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Relationship Distress 101: Is it Them, or is it Me?

Sometimes when you’re struggling in your relationship, you might jump to conclusions. That means you might assume that it’s all you, or you might go straight to blaming your partner entirely. Pain can make us short-sighted, and it’s hard to take in the whole picture. But creating meaningful change starts by taking stock of what’s really happening.

So here are some questions to help you hold yourself and your partner accountable in a way that can lead to an improvement in your relationship.

1) What, precisely, is happening?

What I mean is, if you were a fly on the wall, what would you observe? Most distressed relationships have a certain repetitive choreography: you do this, the other person does that in response, you do THIS in response to THAT, and you’re off and running.

Most likely, there’s a discernible pattern. It might be about how things tend to escalate, or it might be how  you end up more disengaged, with one person withdrawing entirely.

By charting that pattern in as neutral and non-blaming a manner as possible (“just the facts, ma’am”), you can see how both parties play a role.

2) What are your emotional triggers? Your partner’s?

Now that you know exactly what’s happening, you can see what prompts the strongest emotional reactions in you. You might also be able to recognize these in your partner.

Often couples are unwittingly and unconsciously pushing each other’s buttons, reactivating old childhood wounds. Sometimes it becomes a conscious decision, because one partner is so shut down that the other person is doing anything he or she can to provoke engagement. Any reaction is better than none.

But it’s doing damage to the way you feel about each other. It erodes your trust. It hurts your belief that you have a true partner in the world. It destroys your sense of emotional security and intimacy.

3) Can you and your partner agree to try to stop pushing each other’s buttons?

Increased awareness is the key to change. If you can see the destructive patterns, if you can gaze a few moves ahead, then you can be teammates in altering those patterns. You can help each other recognize when things are going down the wrong road.

That means saying things such as, “Hey, we’re doing that thing again” (whatever you choose to call your particular pattern.) Then together, you can decide to either walk away from the conversation or to stay in it, depending on whether your previous pattern was escalation or withdrawal. You can choose to interact differently.

A good rule of thumb is, whatever you were doing that wasn’t working, do the opposite. And support each other in making different moves in your particular dance. You can create new steps, a healthier choreography.

Maybe you saw where this blog was going all along: Relationships are dynamic. Each partner plays a role, and it’s not apportioning blame that pulls you out of distress; it’s working together to make one another–and your relationship–better.

Photo by Adair733

Relationship Distress 101: Is it Them, or is it Me?

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2016). Relationship Distress 101: Is it Them, or is it Me?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Dec 2016
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