As I sat with my friend Mandy* the other day, I listened as she passionately told me how things between she and her husband were devastatingly hopeless.
I saw the hurt in her eyes and heard the pain in her voice. My heart ached for her, yet I realized that this was only her side of the story.
You see, I am also good friends with her husband and I have also sat across from him as he told me his story about their marriage. My heart ached even more when I realized that these two individuals really want to love each other despite their anger.
I also realized that unless they became aware of the red flags that were causing the dysfunction in their marriage, the chances of that love ever being realized between them was nearly impossible.
Without understanding and insight, a couple can live a life of unhappiness or dissolve a marriage that might have been worth saving.
As you read this, I encourage you to evaluate your own marriage and especially your role in how these red-flags keep perpetuating themselves within your marriage.
It is my hope that discussing these red-flags will help to educate couples on how to identify and abstain from using these behaviors in order to create positive and healthy changes that will foster a loving and happy marriage.
Here are the red-flags that, in my experience as a therapist, signal serious relational dysfunction and will eventually destroy a marriage.
1. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
One of the most important concepts in marriage is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse created by John Gottman.
Based upon his research, Gottman asserts that when these four behaviors – contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling – are present in your marriage, communication breaks down and resentment builds.
It is the use of these behaviors that keeps the painful wedge between us and our partner festering and intact. When these behaviors are present, this is a red flag that indicates unhealthy communication, constant disagreement, resentment, rage, and pain are also present in the marriage.
You can see Dr. John Gottman discuss these concepts further with Anderson Cooper by watching the video below.
2. Living Separate Lives
Are you living a life that is separate from your spouse? Do you sleep in separate rooms, work separate schedules, and feel pretty much like roommates?
Any one of these by themselves is not necessarily a red flag, but when you are living a life separate from your spouse you are merely settling for a life that you feel you must have.
A healthy marriage requires intentional work at strengthening the bond between you and your spouse. Rather than ignoring or settling for the red flags, you work towards a more intimate and close bond with your spouse.
When you are living separate lives, you decide not to work on your marriage but rather to avoid the pain and stress of the issues you have to work on.
3. Enmeshment and Codependency
The opposite problem of those living separate lives is enmeshment and codependency.
Do you sacrifice yourself so that your partner is happy? Have you stopped hanging out with your friends and only focused on your partner?
There is a healthy balance between disconnected/separate marriages and enmeshed/codependent relationships. If you are not developing and nurturing your own life, you are living for your partner and sacrificing your own needs which will lead to unhappiness.
Ultimately, this type of red flag will result in an unbalanced relationship where often silent passive resentment builds, where unhappiness festers, and where superficial closeness masks the true loneliness present in the marriage.
4. Lack of Trust
Are you concerned about your partner’s behaviors? Do you feel he/she is secretive?
Trust is a main component in a healthy relationship. Without it, you will have difficulty trusting and therefore feel vulnerable within your relationship. Vulnerability is what helps us feel connected to our partner.
When we fully give ourselves to our spouse, without being guarded, our love deepens and we, as a couple, are happier. Suspicion and lack of trust prevents us from allowing ourselves to drop the barrier we put up to protect ourselves.
What we do not realize is that barrier doesn’t just block out pain, but it blocks us from feeling love as well.
5. Problems with Intimacy and Sex
Intimacy is characterized by affection, kindness, and deep connection. This includes non-sexual touching and emotional connection.
Intimacy is a vital component to a happy marriage allowing partners to feel connected with each other, kind towards one another, and trusting of one another.
If there is zero intimacy in your relationship, this is a red-flag that signals something is amiss. We need to feel tender towards our partner, and for them to feel tender towards us, to deal with the normal conflict, stress, and frustrations within our relationship.
Bitterness, resentment, distrust and anger can conquer a relationship without intimacy. Sex, although it can include intimacy, is a physical way of relating with your partner.
Marriages vary in the amount and frequency of intercourse; however, it is important to be on the same page with your spouse. Whether you have intercourse once a week or once a month, is not nearly as important as when both partners are happy with that arrangement.
Problems occur, and disagreements about sex are a major source of discontent, when partners have opposing expectations of what sex looks like, feels like, and how frequently it should occur.
I often tell my clients, “he gets to be him and she gets to be her – we just have to see how close we can negotiate your individual needs to make it work within your marriage.”
Sex is an important component in a happy marriage, what that looks like in your marriage is unique, but if you are not happy with how it is going, then this is a red-flag for unhappiness and potential break up.
If these red-flags are present in your marriage, I can imagine that you are feeling pain, sadness, and anger. I would guess that you may not like your partner very much at this time and I would say, “Of course you don’t like each other right now – you haven’t been treating each other well because you are unhappy and frustrated.” However, don’t despair, seek help from a counselor.
There is a taboo about seeking help for couples that is neither fair nor healthy. Often couples wait until there are so many problems in their marriage that they have little desire left for the relationship or when they are so emotionally drained that they don’t have enough energy to invest in the relationship any longer.
Re-read that last sentence carefully! I said it’s the lack of energy and desire that ruin the relationship, not the relationship itself. You can recover your marriage, but it takes time, hard work, humbleness, forgiveness, and dedication. But you have to know that the time and investment can be so worth it.
Marriage counseling is a proactive way of ensuring the happiness of your marriage. When you step through that therapist’s door, you are doing more than what most people are doing.
You are choosing to take a chance on your partner (and yourself) and are willing to create positive change within your marriage. This is a learning process.
Find a therapist who does not take sides, but who views therapy as a way of educating you and your partner about the dysfunctions in the relationship.
This is a process of going from “me” to “we” and if we were not taught that by our parents, or others we observed, how to do this, we don’t know how.
That doesn’t mean that you have a bad marriage, per se, it means you just haven’t had the knowledge and tools you needed to make it work and create the love and affection that you both deserve.
Hold strong and don’t give up. I understand that there are marriages that are completely dysfunctional, unworkable, and unhealthy and, in those cases, separation or divorce are appropriate, but is that your marriage? Only you can decide.
Unfortunately, my friend Mandy continues to remain in her unhappy marriage. She and her husband choose to live in silence, defeated by pain and too empty to take steps to eliminate the red-flags in their marriage.
They continue to live separate lives and, despite their unhappiness, are too afraid to work on their marital issues. It is their fear of letting down their guards and being vulnerable with someone they no longer trust that keep them stuck.
Their story is the story of many couples out there, but it doesn’t have to be. Take the chance to create change; take the chance to create a happy marriage.
*name changed to protect confidentiality
About the author
Kristy Labardee is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Redlands, California. She counsels individuals, couples, and families seeking to improve their lives.
She specializes in working with couples, anxiety, depression, and trauma.
She especially enjoys working with military families and MFT Students/Interns. You can find out more about Kristy by visiting her website at www.kristylabardeecounseling.com.
Follow her on Twitter (@KristyLabardee) or connect with her on Facebook (Kristy Labardee, MS, LMFT).