often, at this stage, the man softens and becomes more caring, while the woman becomes more confident and autonomous.”
It’s perfectly natural to start enjoying more hobbies or holidays without your other half, and may couples start to think about the kind of life they want without children.
Hall suggests doing this exercise:
- On a piece of paper write three columns. In the first column, your partner writes down their hopes and dreams; in the second you write yours; and in the third, write your hopes and dreams as a couple.
- Work out what goals you can help each other achieve. It might feel strange after putting your children first for years, but persevere.
“If you can use these challenging times to make changes, rather than suppressing your feelings,” says Armstrong, “you’ll discover a richer and more rewarding relationship.”