Relationship Crises

10 successful responses when a relationship faces unexpected challenges.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

All relationship partners face unexpected challenges. Some of these crises are easily resolvable while others can threaten the future success of even the best of relationships.

Couples who have the skills to work together to resolve distress will benefit the most and suffer the least. As a seasoned relationship therapist, I have witnessed what happens to those who conquer and strengthen themselves during these challenges, compared to those who are threatened by them.  

Over the past 45 years of my career, I have compiled the 10 most common attitudes and behaviors that often make that difference. When couples use them, they not only pull together to face their difficulties but grow stronger as a result.  

Most relationship partners have not been formally exposed to these behaviors. Their partnerships may work well when their challenges are easy to manage and they have the resources to combat them. But, when an overwhelming circumstance hits without warning, their normal coping strategies often break down. It is during those times that couples who have mastered these 10 skills of pulling together during hard times come out far ahead.

Here are the 10 skills that make that difference.

One — “We” Versus “I”

Thriving relationships balance between individual needs and those of the couple. The people who successfully integrate those two goals often refer to their partnership as “freedom within commitment.” They cherish each other’s needs for privacy and self-actualization, but not at the expense of their devotion to each other.

But, when a crisis happens, they immediately shift to put the needs of the relationship above their own personal interests. They trust that both will support each other’s personal paths once the crisis is past.

Two — Focusing Inward

A relationship in crisis must first focus and strengthen its bond when a challenge emerges. If the resources of the relationship are directed outward without that fortification, the partners can lose sight of the importance of the teamwork they need to pull together.

Couples who successfully resolve crises become of one mind and one heart before they respond. They do not make a move without the knowledge and agreement of the other partner.

Three - Stopping Energy Drains

Every couple has a reservoir of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual energies that they draw upon. When a relationship is not under fire, both partners distribute those energies as needed and replenish them on a regular basis.

When crises occur, the demand for those resources ramps up. At those times, successful couples stop any energy drains they can.

A physical energy drain, for example, might be a chronic lack of sleep. A mental energy drain could be a preoccupation with unresolved problems. An emotional energy drain is often experienced as the tendency to worry about an event that is not under control or to chronically suffer from unresolved grief. A spiritual energy drain is most often felt as a lapse in relying on something greater than self.

Too often, when those drains are not being replenished, people turn to escape routes like alcohol or other drugs. They may also become less resilient or quicker to reactive responses that create defensiveness in the other partner. 

Four — Eliminating Negative Biases

“Prepare for the worst and you’ll be ready for anything.”

“Stay hypervigilant so you won’t miss anything.”

“Just accept that you can’t control it.”

“This is probably going to get worse before it gets better.”  

These negative mindsets can keep people from seeing any options that fall outside of what they expect will happen. Being cynical, pessimistic, or expecting the worst-case scenario can pre-defeat people and keep couples from focusing on what they can do to make things better. On the other hand, pie-in-the-sky optimistic statements are not a better alternative, and may also cloud the full picture.

It is also crucial to stay away from anticipatory grief, as experiencing a frightening final ending before it happens. It is far better to stay in the moment and do what can be done rather than live a sorrow that is not yet present.

Five — Assessing Resources

“Saving money for a rainy day,” whether that is actual money or has a symbolic meaning, it is often a life-saver in terms of an unexpected need.

But there are additional resources that can also be stored away for hard times. Time, energy, love, availability, resiliency, physical vitality, social support, faith, and practiced serenity are non-financial resources that a couple can draw upon when they are under attack. It is crucial for the successful resolution of crises that these are also on hand.

Six — Putting Unresolved Relationship Conflicts Aside

All couples have issues that they put aside. Whether they are low on a priority list or haven’t been resolved, relationship partners often just put them aside. That is especially true of repeated conflicts that do not end up making things better.  

When a relationship is facing a difficult challenge of any kind, couples must make the decision to put those unresolved issues away for the time being. They need all of the energy and commitment they have to be a non-conflicted team when a crisis emerges.  

I have often watched a previously argumentative couple focus on their love-strengths when one of them unexpectantly becomes ill or faces a painful loss. Any conflicts they may have disappear in the wake of the instant re-commitment to re-connection.

Seven — Relying on Relationship Strengths

Trauma can too easily bring out the worst in people when they are frightened or overwhelmed. They can fall into the trap of blaming the other for what is happening.

For the best possible outcome during a hard time, a couple must focus, instead, on what has always made them stronger together. Looking at what they love about each other will not only make them more likely to triumph over the issue at hand but can also contribute to their being even stronger in the future.

Eight — Reaching Out for Help

Some crises can overwhelm and overcome a couple even when they have good teamwork and enough resources. But crises that last a long time or result in irrevocable loss can overwhelm even the best of intent and commitment.

Unless others, or even one partner in the relationship, is experiencing the grief that is present in some heartbreaking crises, the person who is in the midst of those feelings may still be unable to feel healing.

Some couples have family, friends, and co-workers standing by with whom they might feel more comfortable sharing those emotions. Others are far more limited in who they can trust during times of emotional or physical turmoil. Sometimes, a qualified professional with experience in trauma can be of the most help.  

What is crucial is to get whatever help is possible before a crisis leaves destructive scars that are less amenable to healing. It can become harder and harder to know where and how to reach out if a person becomes engulfed and overwhelmed.

Nine — Staying in the Present

Though you may need to draw upon what you’ve learned from past experiences and explore what options are available for the future, you will better utilize whatever resources you have if you can stay emotionally, spiritually, and physically in the present. Living in a time zone that no longer exists or one that is unknown can take lose the energy and focus you need in the moment.

If you are preoccupied with what cannot be addressed or dealt with in the present, you may find yourself too narrowly focused, missing important details. Distractions can actually inhibit physical, mental, and emotional vision. Keeping 360-degree awareness is crucial for the most successful outcome.

Stillness and quiet will always make for a better outcome in any crisis. Those who have practiced mindfulness often do better in crises of any kind.

Ten — Debriefing and Strengthening

Some crises are harder to bear than others, no matter how well a couple is prepared. And some can never be fully resolved.

Visualize your life as projected onto a screen in front of you. Make your daily concerns clearly central and clearly in focus. Place your memories from the past or plans for the future in small compartments along the edges, ready to be brought into focus when necessary.

Partners do not always see their individual “screens” as similar. As a result, a seemingly manageable crisis to one partner can feel tragic to the other. Couples who live through crises together learn to respect and support how each partner may experience what is happening differently.

When they move through and to the end of a crisis, they take the time to revisit the crucial moments they’ve been through to seek both personal and interpersonal transformation from what they’ve learned together. That gives them the strength, awareness, and renewed vitality to plan what they will do differently the next time a crisis occurs.

These 10 crisis preparation behaviors make all the difference in who a couple becomes as they go through life together. Given the importance of that goal, it is so important that they not just survive them but thrive more powerfully afterward.

Learn more at Heroic Love.