Is your relationship running on empty?

"I wish we’d come earlier" is a phrase that is often heard from couples who’ve taken the brave step of coming for therapy. This is usually followed by "...then things might not have got so bad between us".


It takes courage to start couples therapy, particularly when communication is breaking down, fingers of blame are being pointed, and, as often happens, one of you feels that needing therapy is a shameful sign of failure.

How do you know when to get professional help?

Cars have inbuilt warning systems to alert us when something needs attention; ignore these at your peril!

But what if your relationship is running on a low, or you have an empty fuel tank? Emotional fuel in a relationship includes mutual trust, affection, warmth, and respect. Ignore the warning signals when these are in short supply and the emotional and possibly financial costs to the relationship can be significant.

Relationship warning signals

  • You feel increasingly taken for granted, ignored, and worried that you don’t matter any more to your partner.
  • You’re not talking honestly with each other any more. Important things are going unsaid, and resentments are becoming unmanageable.
  • Rows are more frequent and repetitive. Nothing seems to get sorted out. What’s more, you’re worried about how this is affecting your children.
  • You’re not as affectionate as you were, and you’re upset that sex is not like it was, or non-existent.
  • Other relationships, or interests, are increasingly taking up the time that used to be put aside for each other.
  • The fun’s gone.
  • Differences of opinion, which you used to brush off, are causing huge rows. Parenting is one of these differences.

Romantic partnerships don’t come with an instruction manual

We all carry an imprint of our parents' relationship. Couple therapy with a specialist couple therapist can help both partners look at behavioural patterns from the distant past that play out in the present. Your couple therapist will help you understand these complex dynamics.

Couple therapy gives you both space to be understood and taken seriously and can help you move towards understanding why things have got difficult rather than point a finger of blame. This understanding can lead to increased insight, empathy, and improved communication - all tools to equip you both for the road ahead together.

There’s always more going on behind the scenes (under the bonnet) than you think.

Life cycle situations that often test couple partnerships;

  • dealing with a close bereavement, recent or otherwise, or a tough life experience/trauma that affects one or both of you
  • adjusting to life with a new baby
  • coping with job loss or a significant illness
  • managing family life with teenagers or life after teenagers (empty nest syndrome)
  • adjusting to life with a step/blended family
  • extended family difficulties

How to keep your partnership fuel tank topped up

  • Make deliberate gestures of care. Showing that you take what matters to your partner seriously can make a big difference.
  • Invest in your physical relationship. Your sex life provides the vital, intimate binding ingredient that distinguishes friendship from a romantic partnership.
  • Pay attention to 'threshold times'. These are times in daily life when you reconnect after being apart. Threshold times can be particularly important in shaping how things go between you afterwards. Try and approach these moments with care, effort, and thought. Don’t assume you know what kind of day your partner has had and what his/her expectations and needs may be.
  • It takes two to make a row - one to press the button and the other to react. But rows are the expected part of partnered life! The difficult bit, when things have hopefully calmed down, is to find the courage to say an unconditional 'sorry' for your part in the escalation. The effects of a heartfelt apology can be surprising and open up the possibility for more genuine kinds of exchange between you both. Being more honest and vulnerable with each other takes trust, but can open up a real connection.
  • Make a point of showing your gratitude when your partner has done something you appreciate. We feel valued when we’re shown that gratitude, and therefore it is more likely to happen again.
  • When you ask how the other is or how their day went, really mean it. Be genuinely interested in your partner’s response and make room for the unexpected.
  • It takes a concerted effort and a good deal of work to keep a relationship fuel tank topped up. The trust, intimacy, and support that grows from this work is the reward that speaks for itself.

Final word...

If you think your partnership needs an MOT or more in-depth attention, look for an appropriately qualified clinician with specific clinical training in couple therapy. Find the words 'couple therapist' in their list of qualifications.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SW7 & W6
Written by Elisabeth Marriner, MSc Individual/Couple Counsellor+Sex Therapist
London SW7 & W6

Elisabeth Marriner MSc, is a highly qualified, experienced psychodynamic and psychosexual Individual and couple therapist. She works in private practice in West London and as a Visiting Clinician at Tavistock Relationships.

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