It may surprise you to hear that infidelity is not necessarily the issue that worries couple therapists the most. In fact, while I recognize the emotional devastation and pain that infidelity causes, unless there is a history of habitual indiscretion, cheating on its own rarely makes me worried that a relationship will not survive the long haul. Below I talk about three relationship warning signs that actually give me (and my fellow couple therapist friends) more cause for concern.
You Don’t Spend Time Together
This is a common issue we see with couples, but I think it’s important to highlight because it has the power to very slowly undermine your marriage and your connection to your partner. Frankly, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of couples making time for each other. Typically, this is more of a problem we see with couples who are also parents, but it can creep up in relationships where one or both people work an odd schedule, or there is some other practical or logistical block. Regardless of the cause, you should think about time spent together as feeding and care. When you don’t spend time together, you’re essentially starving your relationship.
What to do: Be thoughtful about creating opportunities to hang out or do things together. It doesn’t have to be fancy—take twenty minutes each day to chat or cuddle on the couch or take a walk around the neighborhood. If your children are 6 and up, institute a rule in your household either daily or a few times a week, where there are designated periods where mommy and daddy are not to be bothered. In the long term, consider taking a weekend or vacation each year without your children or family members. Whatever you have to do, make sure that you make space for each other and your relationship, in both small and large ways.
Those Ugly Horsemen: Contempt and Criticism
I think one of the most painful things we see in couples therapy are partners who are openly mean to or dismissive of one another. Much harder than yelling and cheating, are couples who speak cruelly, and with little respect for the other person. While most of us have made petty or childish statements during a fight, this relationship warning sign goes beyond that. These are couples for whom even seemingly calm interactions are laced with barbs and subtle assaults on the other’s character or person. And when they do fight, it’s no holds barred, with no thought to how their words emotionally impact the other, and sometimes even a drive to hurt the other person purposely.
What to do: If you notice that you and/or your partner have gotten into the pattern of being openly hurtful or hostile with one another, try to determine when these behaviors started and what it would take to heal your own pain. Give careful thought to what may be fueling your anger and hurt. Ask yourself if you still respect and value your partner for who they are; and if you don’t, why? Also, ask yourself if you would be willing to do the work to be able to emotionally trust this person again. While vulnerability with this person may be unimaginable at this point, both of you will need to be willing to expose your tender sides again for the relationship to have a chance to heal. Also, strongly consider getting help from a couples therapist or other trusted person—it can be particularly difficult to escape this cycle of hurting one another.
I think, when people imagine couples therapy, they often picture two people shouting at each other while the counselor (successfully or not so successfully) tries to play referee. That’s why marriage therapy is so hard, right? All the screaming and fussing and crying? But ask any couples therapist, and they will say they prefer two people screaming at each other versus two silent souls sitting on opposite sides of the couch.
Even though it can be tricky to deal with dueling partners, when couples argue, you know on some level that at least they still care. Either their partner still means enough to them or they still have hope that things could be better, which is why they continue to fight. But withdrawn couples are often worn down from fighting, from not having their needs met, from not feeling heard in the relationship. They often have little faith or confidence that their relationship can improve.
What to do: If you sense that you have started to feel a sense of hopelessness around your marriage or relationship, it may be time to ask yourself some difficult questions, such as: am I willing to do the work to make this relationship better? Do I honestly accept things the way things are and can continue living like this? Do I believe it’s possible to get my needs met within this relationship? Do I believe it’s possible to be and express my authentic self with this person? Essentially, you need to assess whatever hope you have left, and determine if you are willing to try to make your relationship better.
If you sense that your partner has given up, then it’s time to have an honest conversation with them about how they feel about your relationship, and if they are willing to make the effort to get back on track. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if your partner has stopped fighting with you—this can sometimes mean they have given up. Instead, talk with them about what is and isn’t working in your partnership.
To be clear, I am not saying that the presence of any of the three relationship warning signs outlined above mean that the relationship is over, or that the couple cannot recover. But these are characteristics I’ve seen that reflect a relationship that is struggling in a significant way. If you notice any of these behaviors in your relationship, the worst thing you can do in this situation is to do nothing. Couples can go on in these circumstances, often for years, in this no man’s land where there is limited connection, fun, and emotional trust; often feeling trapped, resentful, or, in more advance cases, like they’re dying internally. Take action to address these concerns before they get worse.