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How To Detox Your Relationship (For When Things Just Feel Off)

Last updated on October 1, 2020

How is it that a wonderful, potential-filled romantic partnership can get so out of whack? You're not alone if you find yourself asking, "What's happened to my relationship? Where—and when—did it go wrong? Why do things just feel off?"

If something feels off in your relationship, here's exactly how to change things for the better. Consider it a detox for your relationship, and get ready for a good cleanse.

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Step 1: Create three lists.

You'll need to tackle three big questions to understand why your relationship feels off and start your relationship detox. Create three lists exploring the following questions:

What are the key relationship issues?

Create a solid list, getting as specific as possible. What's out of alignment, or where are things feeling toxic or stuck? Is communication a problem? Are boundary violations an issue? Is your sex life waning or unfulfilling? Has your sense of trust in each other eroded?

Importantly, you should be trying to look at your core relationship challenges and irksome dynamics without judgment or blame. One way to do this is by stepping outside yourself to imagine that you are an objective researcher conducting an honest evaluation.

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What's your role?

As objectively as possible, step back to look at the part you play in the problematic dynamics. Again, strive to view your behaviors and attitude with nonjudgmental awareness, taking on the role of an impartial researcher to focus on what could use a little cleansing on your end. Make a second list of these areas where you're contributing to the trouble: Do you tend to shut down when you're upset? Are there times you bottle up your emotions until you explode? Does a fear of confrontation keep you from speaking your truth?

This part can be a bit tricky and challenging, so be patient and kind with yourself as you create this list. Don't look at it as a self-criticism exercise; instead, view this as a list of what you want to improve.

What do you need from your partner?

Now it's time to focus on what your partner could shift that would be helpful in detoxing the relationship. It's so important to know what you want so that you can state your needs clearly. Here's your third list: what you'd like to get more of—or less of—from your partner. Do you wish your partner would be more demonstrative? Do you want your partner to put work aside a bit more often? Do you need more support with day-to-day tasks? Would you like your partner to be kinder and less sarcastic? Do you simply need to know that your partner listens when you talk? 

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Step 2: Arrange "detox dates" with your partner.

When it comes to detoxing a relationship, nothing's more effective than ongoing, honest, direct communication. You can set the stage for healthy communication by making weekly check-ins with your partner. As you or your partner might feel a little anxious at first, be sure to set a loving tone to head off any worries that the detox dates are "relationship-bashing sessions in disguise." It's helpful to set a positive intention. For example: "Let's strive to increase our intimacy and connection" or "Let's give our relationship ongoing TLC."

Collaborate with your partner to set a time and day of the week that feels ideal for both of you. It's helpful to envision your detox dates as quiet time to genuinely reflect on the relationship in an intentional, low-key way. An upbeat attitude not only decreases fear; it increases positive personal investment. Some couples enjoy talking as they walk or sit in a park, whereas others prefer creating quiet detox time in bed or on the couch. Whatever setting you choose, take care to ensure that it's as distraction-free as possible. Weekends are often ideal, as energy tends to be higher—and stress tends to be lower. Wherever and whenever your dates take place, create an inviting atmosphere of positive, loving energy as you embrace the realm of regular relationship detoxing.

The first detox date can set the stage for appreciating the strengths of the relationship while also allowing time to set a few actionable goals. You'll want to nurture a buy-in from your partner, for detoxing a partnership only works with the power of two.

Step 3: Clear out resentment.

Pay special attention to clearing out old resentments and preventing new ones. Resentments create toxicity. All too often, one or both partners create a small (or large) arsenal of built-up resentments. When these issues are compartmentalized or ignored, they tend to fester in the relationship—often gaining more negative power with time.

As you work on cleansing your relationship, you might want to create space in your detox dates for clearing out one resentment at a time. For example, you might say, "I realized that I feel really hurt when you don't let me know you'll be home late. This has been a chronic issue, and I've been storing a lot of anger and resentment about it. I also feel sad and disrespected, as I am excited to see you and share dinner together. It would feel much better to me if you'd call to let me know when you're running late. I'd like to talk about this and create a new pattern that honors both of us."

As you slowly but surely address negative issues and replace them with positive dynamics, your relationship will start to radiate.

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Step 4: Practice reflective listening.

Solid communication skills are the foundation of every healthy relationship. Although we often aren't taught how to communicate effectively (particularly within romantic relationships), it's never too late to learn—or brush up on—your communication skills.

One technique you can start consciously practicing that will help you relearn all your basic communication skills: "reflective listening," also known as "mirroring."

Reflective listening can feel a bit clunky at first, but you and your partner will find it invaluable once it's part of your communication routine. This technique focuses on listening empathetically without any sense that one partner is "right" while the other is "wrong." The goal is to create win-win communication that simply allows each person to feel understood.

How does this technique work? It's both easy and tough, for it requires a kind and nonjudgmental attitude, focus, empathetic patience, and ongoing practice. First, one partner speaks about an issue, and the listening partner focuses solely on the speaker. When the speaker is done, the listener repeats back what was said without editorializing. The goal is simply to listen empathetically to ensure the speaker feels heard. Roles are then swapped, and the other person gets the opportunity to speak while the partner listens. This strategy allows each person to feel that their thoughts and feelings are validated and understood. What could feel more connective than that?

Try using reflective listening for simple conversations first—talking about how you each felt that day or asking an exploratory question about their childhood or a previous relationship. Then move on to try using the technique for bigger issues or tenser conflicts.

Step 5: Commit.

Change happens when we take committed action. So, if your relationship is feeling off, don't give up. Embrace your power by channeling your energy into creating a healthy relationship that is free of the thoughts and behaviors that make a toxic relationship.

Change takes time—relationship detoxes don't happen overnight—so be patient and kind with each other as you clear out old toxins and create refreshing, healthy new ways of being.

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Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California. With a holistic, body-mind-spirit approach, Manly specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a master's in counseling from Sonoma State University. Manly is also the author of several books, including Joy From Fear, Aging Joyfully, and her latest book Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships & Love Fearlessly.

Blending traditional psychotherapy with alternative mindfulness practices, Manly knows the importance of creating healthy balance, awareness, and positivity in life. Recognizing the need for greater somatic awareness in society, Dr. Manly has integrated components of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga into her private psychotherapy practice and public course offerings. Her psychotherapeutic model offers a highly personalized approach that focuses on discovering and understanding each individual’s unique needs and life-path goals.