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Relationships under stress can be like gardens suffering in the late summer sun: wilting, not very attractive and looking pretty unhealthy.  Plants can be stressed by factors like heat, lack of water or pests.  Similarly, events can stress a relationship:  too much work or too little; illness or the death of someone close; financial setbacks. Change is an inevitable part of life, and all relationships have their ups and downs.  That doesn’t mean we always adapt to change willingly or easily – especially if the change is unwelcome.

Relationships can also be stressed by internal factors, patterns that develop over time and are like weeds in the flowerbed.  Among the biggest of these internal stressors are:

Intimacy-related stress.  A comfortable relationship can become too comfortable, with the partners coming to take one another for granted.  Easiness becomes laziness and taking one another for granted.  They stop flirting with one another, appreciating each other or expressing desire for one another.  Passion wilts, resentments grow, dissatisfaction builds.

Misplaced priorities.  For most of us, work will expand to crowd personal time unless we are vigilant about protecting the latter.  That’s especially true in today’s scary economy.  We become drones, which causes us to become isolated, short-tempered and emotionally exhausted.  We aren’t having fun!  But fun is to relationships as sunlight and water are to the garden; without enough, we stop thriving.

A breakdown of trust.  This can become a problem for all sorts of reasons – an affair, a lack of truthfulness, a withholding of information or attention.  Without sufficient mutual trust, the container of the relationship springs a leak, and the couple is in serious trouble.

Addictive patterns and other mental health concerns.  When we fall into the pattern of excusing the inexcusable, making excuses for the other, lowering our expectations, the relationship is in serious trouble.  Problems with alcohol or drug abuse sap the health from a relationship.  Similarly, depression, perfectionism, control issues and other emotional problems sabotage a relationship.  Sometimes these problems show up quickly, but in other cases it can take a long time – particularly if each partner has coped with the stress by lowering his or her expectations of the other.

If you see yourself in this description, what can you do?

  1. If something needs to be dealt with, deal with it now.  Some stressors are temporary and jut need to be ridden out.   But if either partner in the relationship is unhappy, that’s something to address directly rather than hope things may get better someday.  There are all sorts of ways some partners try to minimize their feelings.  That often comes about out of a fear of conflict.  That’s often how small problems become big ones.
  2. Keep your priorities in order.  What’s really important to you in life?  And if it isn’t your relationship, what is that saying about how your life is balanced?  Of course, successful relationships show flexibility under trying conditions to take care of what needs to be done, but there is no excuse for ignoring your partner’s needs.
  3. Stay positive.  That’s not easy in the face of serious stress like unemployment, illness or financial distress.  But remember that despair and a sense of helplessness are your enemies – not your partner.  What can you do to address these problems as a team, remembering that you’re on the same side?
  4. Are you having enough fun?  That may seem crazy if you’re feeling overwhelmed, but it’s a serious question.  Fun, exercise, eating well…these are how we take care of ourselves and one another.
  5. Support one another.  Make time to talk and keep the lines of communication open.  This isn’t always easy when we’re feeling stuck and unhappy, but it is key to relieving isolation and despair.  (Here’s a link to more about couples communication.) Remember that you aren’t a mind reader; you don’t know what you’re partner is thinking unless he tells you himself.  Our fears often lead us into dark places.  Talking things over can often lead us out.
  6. Get support.  That doesn’t mean complaining about your partner to your friends, which is a very dangerous and unsupportive practice.  It does mean reaching out, spending time with friends, staying connected with your social network.
  7. If you need professional help, don’t wait until it is too late.  Couples counselors will tell you that most couples wait far too long to seek professional help; by the time they come in, counseling is often a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship.  A good couples counselor is a resource to help the two of you nurture and care for your love for one another.

The experienced gardener knows that while some of the annuals aren’t going to make it through the summer heat, perennials are hardier – they may fade in the summer heat, but their roots are deeper and they will return to flourish next year.  Successful couples know that the same thing is true for committed relationships.