I’ve been counseling couples and families for over three decades and one thing stands out. Most people wait too long before they reach out for help…years too long. Problems that might have been solved in five to ten sessions become crises that break up perfectly good relationships.
Since only a precious few learned the necessary skills to weather the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, it is easy to slip into negative patterns of relating–either to oneself or to loved ones–or both.
What are the warning signs of problems that need to be addressed?
Sometimes the signs are glaring and obvious–domestic violence, high levels of conflict on a daily basis, serious addictions, repetitive infidelity–but far more often, problems seem to creep up on people a little bit at a time.
In a famous 19th Century science experiment, researchers described how if they put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would quickly jump out, recognizing the danger instinctively. But if the frog was put in cold water that was heated to boiling very slowly, the frog had no idea of the trouble brewing. By the time the water was boiling, the frog was dead meat.
So it can be with dysfunctional families, marriages, or even organizations. It seems OK until suddenly it doesn’t.
Warning Sign #1: You are no longer warm or affectionate with your partner.
Happy loving couples look up from what they are doing and smile when their partner comes home from work. They touch one another with some frequency–a hug hello or goodbye, a hand on the shoulder or leg, a kiss goodnight, holding hands watching a movie, rubbing the back of the neck after a long day.
Some people try to defend their lack of physical warmth by saying it’s not how they are built but when you see them with their children, they touch and tussle, smile and cuddle. Often when affection begins to wane in a marriage, it is a symptom of unexpressed resentment that needs to be uncovered and worked through.
Warning Sign #2: You don’t create enough time together doing enjoyable activities.
If the only time that you spend with your mate is conducting the business of the marriage–doing chores, paying bills, managing child care–then the relationship ceases to have the qualities of a deep and tender friendship. As the old Michael Johnson song so aptly put it, “Love will get you through times of no sex better than sex will get you through times of no love…”
Happy loving couples make their friendship a priority. Even on weeks when they can’t afford the time or money for a date night, they participate in activities that bring playfulness and joy into the relationship. Some couples work out together, take walks when weather permits, play cards or games, entertain other friends and family, play sports, watch movies, or read books.
Warning Sign #3: You stop having sex or have it very infrequently.
One of the enjoyable activities that makes marriage special is the ongoing availability of a sexual connection. Contrary to myths perpetrated by the media, married people in general have more sex than their single counterparts, averaging between one to two times weekly after the honeymoon phase is over. If you begin to notice that the time between lovemaking is growing longer, this is another symptom of decreased connection.
Lots of folks–more often women in my experience–condone their behavior by saying they don’t want to have sex if they don’t feel like it but this position readily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both men and women get a boost of oxytocin–the bonding hormone–when sexual or even when cuddling, so paradoxically, if you have sex, you will then feel close (and more sexual) again. It’s a bit like priming the pump.
Warning Sign #4: One or both partners stop good self-care.
Marriage takes commitment and caring, both for oneself and for your partner. When either person begins to take the relationship for granted, resentments often build. Recent surveys have shown that both men and women are turned off when their mate puts on weight, stops dressing fashionably or grooming adequately.
Happier couples still dress up when they go on a date night as if they were courting a new relationship. Since a big part of our attraction to others is visual, it is important to want to look good for each other.
Couples that don’t fight or fight very infrequently seem to have the illusion that their marriage is going well even when it isn’t. (The water is getting hotter by the minute but you and the frog are still unaware). If you feel constantly criticized or are feeling critical of your partner on a regular basis, it is a sign that issues need to be put on the table rather than shoved under the rug.
If you feel lonely in your marriage, it is time to take action. Most likely, your partner is also feeling the same thing. Loneliness is the fertile soil for affairs. Most infidelities are not due to sexual desires–although certainly sexless marriages contribute to longing–but they begin more innocently as a desire for friendship.
If you and your mate are not listening to one another’s pains and pleasures and providing support and empathy, then it is natural to look for support elsewhere. Don’t wait for the crisis and heartache of an affair. Even feeling the desire to look outside your marriage should make warning bells go off in your head.
Be on the lookout for contempt–it is a relationship killer of massive proportions. Contempt is a form of criticism with a twist of judgment and bitterness thrown in.
It is signaled by rolling eyes and a downturned mouth indicating disgust. In John Gottman’s research, made more famous with Gladwell’s book Blink, contempt is one of the most obvious signs of an impending crisis. Simply observing couples arguing for a few minutes can help a trained observer accurately forecast the fate of a relationship.
The point of my sharing these warning signs is to light a fire in your awareness before it’s too late. If you read this and are worried because you have all seven signs a-blazing, take heed but don’t panic. With courage and commitment–and the right therapist–you can work together to create or recreate the relationship that makes you feel liked, loved and respected. Look forward to the next blog about finding the right therapist when you need one.