In the beginning of your relationship, you likely overlooked your partner’s faults and vice versa. Now, months or years down the road, it’s getting harder and harder to do that. Maybe the arguments are becoming more frequent or more escalated, or one partner shuts down whenever there’s conflict. According to Kirk Honda, professor of counseling and family therapy and host of the Psychology in Seattle podcast, some amount of this is normal in any relationship. “Long-term relationships have their ups and downs,” he says. But if there are more downs than ups in yours, you might be wondering whether you’re headed for a breakup. Take a look at the following slides to see if you recognize the signs and find out what you can do to get back on the right track.
1. Chronic Criticism
Do you often criticize your partner for the way he dresses, drives, eats, speaks or even breathes? This is a strong sign that your relationship is in a downward spiral. Marriage and relationship therapist and researcher Dr. John Gottman calls criticism the first of “the four horsemen” — the communication styles that signal a relationship is likely to fail. Gottman explains that criticism is much more harmful than simply voicing a complaint because when you criticize your partner, you’re attacking his or her character. According to Kirk Honda, professor of counseling and family therapy at Antioch University and host of the Psychology in Seattle podcast, “Being critical once is not going to end your relationship, but if you’re critical over and over and over again, it will likely end the relationship.”
2. Assuming the Worst
When your partner gets home late and forgets to call, do you automatically think she or he doesn’t love you? Marriage and family therapist Doreen Meister says this is a sign that there’s a disconnect in the relationship, which could ultimately mean failure. “The problem is you don’t know the truth; you’re interpreting behavior and you’re going to respond to that unconstructively,” Meister says. When your partner arrives home, you’re likely to be cold because you believe that person has wronged you, when in fact the truth may be that she or he was merely stuck in traffic. You know what they say about assuming; in this case, it could do more than make you look foolish — it might spell disaster for your relationship.
3. Discussions Usually Start out Negative
Frequently making blanket statements like, “I don’t like it that you’re always late,” is a sure sign that your relationship is on the rocks. This kind of criticism is a negative approach to a discussion that’s bound to lead to an argument. “When you start a tense conversation, if it starts off with a negative statement, then it will almost always end negative,” says Kirk Honda, professor of counseling and family therapy at Antioch University. Honda explains that the outcomes of many conflicts couples have can be predicted in the first 30 seconds of the conversation. The way people begin a tense conversation can also predict the likelihood of their relationship lasting. “If you watch the way they fight, if they start negative, it’s a sign the relationship will end soon.”
4. Chronic Contemptuousness
Contempt is another one of marriage and relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman’s “four horsemen” — the signs that your relationship is seriously ailing. When couples are contemptuous, they treat each other disrespectfully, ridicule them, call them names, speak sarcastically and roll their eyes during conflict. If this is happening in your relationship, it’s a big red flag. Resentment is often at the root of contemptuous behavior, says professor of counseling and family therapy Kirk Honda. This is sometimes because of a past hurt, such as infidelity, although it may have no identifiable cause. “When I work with clients, it’s interesting to see that contempt emerge. It’s just exasperation with the other person. That’s a sign that the relationship will not last much longer,” Honda says.
5. You’ve Stopped Doing the Things You Love
Early in the relationship, you may have felt free to go for a morning jog, hang out with the guys or take your favorite Tuesday evening yoga class when you wanted to, but lately you’ve stopped doing those things to avoid your partner’s complaints or jealousy. Marriage and family therapist Doreen Meister says this happens due to underlying power or control issues in the relationship that, if left unchecked, can kill a bond between two people. In a healthy relationship, Meister says, both people are engaged in their lives and are flourishing together. “If you’re starting to narrow your life, then you’re ultimately not flourishing, and the relationship won’t flourish,” says Meister.
6. You’re Always on the Defensive
The third of Dr. John Gottman’s “four horsemen,” defensiveness, can erode effective communication, ultimately leading to the demise of your relationship. You’re dealing with defensiveness if you always feel like you have to defend yourself in an argument with your partner, or if your partner is always on the attack, even if you’re not being critical. Professor of counseling and family therapy Kirk Honda explains the reasons for this behavior. One is habit: “Some people are just in the habit of being defensive, and they don’t realize they’re being defensive.” The other is an inability to handle criticism: “Some people are so sensitive to the rejection nature involved in criticism that they get hurt and react out of anger,” says Honda. Either way, defensiveness spells trouble and possibly the end of the road.
7. Your Arguments Get Out of Control
Conflict in any relationship is natural, but when fights start to escalate quickly and get dirty, including shouting, name-calling and blaming, it’s a good sign your relationship is headed for the finish line. In their book “Fighting for Your Marriage,” authors Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg cite escalation as one of the four “danger signs” that can predict the end of a relationship. The authors write that couples who are happy together and likely to stay that way are not as prone to escalation as partners who are on rocky ground. If a healthy couple does experience escalation they’re able to get it under control quickly. If not, fights will continue to worsen until the relationship ends.
8. You Put Up Walls
The fourth of Dr. John Gottman’s “four horsemen” (the telltale signs that your relationship may soon break up), stonewalling, refers to one partner withdrawing from interaction, shutting down and closing herself off from the other person. Professor of counseling and family therapy Kirk Honda calls it “hostile quietness,” because it often involves the “silent treatment” or passive-aggressively agreeing to disagree. “When a couple gets together and they have their first fight, they typically don’t stonewall right away,” says Honda. “Stonewalling occurs many, many fights later. Then, when you see it happening, it typically is a sign that the relationship will end soon.”
9. You Can’t Remember Why You Fell in Love
Professor of counseling Kirk Honda says that when one or both partners can’t recall why they first fell in love, the relationship is in serious trouble. “That’s a sign that so much negativity has become infused in the relationship that it’s literally rewritten the story of their relationship.” Honda also notes that healthy couples can easily list the reasons why they fell in love, even 30 or 40 years down the line; but when a relationship is unstable, those reasons — such as “her smile” or “the way he made me feel special” — are such distant memories as to be forgotten. Without that basic foundation, the relationship is likely to crumble.
If by this point you’ve recognized one — or several — of these signs in your own relationship, you might panic. However, none of these is an automatic death sentence for your love life. “All relationships have conflict,” says Honda. The determining factor is how people deal with conflict, and that can be changed. “Things become habitual and we learn how to fight from our parents,” Honda says. “If our parents didn’t fight well, then we’re not going to fight well.” But Honda says you can save your relationship if you really want to. “It takes willingness, though, and a lot of work and a lot of time.”