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8 Behaviors That Signal a Relationship Is in Trouble

How couples can see darkness looming early enough to turn things around.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

I have spent the last four decades helping both established and newly-in-love couples understand the kinds of behaviors that signal potential relationship damage.

Though there are countless reasons why sincerely committed relationships don’t make it, there are some very clear indicators that the partners can be aware of that can prevent that loss. These destructive actions can take many forms, but they all can destroy the basic trust and closeness that are evident in successful relationships.

Whether they newly-in-love partners or those in a committed relationship, all intimate partners need to be on the watch if either of them begins to behave in any of the following eight ways.

1. The Distribution of Resources Change

The resources of an intimate relationship include finances, time, affection, availability, and interest. How those resources are shared by each partner is an indication of how fair and valuable they feel to each other.

When love is new, the resources that feed the relationship are freely given and willingly shared. Sadly, as love loses its initial fantasy and luster, the partners often become more self-serving and feel entitled to those resources.

They may begin to complain more that they are not getting what they feel they should and that the changes signal less interest or care from the other.

These are the kind of statements that are clear warning signs:

  • “You’re never available anymore when I need you.”

  • “You spend more time now with your friends than you do with me.”

  • “You’re at work much longer hours. Are you having an affair?”

  • “Who are you texting so much of the time?”

  • “We used to do so many things together. Now, you’re always tired. But, when other things come up that you’re more interested in, you suddenly have the energy to do them.”

  • “Why are you spending money on so many things that have nothing to do with us?”

  • “We always used to cuddle in the mornings before work. You’re out of here before I can even wake up.”

These kinds of comments reflect the changes in priority that the partners once had for each other. They reveal that other interests are using up resources that were once first set aside for the relationship.

2. A Partner Seems Preoccupied

Remember when you couldn’t wait to talk to your partner? The first thing you’d do when you reconnected was to focus on each other and to catch up on the time you’d been apart. Both of you were a high priority to the other and eager to reunite before life’s other demands interfered.

Bids for connection, availability, fulfillment, inquiry, and affection seem to fall on deaf ears. One or both partners are preoccupied with whatever is more important at the time than being fully present for each other.

It can feel as if one or both partners are withholding, daydreaming, focusing on something more important, or just not interested in what the other is saying or needing. The partner experiencing the other begins to feel dismissed, erased, or just not important.

These are the kind of expressions that are clear warning signs:

  • “I walk out of the shower stark naked and you don’t even look up.”

  • “When I ask you about work, you just give me summations or curt answers like you are uninterested in sharing what’s going on there. You used to consult me about your decisions and wanted my input.”

  • “I’ve asked you three times about where you want to go for dinner, and you don’t even look up or you just tell me to figure it out. We used to think it was fun to plan these things together.”

  • “I shouldn’t have to tell you what I need. You used to know. Now you want me to send you a manual when I know you already have that information.”

  • “We never cuddle or talk in bed anymore. You’re just reading or staring into the ceiling. Don’t I matter to you anymore? Please tell me what’s going on.”

  • “Hello? Is anyone in there?”

  • “What’s going on, honey. You seem so preoccupied and it feels like you’re shutting me out.”

3. A Partner Quickly Shuts Down Communication

When love is new, most couples are deeply interested in each other’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Attempts at communication are met with focus, presence, and patience. Each new idea is met with curiosity and sustained interest.

As intimate partners lose interest in one another or become too able to predict answers and explanations, they often resort to responses that put a cap on the attempt to prolong the interaction. Capping is a technique, conscious or unconscious, that effectively stops the other partner from continuing to make an effort to connect.

Just imagine any one of these responses to your reaching out to share something with your partner. Would they make you want to continue sharing what you were thinking or feeling?

  • “That’s a really stupid idea.”

  • “You’re always complaining about your mother’s behaviors. What are you doing to make her act that way?”

  • “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

  • “Why do you let these stuff like this even bother you. Just let them go.”

  • “I’ve heard you complain about these things over and over. Get real about what to expect.”

  • “You did what?"

  • “This conversation is really boring.”

  • “I think you’re way too reactive here. Give the other guy a break.”

  • “Let me tell you how you should have handled this.”

  • “If you’d just learn to listen, maybe people would open up more to you.”

4. Partners Become More Negatively Reactive

Passion and enthusiasm are wonderful characteristics and normally enhance a relationship. They stem from a person’s love, interest, and participation in the things of life that make them alive and excited.

However, they share an emotional kinship with a dark twin. When levels of intensity are intertwined with negative reactivity, the partner on the other end is likely to be squelched and beaten down.

Negative Reactivity is a set of behaviors that curtly and dismissively snap at the recipient. They signal irritability, impatience, rejection, and being burdened by the bid for connection. Whether the partners who are snapping are preoccupied with personal issues or something they don’t like about the other partners, they are giving a clear message that they don’t want the interaction to be happening at all.

People who communicate well with one another let each other know when they are unavailable for contact, and share when they will be more available. They also want to know how important their partner’s need is at the moment, and take that into consideration.

Without that honesty, it is up to the other partner to figure out when it is okay to connect, or to risk the curt and dismissive reaction.

These are typical comments that should be heeded as warning signs:

  • “Why do you always pick the wrong time to talk to me?”

  • “I can’t listen to your crap right now.”

  • “What makes you think that you can bother me whenever it’s convenient for you?”

  • “Come and talk to me when you have something important to say.”

  • “You know I don’t want to talk when I’m in the middle of something.”

  • “You’re so incredibly needy. Can’t you talk to someone else about this for a change?”

  • “You’re wearing out your welcome with your constant demands. I told you I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

5. A Partner Is Secretive

Transparency, authenticity, and honesty are crucial behaviors that are prominent in every good relationship I’ve seen. They are the hallmarks of open communication that help couples know each other deeply, along with what to expect, and how to handle it.

Secrecy is the opposite of those behaviors. It is the intent to withhold information from a partner to avoid loss of options if he or she were to know. It is very different from privacy, which everyone is entitled to. Privacy does not hurt a relationship’s trust. It is simply the right to keep thoughts and feelings to oneself that needs to be resolved from within that person and are not potentially dangerous to the other partner.

When intimate partners keep secrets, they behave in ways that feel contradictory to what they say they are feeling or doing. When questioned, they are typically defensive, evasive, or answer questions in nonsensical or irrational ways, leading the other partners to feel more insecure and unable to understand the difference between what they see and how that is different from what they hear.

Sometimes passive/aggressive behavior can have the same effect. A passive/aggressive partner promises more than he or she can deliver and then avoids all confrontation when those promises are not kept. Sadly, all behaviors that seem or feel secretive typically ring bells of alarm to the partners on the other end of them. Their beseeching inquiries, never answered with full transparency, only serve to make their insecurities more prominent.

The partners feeling they are being excluded from the truth often express these kinds of words:

  • “You’re coming home later and later at night from the office? Is something going on?”

  • “We used to lie in bed and talk in the mornings. Now you’re up, showered, and out before I even wake up? Where are you going?”

  • “You’re going out with your girlfriends for dinner again? Last week you didn’t come home until eleven and you were staggering. Did someone else bring you home?”

  • “There are several withdrawals for cash from our bank account last month. What did you use them for?

  • “Your best friend called here last night looking for you. You told me you were out to dinner with him. Where were you?”

  • “Somebody is texting you in the middle of the night? When I reach for your phone, you grab it away from me and tell me it’s just a nuisance call. Three times this week? C’mon. Who is it?”

  • “You changed your password on your IPad without telling me. That’s never happened before. Are you hiding something?”

6. The Relationship Feels Stagnant

Discovery is the most important contributor to continued excitement, interest, and desire in every intimate relationship I counter predictability and boredom. In new relationships, the continuous flow of new information keeps both partners interested and interesting.

All too often, the partners in committed relationships learn all they can know about one another, and stop seeking, or delivering, new adventures with each other. It’s as if they once ran a great race together and now have become the pit stops where they simply refuel and give the more exciting parts of themselves outside of their relationship.

Sometimes, couples challenge the stagnation of boring predictability by seeking new experiences together outside of the relationship. Alternatively, one or both may have interests outside of the relationship and bring those discoveries back home to share.

When most partners begin to feel bored with each other, or the relationship, they typically first request to do more interesting things together. If those requests are ignored or put off, they will usually try harder to give or get more stimulation and discovery from the other for a while. If those entreaties still are ignored, the relationship will begin to stagnate, and the partner who stays bored may seek aliveness elsewhere.

The following are examples of reaching out for more excitement:

  • “Honey, we never do anything really fun anymore.”

  • “You seem so into yourself these days. You hardly share your life with me like you used to. What’s going on with you?”

  • “We seem so routine and mechanical in our sex life. Are you feeling the same way? Do you want something different?”

  • “I’ve asked you so many times not to just have the same conversation every time we go out to dinner. We need to be more stimulating to each other, don’t you think?”

  • “Can we please set aside some time and plan a real vacation, just the two of us? We’re really in a rut, and I’m worried.”

  • “I hate to say this, babe, but I’m really bored with our relationship. I’m not blaming either of us, but I really need something different to look forward to. Same-old, same-old is just not cutting it anymore for me.

  • “You sure are the hit of the party when we’re out with other people. No one would want to date the guy I live with.”

7. More Fighting

Successful conflict resolution is one of the pillars of a quality relationship. Partners who know how to identify and willingly attack differences and problem without pre-judgment or assumption, learn from their disagreements.

Couples who do that fall into disputes like all others do, but, they don’t endlessly rehash the same arguments. Instead, they debrief when both are calmed down. Like a great athletic or business team, they go over what happened, talk about each of their accountability in what went wrong, figure out how they can do it better next time, and promise each other they will do their best to keep those agreements.

When conflicts are not successfully resolved, they result in resentment, martyrdom, or withdrawal, and continue to fester. Each time the same problem comes up again, those negative interactions build over time. Relationships get better when the percentage of unproductive arguments lessen and worse when they increase.

This is what people sound like when their negative interactions are getting more prominent:

  • “I’m sick of trying to settle anything with you. We just keep going over the same sick arguments and it never gets any better.”

  • “Are you going to play the martyred card again, so I’ll end up the bad guy again? Why don’t you just skip the pretense and tell me you don’t like me, okay?”

  • “You act like you’re trying to get me to take all the blame upfront. We both know you’re just wanting the argument to stop and you think I’ll go away if you get me to agree. Well, guess what? That’s not going to happen this time.”

  • “Haven’t we had this same go-around a hundred times. We both know you’re going to walk out the door when you can’t get your way. Why don’t you just do it right now and get it over with?”

  • “I don’t know why I even try to talk to you. You never listen and you always think you’re right anyway.”

  • “Don’t just walk in here and start belly-aching. I’m sick of your constant complaining when you don’t even ask what’s going on first?”

8. You’ve Stopped Touching as Much

Not all people want the same amount of physical contact whether it is manifested in affection, sexual interaction, or just being near each other. Most couples, over time, find a balance between each other’s needs and try to work out any differences.

If over time, those agreements begin to markedly change, the partner who feels that shift is more likely to express his or her distress. If the other partner is preoccupied with stress, illness, or a crisis, he or she can express those legitimate reasons and the couple can work it out until their normal physical relationship is restored. But if that shift represents a gradual one-direction pull-away, the relationship may be in trouble.

These are the typical expressions of someone who is missing touch:

  • “Sweetheart, what’s the matter? You pull away every time I reach out for you. Are you angry at me?”

  • “Please tell me if you aren’t attracted to me anymore. It’s really hard to see you turn over in bed without the hugs we used to have.”

  • “When I ask for a hug, you seem to give me a perfunctory quick one. Am I asking for too much?”

  • “You’re having a little trouble getting aroused. Are you having a problem you need to tell me about?”

  • “Hey. If you’re not interested in me, who’s in the picture?”

  • “I’m starting to feel like a needy person around you like there’s something wrong with me. I miss touching but you don’t seem to. Please, please just tell me if there is a reason you are so distant?”

  • “Okay, babe. No sex except on the weekends, now?. What the hell is going on?”

There are many ways that couples can see darkness looming early enough to turn these behaviors around before they destroy hope and faith in the relationship. The crucial issue is for couples to identify and talk about them before they have lost the motivation to heal them.

If instead, there is sabotage, broken promises, assumptions without bases, withholding, betrayal, emotional abuse, retaliation, sabotage, or evasive illusions, that couple may find themselves too far into the destruction process to come out.

So many times, these destructive warning signals are not heeded. Still, if a couple still loves each other and wants to stay together, even the most serious of them will not destroy the relationship. If there is enough energy and desire, even a relationship that is in terrible trouble can thrive again.

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