We don’t question whether we should leave or stay when a relationship is of little importance to us; we meet new people, get to know them a bit, and—for one reason or another—decide we’re pretty much done. The going gets decidedly tougher when the connection has been an important one in our lives—an old friend, for example—or one that has included real intimacy, such a lover or spouse. Most of us ponder the question with fear and trepidation, and not always because we believe in the connection, deep down. Sometimes, it’s fear of making a mistake—What if our partner suddenly has a change of heart and begins to listen? What if we’re really too sensitive as he or she says? —and sometimes we’re simply frightened that we’ll end up alone or that something even more unsatisfying is all that lies ahead.
The more insecure we are about ourselves and our prospects and more we doubt the validity of our feelings and thoughts, the more likely we are to stay in a relationship that is no longer working for us or is making us actively unhappy. We may be stuck in a loop of endless rationalizations, making up apologies for our friend, lover, or spouse, in the hopes of that we won’t be forced to make a choice.
Human psychology is on the side of staying put which is bad news
Years ago, I met with a smart therapist named Susan who’d been counseling couples for thirty-five years. I was there to see if anything could be done to salvage my own train wreck of a marriage and I led off with a blunt question: “So, does couples’ counseling work?” She smiled, and said something along these lines: “No, but not for the reasons you’d think. 95% of the couples who walk through my door have waited too long; they come here in the hope that I have some magic glue stick that can fix a relationship that has already been shredded beyond recognition. I don’t have that kind of glue. Those people move their cars from my parking lot to those of divorce lawyers. The five percent who walk in as the process is starting, as the patterns of communication are beginning to break down, and who both want their relationship to survive and thrive get exactly that.”
Alas, human nature is on the side of inaction for a number of reasons. First, humans are loss averse and generally unwilling to take risks; that observation won Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize. We tend to think about the time and effort we have invested in a relationship, and that keeps us tied down too; its fancy name is the sunk-cost fallacy. And our hopefulness trips us up; we focus on positive cues that make us think that the relationship sun will return to its former brightness even when it hasn’t in a long, long time. B.F. Skinner called it intermittent reinforcement and he showed that nothing keeps us hanging in more than a positive thing that happens now and again. If what you want to happen never happens, you are out of there. If it happens all the time, there’s no reason to leave. But if it happens sporadically—you feel heard and understood every now and then, you feel happy one day out of fourteen—your hopefulness and optimism are fed and you ignore everything else.
That’s how 95% of Susan’s clients just end up moving from one parking lot to another.
6 Tell-tale signs that the relationship can’t be saved
These behaviors don’t necessarily all show up together and you may only experience a few of them but they are all very bad news if you were, deep down, planning a salvage operation. If your relationship is just beginning to go off the rails and includes some of these behaviors, do heed Susan’s words and take action now.
- Your discussions become arguments (and predictable ones)
One clear sign is that every talk you have devolves into an argument, and is peppered with references to your failures and shortcomings. Sentences that begin with the words “You always” or “You never” are just a breath away from name-calling and contempt. The inability to stay on topic as a twosome—no matter where you start, you always end up fighting about the same issues again and again—is a clear sign that the two of you are on an emotional Ferris Wheel, Not good. And the inability of either or both of you to apologize when an apology is due is a clear sign that the need to win the point has overtaken the need to make things work between you. Continue reading and check for the following behaviors too.
- The Four Horseman have taken up residence
Marital expert John Gottman is justly renowned for being able to predict with remarkable accuracy which marriages will last and flourish and which will crash and burn. No, he doesn’t have a crystal ball but he has isolated four behaviors he has called The Four Horseman—yes, as in the Apocalypse—which spell doom for a relationship. Once you’ve seen them in black-and-white on the page, they seem remarkably obvious but the reality is that these behaviors fade into the woodwork once they become the norm. Either you go blind to them or you normalize them; either is bad news. Here they are:
- You oh-so-quietly avoid him or her
This is really insidious and is very easy to lie to yourself about and it’s not just about avoiding physical intimacy either. I know one couple who literally managed not to see each other every morning for close to a year and, yes, they had children living at home so they were stuck in the evening. But each of them started each day partner-free and I will leave you to guess where that led. On an even unhealthier note, I went to college with a couple who have spent the last fifteen years living in separate wings of a house. These are, of course, extreme examples.
But the easiest way is being late to a meal or avoiding eye contact or not touching at all. It doesn’t have to be dramatic; small moments of isolating a partner add up.
- Your body language speaks volumes (as does his or hers)
This may be part of avoidance or a function of the Four Horsemen but it’s not just about sex either, although the lack of sexual contact or changes in it matter too. Does your partner talk to you to with arms folded, or do you talk to him or her that way? Do you avoid eye contact or do you back off when you’re talking? You can physically stonewall people too by not being responsive to cues.
- You’re thinking of yourself as a soloist
This can be both obvious and subtle. On the obvious side, you ponder a decision that will directly affect you and your partner but you never discuss it with him or her. You seek counsel from friends and acquaintances but never once ask the person you’re supposedly closest to. On the subtle side, you think of the future in terms that don’t include him or her without ever acknowledging that you’re doing so. Many years ago, my first husband took a job that required him to move to California without telling me until the employment agreement was signed; yes, that actually happened. What I didn’t realize what that he’d already stepped out of the marriage before he made the decision.
- What was once endearing is now irritating as hell
This is painful to admit but utterly true; it may be the way your spouse has of prepping a meal, needing little bowls to put each and every ingredient into, or how it takes him or her forever to answer the simplest of questions. Or it may be something dumb like never putting the cap on the toothpaste or simply dropping dirty socks on the floor. Or anything else. There’s a brilliantly scripted moment in an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie and Aidan are in bed together and she looks up and asks him to “stop making that noise.” He has no idea what she’s talking about until she mimics it and he answers, “But I always make that sound.” Yes, it’s a television show but it captured what a tattered connection looks like.
Do seek professional advice sooner rather than later if you want the relationship to go forward on different terms. Use these behaviors as a way of judging where you and your partner find yourselves and talk about it together without lapsing into any of them. For more on how your own insecurities and childhood experiences may feed into these patterns, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Kristopher Roller. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky,” Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,” Econometrica (march, 1979), 47, no.2, 263-291.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.