December 09, 2020
Fifteen Signs Your Relationship is in Trouble
Modern times are trying, and we’ve all heard the news that relationships are failing at record rates. Some of this is situational: couples who would otherwise have made it, throwing in the towel over too many fights over bills and too little personal space. What was once easy and pleasurable now seems like a struggle—and shouldn’t a relationship enhance our lives rather than embitter and frustrate us? Against the backdrop of political regime change and worldwide pandemic, how can we know whether our relationship is suffering from mere situational stress versus deeper problems that merit serious concern?
First: working with a Gottman therapist can answer this question with an astonishing degree of certainty. Psychologists John and Julie Gottman have created a relationship-analysis rubric for determining whether a couple suffers from what the Gottmans call the Four Horsemen of conflict: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. If any of these is present, working with a Gottman therapist can help you replace these toxic behavior patterns with healthy, constructive patterns. The Gottmans are also renowned for predicting with over ninety-percent certainty whether a couple will divorce.
But how do you even know whether counseling and intervention is necessary? How can you identify whether your own temporary stress or personal perspective are behind the problem, or whether it’s time to press the relationship eject button (or at least call for backup)?
The following are fifteen warning signs that your relationship may be in trouble. I offer them with the caveat that the presence of any of these doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is beyond hope. What it does mean is that it’s time to dig deep. Keep in mind that the following relationship characteristics are also present in codependency, which may itself be the underlying issue.
- Persistent resentments and judgments – scanning one another for faults rather than strengths.
- Controlling behavior, including unilateral decision-making and withholding resources.
- Passive-aggressive or aggressive behavior, including breaking objects, tripping, and shoving.
- Off-limits communication topics that you want to address but are afraid to raise for fear of retribution.
- Too much time apart if it bothers one or both partners.
- Drug or alcohol abuse that affects the relationship or work.
- A pattern of withholding communication or affection as punishment.
- Verbal abuse in the form of repeated critical, blaming, disrespectful, defining, or manipulative comments—e.g., “All you do is sit around with the kids and do yoga” or “You have bad judgment with money, so you don’t deserve a vote in this decision.”
- Keeping secrets.
- Raging, threatening, or name-calling.
- Arguments or problems that never get resolved.
- Repeatedly putting a friend or relative before your partner.
- Inflexibility or unwillingness to compromise on decisions like how leisure time is spent, responsibility for daily chores, where to live, and whether to have children.
- Secret romances or a pattern of covert (or overt) flirtation.
- Breakdown of trust from dishonesty, unreliability, broken promises, or infidelity.
This checklist is not about keeping score or alarming you. Instead, it should be used to identify issues that need your immediate attention in order to put the relationship back on course. Many of these issues stem from a lack of healthy communication, which, in its highest form, centers around direct, respectful, honest, and personal self-expression.
When couples are afraid to be honest and stop expressing themselves, they can get into serious trouble. Often times, these communication issues come from the family of origin, as when poor modeling and lack of self-reflection leads us to repeat the errors of our past. Other relationship issues are born of a gross imbalance of power, where one partner attempts to dominate through aggression, control, or emotional, verbal, and even financial abuse. This is not uncommon in relationships with an addict or narcissist.
Whatever issue you and your partner are facing, couples counseling with a Gottman-trained therapist is your best (evidence-based) chance at relationship resuscitation. Relationships are dynamic systems, and when one partner engages in the behaviors listed above, the whole framework falters. In many cases, you can course-correct if you have the will and determination. I’ll be cheering you on.