The most dangerous relationship threats aren’t always the most visible; like a pattern of high conflict, lack of kindness or disrespect. Those are clearly problematic signs that need attention but the behaviors that are sometimes the least detectable can create a significant vulnerability in the relationship where emotional safety levels have taken a serious 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 their 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 ignored.
So they stop trying.
For some people, minimizing their experience and sweeping uncomfortable feelings under the rug has been a coping mechanism. For them, this pattern shows up in other places as well like friendships and in the work environment. 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 perhaps 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. When alone, they may even pretend that all is ok. But the distress are there, fraying the relationship from the inside out.
This can look like:
- 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)
A relationship in this state is in red alert because of the risk of one or both of them reaching hopelessness. If this happens, one or both essentially have internally given up on the relationship being able to provide what they need. But they are no longer talking to their partner aloud about their needs but are experiencing the emotional impact.
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.
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. Or in some cases they may slip into a state of ambivalent acceptance of their fate for the time being, especially in the case of there being children being raised.
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 when they hear that the other is essentially done. If only they had been able to communicate more effectively and responded better to each other’s distress, perhaps this could have been avoided. They can start to try at that time 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. If it’s legitimately too late to salvage the relationship, at least you can both know that you tried.
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.
When I work with couples in a state of severe disconnection like this, I’m always searching for an ember of hope. Can this ember be 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.