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The most dangerous relationship threat isn’t always what is the most visible, like a pattern of high conflict or obvious lack of kindness or disrespect.  Those are clearly problematic signs that need attention but the behaviors within a couple that are the least detectable on the surface create a significant vulnerability in the relationship.  Their emotional safety levels have taken a hit.

A relationship is in red alert if one or both are in emotional distress over a long period of time and are not communicating about it.  I’ve seen this repeatedly in my couples therapy practice and anecdotally in life.  They are often not talking about it because one or both of them are conflict avoidant or have learned that it’s not safe to talk about your feelings.  Maybe this was learned many years ago in their family of origin or during the course of the relationship itself. They might have tried to express their feelings to their partner repeatedly and felt their attempts were ineffective.

So they stop trying.

Perhaps they have always tended towards minimizing their own experience and sweeping uncomfortable feelings under the rug has been a coping mechanism.  For these people, this pattern shows up in other places as well like friendships and in the work environment.  And if you peel back the layers, you will often find this pattern was developed a long time ago in a family system where they learned that expressing emotion or sharing uncomfortable feelings would not be responded to well or not at all.

The biggest problem with one or both in the relationship having shut down emotionally in this way is that the more time that passes, the more risk there is to the relationship.  The challenge is that sometimes a couple like this presents to the outside world as well functioning and happy.  And you take this a step further in they may even semi-pretend when they are together that all is ok.  But the signs of distress are there, fraying the relationship from the inside out.

This can look like:

  • moodiness
  • impatience
  • lack of physical intimacy of any kind
  • seeking out more outside activities outside of the relationship
  • little or no signs of intimate connection (hugs, cuddling, sex, playfulness, etc)
  • depression

A relationship is in red alert because the end of road emotionally is often hopelessness.  If this point is reached, one or both essentially have internally given up on the relationship being able to provide what they need.  This is where things get really dangerous in that loneliness can lead to seeking needs being met outside of the relationship.  Affairs are often triggered by this intense unspoken need and longing.

The PsychCentral article, What It Is and Why It’s Important , describes the critical importance of “emotional safety” well:

When you don’t feel emotionally safe, you feel emotionally threatened, which causes the same bodily reactions as feeling physically threatened. You “freeze.” You hold your breath and tense your body. Alternatively, you may go into attack mode. Or you may shut down. Brain studies have shown that social rejection activates the same pain centers in the brain as getting physically injured. To your brain, physical and emotional pain are practically the same thing. And if you can’t get back fairly quickly to feeling safe and accepted, you’re essentially living in a state similar to constant physical threat.

In my therapy practice, I’ve seen couples where one has literally already silently grieved the end of a relationship months before they end up in couples therapy with me.  And the other person feels blindsided.  If only they had been able to communicate and responded well to each other’s distress, perhaps this could have been avoided.  They can start to try at that point but getting to the point of hopelessness is tricky to contend with.  Ideally a couples seeks help before one of them has landed there.

If you’re in a relationship that’s in “red alert,” having awareness of this is the first step towards course correcting.  All it takes is one of you to hold your hand up and say, “I think we’re in trouble.  Let’s see if we can do something about this.”  With therapy you can learn to show up for each other in a more open and supportive way.

It’s also important to remember that most of us function in relationships in a way we’re not even aware of.  We all have imprints, models and learning experiences about what relationships are supposed to be that informs us.  Prior wounds from earlier relationships can be healed through later relationships.  All it takes is a spark of insight, a “aha” moment to realize that there are ways you can show up for each other in a healthier and more loving way, if they are both open to this.

When I work with couples in a state of severe disconnection like this, I’m always searching for an ember of hope.  Can it be gently tended to and become a small flame?  This is ultimately up to the couple as it can be scary to try.  But potentially incredibly rewarding.

Learn about my California Online Therapy practice or if outside of the state, I can offer can an email relationship consulatation .

The post Is Your Relationship in Red Alert? first appeared on LoveAndLifeToolBox .

The authors at Intimate Tickles found this article to be quite interesting, and we though you might like it as well. This articles was originally posted at by Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT
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