If you’ve been together for a substantial period of time, there’s a fair chance that at some point you’ll find yourself saying (or at least thinking) these three fateful words: This isn’t working. When that happens, these four even more dreadful words—I want a divorce (or I want out)—are just a hop, skip, and jump away. And all too often, all that’s standing between these two sentences is guidance from a professional. Before you can seek help, though, you’ve got to admit you have a problem.
Perhaps your struggling marriage resembles that of Monica and Dan. Two years after the birth of their child they haven’t been able to satisfactorily divide parenting responsibilities and constantly argue about how to raise their son.
Or maybe you’re more like Chris and Lena, for whom the bank account—and how it should be allocated—is a constant source of friction. Every time the checkbook or credit cards come out, so do raised voices, accusations, and contempt.
Still, other couples may identify with Adrienne and Adam, for whom past infidelity is a constant black cloud…or with Nadia and Tyler, who have almost completely disengaged from one another…or with Sarah and Stephen, whose interactions pendulum between bitter sarcasm and icy silence.
These couples are just a few examples of how struggling relationships manifest. Whatever the details, there usually comes a point when your problems grow too big for you to work through alone. There’s just too much hurt, anger, and misunderstanding.
What’s more, if you’re like many married couples, you never even saw the crisis coming.
In the stress and chaos of everyday life, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the ways in which everyday issues can become insurmountable problems over time. The more these seemingly small elements increase, the more likely a couple is to divorce—and the more evident it is that they might benefit from couple therapy.
First, though, you need to recognize when professional help is needed. Here are 10 warning signs of a struggling marriage. Especially if several of these signs are present, seek couple therapy right away:
1. Few arguments ever get resolved. Most couples have common issues they argue about: money, the division of household labor, in-laws, parenting, and more. And that’s normal! The idea that happy couples don’t argue is a complete myth. In fact, prominent couple researcher John Gottman found that even "master" couples—those who stayed happily married over many years—argued regularly. Problems begin to creep in when arguments become chronic, personal, and unresolved.
When couples find they can’t resolve key issues in their marriage, the relationship is in trouble. Extreme stonewalling—a refusal to give ground or compromise—is actually a reliable predictor of divorce.
2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around certain issues. "We’re spending too much money—we should set up a budget." "If we want to feel better, we need to get up off the couch and be more active." "I feel like you aren’t telling me everything. What’s wrong?" In healthy marriages, these comments might lead to productive discussions, even if a certain amount of conflict takes place first. But in other relationships, similar observations might only spark arguments, tears, misunderstandings, blame, or name-calling.
When that’s the case, many individuals might prefer to avoid hot-button topics altogether. If you find yourself avoiding topics and protecting yourself from conflicts, it’s a sign that there is a lack of safety in your marriage. It’s never advisable to blurt out whatever you’re thinking whenever the impulse strikes—you should always avoid being unnecessarily hurtful or angry—but for a marriage to remain healthy, it’s crucial for the lines of honest communication to remain open.
3. You find it difficult to reach to your partner for emotional support. For a variety of reasons, emotions are often a stumbling block for couples. One spouse (often—but not always—the husband) may see emotions as irrational, undesirable, or unhelpful. In other cases partners may not understand the reasons underlying why the other person feels and reacts a certain way.
The truth is, a full, shared emotional life is important for couples. That’s because emotions are what organize and prioritize our lives. No matter what causes emotional disengagement, it drains the life from a marriage. If you no longer trust your spouse with emotional vulnerability, your relationship is at risk.
4. You find yourself spending less time together for no good reason. We’ve all known couples who seem to co-exist as roommates in the same house, living largely separate lives instead of approaching life as partners. While this type of relationship may not be characterized by spectacular blow-ups and window-rattling arguments, it’s still headed for trouble.
Even if your marriage dies with a whimper instead of with a bang, it’s still dead. Partners who choose to spend less time together without purpose are often enacting emotional disengagement. No, you don’t have to (and in fact, you shouldn’t) spend all your free time with your spouse. But do keep in mind that time is a crucial resource for sustaining intimacy. If you want to spend as little of it as possible with your spouse, something isn’t right.
5. Your arguments often include criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. Once again, all couples—even very healthy ones—argue. The difference is, healthy couples argue without extreme criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. In other words, they remain focused on the issue at hand instead of using the argument as an excuse to attack each other.
When conflicts take on patterns that include attacks against a partner’s character, mind-reading, counter-complaining, and insults or name-calling, damage is being done to the emotional security of the relationship.
6. It has been months since you showed your partner you needed him or her, or vice versa. In the hustle and bustle (or outright chaos) of everyday life, it can be easy to assume that your spouse knows how you feel about him, or to take for granted what she means to you. But when these feelings remain unspoken and unacknowledged for too long, problems can take root.
Shared vulnerability is how partners show and share intimacy. When husbands and wives stop depending on each other, their relationship loses its importance, and closeness is lost.
7. Anger and frustration over couple issues has turned to apathy and indifference. Especially when important topics are at stake, beware of phrases like, "I don’t care," "Do whatever you want," and "Have it your way." In researcher John Gottman’s two-decade study, the only couples who didn’t argue had grown distant and were headed for divorce. That’s because giving up on an important issue is usually a step toward giving up on the relationship.
A complete lack of conflict isn’t a sign of an exceptional relationship; it indicates that you and your partner no longer place enough value on your marriage to do the hard work of maintaining it. Spouses who give in to apathy and indifference are purposefully moving away from the marriage.
“If you find yourself avoiding topics and protecting yourself from conflicts, it’s a sign that there is a lack of safety in your marriage.”
8. You find yourself trying to control circumstances rather than trusting your spouse. Controlling actions within a marriage can take many forms—for example, restricting access to money, disapproving of outside relationships, putting the other person down, or playing on a partner’s emotions to get what you want. No matter how they manifest, controlling actions usually indicate one thing: that the perpetrator is insecure in the relationship. Perhaps he feels injured or misused, or is fearful of how his partner might act if not otherwise influenced. Either way, these efforts at control undermine efforts to rebuild trust.
9. You don’t share personal thoughts and feelings without fear of criticism. Say that your partner is being considered for a promotion at work. While a great honor, this promotion would also require your family to relocate to a different city. You’d like to discuss the fact that a possible move makes you uncomfortable, but based on past experience, you know that your spouse will accuse you of being "selfish" and "not supportive." So you bottle up your fears and keep your mouth shut.
Fear of your partner’s lack of care and concern is a sign of an insecure marriage. Managing this fear through withdrawal is a short-term solution to eroding trust, which can threaten a long-term relationship.
10. A difficult life event has caused strain. Certain life events can place a lot of stress on couples and families. They include: getting married, losing a job, the death of a family member or someone close, a serious illness or disability, the birth of a child, depression or another mental health issue, a natural disaster, children leaving home, addiction, and a crisis with one of your children.
The changes to a couple’s daily routine that these events necessitate, not to mention the emotional distress they cause, can spark dissatisfaction, dysfunction, and conflict. Many times, couples come to therapy while experiencing one or more of these common life events, or soon after.
If you and your partner have been facing one or more of these issues for some time and haven’t made much headway in resolving them, consider making an appointment for couple counseling. And please don’t feel ashamed that you need to call in a professional. Human relationships—and especially marriages—are very complicated; and often our beliefs about how they should work are full of misunderstandings.
The good news is that an emotionally focused couple therapist can use the strong emotions you’re feeling to pull you and your spouse back together, instead of allowing those feelings to continue pushing you apart. Making the decision to attend couple therapy may not be easy—and therapy itself won’t be easy, either; but if your marriage is on the rocks, taking this step might mean the difference between separating and staying together. Often, the safety, support, and guidance couples need to heal simply can’t be found in any other resource.
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are co-authors of "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies." Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy. Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.