A relationship in trouble can be a difficult thing to diagnose. It’s a hard thing to be honest with yourself about as well. What’s more, the idea of having to do something about it can be intimidating. You might find yourself asking: What if I just make everything worse? But actively navigating these inevitable waters has the potential to strengthen your partnership instead of weakening it. As someone probably said once, a relationship in trouble will stay in trouble if no one attempts to fix it.
It’s important, then, to understand some signals that a relationship is on unsteady ground. That’s why we spoke to a variety of sources — relationship experts, therapists, and divorce lawyers, all of whom regularly witness relationships on the rocks — about some indisputable signs that couples need to do some work. If any of these seem familiar, it’s time to have a few discussions.
1. Playing the Perfect Partner
If you find that one of you is performing the idea of an ideal spouse — the one who does everything right, anticipates every need, and responds to issues the way they know their partner likes — this could be a sign of trouble. “A common role that people play is the perfect partner, someone who says and does all of the things they inaccurately believe will ensure that they’re accepted,” says Dr. Daniel Boscaljon, co-founder of the Institute for Trauma Informed Relationships. “We often do this with the best of intentions, but it can create the impression that the role we’re performing is covering up our true feelings, even if we’re doing it to mask insecurity.” If the role you’ve adopted doesn’t feel like it fits with who you are, that doesn’t mean you’re not a great partner. It may mean that you’re letting your partner’s expectations —or perceived expectations — override what a healthy balance in a relationship looks like.
2. Small Annoyances Lead To Big Arguments
Do little annoyances often lead to bigger arguments? When the scale of an argument is out of proportion with the topic, that’s a clear sign that some other, larger source of upset is bubbling below the surface. “Suddenly the little things become big things,” says relationship expert Audrey Hope. “Not doing this or that chore is an issue, not calling when you said you would… The stupid mundane things become the main subject of conversation.” The trick to addressing such behavior lies in being able to recognize that the issue is not always, in fact, the issue. “This is just the way one communicates when one is dealing with deeper issues of hurt, resentment, anger, or seeing what they don’t want to see.”
3. An Over-Reliance On Routine
A relationship on the rocks might be one in which the primary reason for spending time together is for an established routine. Yes, establishing routine is normal and healthy for any kind of functioning relationship. Over-reliance is where the trouble starts. You can recognize routine by time spent on autopilot, where mornings and evenings become predictable,” says Dr. Boscaljon. “Conversation focuses on practical, goal-oriented topics as something normal or typical.” The rigidity of these routines tends to increase over time, with partners becoming lonely within the relationship and turning to other friends and activities that are less routine and the conversations less strictly pragmatic.
4. “Pending Litigation”
No, not that kind of litigation, don’t worry. But in partnerships, sometimes the litigious metaphor is unfortunately still apt. “In the legal world, we call unresolved issues ‘pending litigation,’” says Laura Wasser, divorce lawyer and chief of divorce evolution for divorce.com. “If you’re constantly reopening old wounds, there’s a deeper issue at play.” Be on the lookout for the arguments that never get resolved, those that end with a promise to reopen the issue later, or seem to be closed before being spontaneously reopened again. If there are matters getting swept under the rug, especially without staying under there for long, that’s worth your attention.
5. Blame Is Often Passed Around
When disagreements or misfortunes tend to be addressed by laying blame at the feet of your partner, or vice versa, that’s a good indication that something else in the relationship needs addressing. Accepting the blame, even genuinely agreeing with the placement of blame, won’t change the fact that a mutually disempowering dynamic has been fostered. According to Dr. Boscaljon, that “creates an ongoing situation where nobody feels able to take responsibility for themselves.” In such situations, he says, “both people feel like they’re at the mercy of the other person, and many conversations are spent angrily giving reasons why they’re the victim of the other person.”
6. “Stonewalling” Is A Common Tactic
It’s good to have boundaries and good to feel comfortable enforcing them, but not when they’re administered as a punishment. A common form of this is known as stonewalling, where a person closes themselves off during a discussion, refusing to interact and building a metaphorical wall between themselves and their partner. Along with criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, the Gottman Institute lists stonewalling as one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” that can predict the failure of a relationship.
“The partner that is stonewalling will often turn away, not make eye contact, or may leave the room during the conversation,” says Sara Miller, therapist and owner of Confluent Relationship Therapy. “After leaving, they may also act busy engaging in other activities, and ignore the partner on the receiving end of this behavior.” Arguments can take time to fully resolve — that’s normal. But if stonewalling is turning disagreements into what feels like a silent war of attrition, it’s time to discuss it.
7. There Are Always Excuses To Spend Time Apart
All couples need time apart. Absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder. But if you’re spending a lot of time looking for opportunities to not be with your partner — say, by staying late at work when you don’t need to, or frantically trying to make plans that might keep you out of the house on a day off — that’s a signal flare. This could be an indication that there are issues in your relationship you don’t want to confront.
In this situation, ”you turn to the outside world to do an outside activity instead of looking inward,” says Hope. “The distraction, the project, and the late hours are a cover for the pain.”
Yes, turning to the outside world is part of the balance of any strong relationship. But as with many of these signs, the key is to be able to identify when a pattern has begun to have a disproportionate presence in your life.
8. Mental and Physical Tolls
The nature of your interactions with your partner isn’t the only thing that can indicate there’s something about your relationship that needs work. One’s mental and physical health can be just as impacted by a dysfunctional relationship. “Often when we don’t deal with something head-on, the body and mind take the hit,” says Hope. “It might look like you have an upset stomach or a physical ailment, but it could be that the emotional stress of the relationship is giving you a wake-up call. Be in control of your own body and investigate the deeper reasons for the turmoil.”
9. The Bedroom Feels Cold
This is one of the signs that many couples might find hardest to ignore, as it signals a shift away from the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Sex therapist Aliyah Moore, PhD, says that couples should be mindful when “physical intimacy has waned, or you find constant excuses not to be close to each other. A lackluster sex life might indicate deeper emotional issues.” It’s also worth noting that intimacy isn’t just about sex. Hugs, kisses, cuddles, handholding, casual touch — any sustained absence of a physical dimension to the relationship will eventually need to be addressed to keep the relationship strong.
One Smart Way To Address Trouble Spots In Your Relationship
If you find yourself nodding with the above in recognition, don’t panic. Addressing each of these issues begins with the same simple set of steps, per Dr. Boscaljon. The steps he suggests allow you to name the issue, discuss it without blame, find solutions, and create a way forward. Here is what they entail:
- Name a pattern of behavior that feels typical.
- Describe how you perceive ways that you both participate in it.
- Propose a way that you can change your behavior.
- Suggest something you think the other person could do to help support your change.
The key is to approach a reset without your partner feeling blamed, and to present a solution that requires effort from both of you in order to work. Of course, speaking with a therapist to deal with these issues can also provide a lot of help.
Owning up to your own participation is paramount in these situations. “Don’t underestimate the power of a sincere apology and taking responsibility,” says Wasser. “It’s not about admitting defeat. It’s about acknowledging the role you play in the partnership.”
Regardless of the size of the issue at hand, small adjustments can add up over time. “Relationships are like gardens,” adds Wasser. “Sometimes they need a bit of extra care and attention.”