This article was written by Cari Wira Dineen and provided by our partners at Prevention.
The sound of his chewing is beyond annoying. And let’s not get started on how she never, ever makes the bed. “These little issues are totally normal in any relationship and aren’t indicative of whether or not your romance will survive,” says Melissa Cohen, a couples therapist in Westfield, New Jersey. But, according to Cohen and many other relationship experts, there are several warning signs they notice during sessions that signal bigger problems—and threaten the viability of their patients’ relationships. Ready to assess the strength of your union? Here are nine big red flags to look out for.
1. Your Conflicts Include Criticism and Contempt.
Instead of saying, “Please unload the dishwasher,” it sounds more like this: “Do you have some sort of mental condition? Or are you just too stupid to remember to do what I asked?” Notice how the criticism is not about the task—it’s about the person. Any version of “What is wrong with you?” basically attacks the other person’s character, which, when done regularly, can chip away at the relationship. As for the contempt part, that means you feel superior to you partner. Often, this can sound like, “Why do I have to do everything around here? You do nothing to help out.” Contempt is also expressed nonverbally: eye-rolling, sneering, or imitating the person’s mannerisms. And contempt just causes more conflict.
If you are stuck in a cycle of negativity, Cohen suggests that you make five positive comments to offset one negative comment. “If, say, you criticized your husband about his terrible driving, force yourself to make at least five endearing comments throughout the rest of the day to smooth things over,” she says.
2. Trust is Totally Lacking.
There is no worse deceit than when a partner has cheated, either sexually or financially. “It breaks the trust in the relationship, and sometimes the breach is not fixable,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. If the couple wants to fix it, the person who broke the trust needs to be willing to be accountable to their partner, tell the truth, and give up some privacy until the trust is repaired.
3. There’s Not a Lot of Touching Going On.
“Touch is the building block of connection and intimacy in romantic relationships,” says Cohen. “While happy couples do tend to touch more, the true indicator of a healthy relationship is not how often your partner touches you but how often he or she touches you in response to your touch.” In short: The stronger the touch reciprocity, the higher the emotional intimacy and satisfaction in the relationship.
Similarly, it’s a bad sign if a couple’s body language shows that they’re trying to ward off the other person (they both have their arms or legs crossed or sit at an angle with their back toward their partner), says Carole Lieberman, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based couples therapist and author of Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live With Them, When to Leave Them.
This all begs the question: What if you’re still active in the sack? That doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship is healthy. “We’ve all seen relationships that are super sexy but also super destructive,” says Cohen. So make an effort to up the touching outside of the bedroom, too.
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4. There’s Too Much Drama.
If a couple fights all the time—especially if there’s violence on either side—Tessina always recommends that they live apart. “The couple has to learn to give up the drama—the temper tantrums, hissy fits, and name-calling—and learn to communicate in a healthy way,” she says.
5. No Big Emotions Are Expressed.
On the flip side, it’s also not good if neither partner cries or expresses big emotions—even anger—and are instead cold toward each other, says Lieberman. “It means that they’ve gone past the point of hurt and have cut off all feelings toward one another,” she says. Lieberman says that it’s actually better when a couple is yelling, screaming, and crying, rather than sitting there expressionless and turned off. “When someone acts as if they can’t wait to get out of the session, they’ve already decided that therapy won’t work and the relationship is over,” she says. Tessina concurs: “If one or both parties won’t talk about what he or she feels and thinks or one of them won’t listen, the relationship won’t make it unless that person makes a change.”
6. Someone Has Outside Entanglements.
If one partner is involved elsewhere (either with a romantic affair, with an ex, or is even too caught up with work, other family members, or children) and won’t devote time to his or her partner, the relationship is in trouble, says Tessina.
7. You’re Losing Interest in One Another.
You sit at dinner and don’t speak to each other. You don’t have any shared hobbies. “Sometimes, I see a marked lack of affection, humor, active interest, excitement, or joy,” says Cohen, who points out that when this happens it may seem like everything is fine because there’s not a high level of negativity or arguing. But it’s still dangerous. “Couples simply stop sharing their inner world with each other,” she says. And when they stop being friends, the relationship can’t grow.
8. There’s a Total Lack of Empathy.
A relationship has reached critical mass when there is little or no identification with the other person’s feelings. “This makes both partners feel alone and uncared for because neither of their hurts and pains are being acknowledged,” says Raymond. Often, the couple becomes cruel to one another in an effort to make the other one suffer to experience how bad he or she feels, she explains.
9. There’s Zero Motivation to Make Any of It Better.
“When I work with a couple, the first thing I do is look each one of them in the eye and ask, ‘Do you want this relationship?'” says Tessina. Asking this question usually brings out the truth—sometimes a person will bring in their spouse in order to break up with them. “They’re either afraid to say they’re not interested anymore because they fear a violent or angry response and they’re looking to me for safety, or they’re afraid to hurt the partner’s feelings, and they want me to make it easy,” says Tessina.