A distressed relationship is absolutely as miserable as it sounds.
“It’s a relationship defined as having clinically severe difficulties that seriously impact on one or both partner’s physical and mental health, and our research (from a sample of 20,980 UK adults) shows around 18% of married or co-habiting couples consider themselves to be in one,” says Relate relationship counsellor Gurpreet Singh.
“This is not about the odd row or falling out about where to spend Christmas. All relationships are a work in progress, and just as you solve one problem, another one pops up, which is completely normal. In a distressed relationship, levels of communication have broken down so badly that the people within it feel utterly locked into a destructive pattern of behaviour. In any relationship, you will have a difference of opinion. The issue is not the fact you feel differently, it’s about how you resolve it.”
We live – and love – in stressful times, and rare is the couple that hasn’t grappled with financial or job insecurity, say, which put a relationship under pressure. Coping with young children is another common flashpoint, with 22% of couples with children under the age of 16 admitting to a distressed relationship – by far the biggest sub-group found within the study.
“This is particularly worrying because we know that children exposed to these kind of unhealthy relationships do less well at school and are at higher risk of developing antisocial or even criminal behaviours, as well as poor mental health themselves,” says Gurpreet.
“It can have a profound effect on their life chances, and no parent wants to expose their child to that kind of toxicity. But it’s hard to manage a child’s behaviour when you’re struggling to manage your own.”
From distress to success
The importance of being able to regulate (or “take ownership” of) your own emotions is essential if you’re to stand a chance of breaking the distressed relationship cycle, says relationship counsellor and author Susan Quilliam.
“People in distressed relationships tend to immediately take their negative feelings out on their partner, leaving the other person feeling stuck and helpless under the weight of all that turmoil,” she says. Surprisingly, only 9% of those surveyed by Relate said they had considered divorce or separation but this isn’t necessarily good news, adds Susan.
“It just means it feels ‘safe’ to treat your partner badly because you know that the chances of actually splitting up are small,” she continues. “But what this does is perpetuate the cycle, so that such behaviour becomes normalised. Before you know it, you’re in a bad patch that’s lasted two years or more.”
Indeed, thinking of your relationship in terms of “distress” rather than being on the brink of divorce can be isolating in itself, says psychologist Emma Citron, because it’s something that people feel reluctant to talk to friends and family about.
“Many people feel it’s disloyal to their partner and that if they’re not splitting up, they shouldn’t make a fuss,” she says. “A useful way to tackle this is to seek counselling for yourself before considering couples therapy. If you’ve been in a distressed relationship for some time, it’s easy to lose perspective of what’s ‘normal’ and you need to evaluate where you’re at before you can start to work on your life together as a couple.
“Talking to someone about your feelings helps you sort through them so that you begin to feel reconnected to your own life, rather than just fire-fighting your way through every day, which in turn will help you feel clearer about what you do and don’t want. Rare is the relationship that meets all of your needs, but it may meet some, and sometimes that’s enough.
“That said, if there’s a bullying and dogmatic personality at the heart of the issues, and you don’t feel that the relationship can change, you may need help to leave – likewise a relationship in which you experience physical abuse.”
Be careful about compromise, too.
“People see it as the holy grail of the healthy relationship but it depends on the spirit in which the compromise is made,’ says Relate therapist Gurpreet Singh.
‘If you genuinely concede ground because you can see how much it matters to your partner, fine. If you see compromise as a ‘sacrifice’ that you’ll continuously remind your partner of until both of you are bitter and resentful, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t help.”
How to reduce stress for you and your family
Research shows that relationship breakdown increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, which Relate estimates costs the UK economy £48 billion a year.
“The profound social and human cost may be far greater,” says Gurpreet. “If even a tiny part of you still believes in your relationship, be the one to initiate change, and ask for help if you need it.
“I’ve seen couples ready to divorce and locked in the most destructive patterns of behaviour who manage to turn things around. As long as you both agree to work at it, chances are you’ll get something out of it.”
For more on relationship distress, watch Relate’s Breaking Point video below.