By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Trust be told, red flags usually appear fairly early on in a relationship that can signal eventual disaster if people don’t pay attention to them. Most of the couples I’ve worked with discuss the fact that their relationship problems didn’t surface overnight but were the result of buried resentment that built up over a period of many years.
Let’s look at Caitlin and Ryan, a couple in their late twenties who came to their first session ready to call it quits because their arguments had escalated recently. Catlin reported: “Ryan and I fight about everything from finances to who is cooking dinner – a lot of issues go unresolved because Ryan avoids intimacy.” To this Ryan responded “I just can’t do anything to make her happy.” During our session, they both made it clear that they had been unhappy for some time and were really looking at a way to separate rather than work things out.
Unfortunately, the common theme in Caitlin and Ryan’s comments was focusing on blame and mutual resentment rather than ways they could repair their relationship. This pattern has become a vicious cycle and both Caitlin and Ryan felt pessimistic about their future together. In the last year, they’re either arguing or avoiding each other – leaving both of them feeling resentful and lacking love and passion for each other.
In many cases, couples who become emotionally and sexually detached will eventually lose fondness, admiration, and love for one another over time. When a couple splits up, most end up admitting that their problems were never processed or resolved in a healthy way. As a result, they felt criticized or put down by their partner and say that they argue about the same things over and over (and over) again.
According to author Claire Hatch, LCSW, “If you’re bottling up feelings of sadness or anger, you end up suppressing your feelings. You’ll find yourself feeling less joy and love, as well.” In other words, if you can’t talk about the hard things, you’ll also feel less warmth and affection; and over time less fondness and admiration for your partner.
A healthy intimate relationship is built on trust and vulnerability which involves sharing your innermost feelings, thoughts, and wishes. It’s important to remember that all couples have perpetual problems and can develop tools to deal with them. Sweeping issues under the rug only works for so long – when couples have deep-seated resentment it can be a challenge to forgive and forget.
9 Warning Signs Your Marriage is Headed for Divorce:
1. You feel criticized and put down by your partner frequently and this leaves you feeling less than “good enough.” According to renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, criticism is one of the main reasons why marriages collapse.
2. You find yourself being defensive and/or guarded with your partner. You have difficulty being vulnerable and you’re often left regretting that you revealed your feelings and desires.
3. Your children’s needs tend to come first. Therapist and author Andrew G. Marshall writes: “If you put your children first, day in and day out, you will exhaust your marriage.” He posits that many parents fall into the trap of putting their children first and the outcome is resentful, alienated parents and demanding, insecure children.
4. You don’t enjoy socializing with each other’s friends or families so begin spending more time away from one another. This may start out as an occasional weeknight out. But if not nipped in the bud, it can spill over into weekends – ideally when couples have an opportunity to spend more time together.
5. You often feel lonely when you’re with your partner. As a result, you experience less affection, closeness, or intimacy. You may find yourself confiding your marital problems to a close friend or co-worker – someone who has a sympathetic ear.
6. Your have vastly different needs for sexual intimacy and/or you rarely have sex. Relationship expert Cathy Meyer writes, “Whether it is him or you that has lost interest, a lack of regular intimacy in a marriage is a bad sign. Sex is the glue that binds, it is the way us adults play and enjoy each other.”
7. You’ve fallen into a pursuer- distancer pattern – one of you is usually seeking more intimacy and the other is looking for distance. This is one of the main causes of divorce. Over time, it erodes the love and trust between you because you’ll lack the emotional and sexual intimacy that comes from being in harmony with each other.
8. Your disagreements seldom get resolved so you tend to argue about the same things over and over again. You fall into the trap of blaming each other and fail to compromise or apologize. As a result, you experience less warmth and closeness.
9. A history of physical or emotional abuse (and/or current abuse) exists. It’s unlikely that your partner will change this behavior without professional intervention. When abuse exists in any form (threatening, physical, or emotional) an individual feels unsafe, intimidated, and unloved.
How can you break the negative pattern of relating that can lead to the demise of your relationship? First of all, it’s important to become conscious of your expectations. Dr. Brené Brown writes, “The fastest way for an expectation to morph into shame or resentment is for it to go unnoticed.” Dr. Brown also recommends that we drop or prerequisites for feeling worthy based on conditions – such as having our partner’s approval or a perfect relationship.
5 things to try before giving up on your relationship:
1. Stop blaming your partner. According to Dr. John Gottman , talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner. For instance, a complaint is: “I’m upset because you didn’t tell me about spending money on new clothes. We agreed to be open with each other and money is tight right now.” Versus a criticism: “You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?”
2. Practice resolving conflicts as they arise. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy your relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Take responsibility for your part in a dispute. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
3. Increase affection and try scheduling sexual intimacy twice a week – even if you’re not in the mood. According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, physical contact releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation. Studies show that it’s released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones – lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
4. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities – even as you struggle with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Nurture fondness and admiration for your partner by searching for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and avoid the stonewalling – or shutting yourself off from communication.
5. Adopt realistic expectations of marriage and try to understand that a good marriage requires effort. The fantasy that there is a “perfect person” or soul mate and that good marriages should be easy can be damaging to your commitment to our partner.
The truth is that all couples have problems, even the ones who seem like a perfect match. The thing to keep in mind is that realistic expectations and damage control can keep resentment from building and causing serious problems. The best way to create a relationship built on love, trust, an intimacy is to take responsibility for our own actions and to practice acceptance and compassion for our partner.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.