When we first start dating someone, it’s easy to overlook traits that might seem like obvious red flags to outsiders. In the early stages of a new relationship, we are automatically drawn to the most appealing qualities of our partner. If we do notice anything disagreeable, it is often quickly dismissed as “something I can handle or change,” or “no big deal.” Unfortunately, what’s initially considered to be a fixable “flaw” is often something that’s really at the core of the individual. Early on, these “minor” issues can evolve into “deal-breakers” that can doom a relationship.
After many years of experience working with clients (couples & individuals with relationship issues) in my counseling practice, I’ve noticed many recurring signs that indicate the likelihood that an unhealthy relationship is not too far ahead. It’s especially important to be alert for these red flags in the early stages.
Interestingly, when asked, many clients who complain about their partner in counseling sessions admit: “I kind of saw it at the beginning,” or “I ignored it, and chose to not let it get to me,” etc. Be on the lookout for these warning signs from the start:
- Intrusive extended family members can be a problem, but usually only if your partner isn’t willing or capable of setting boundaries. Is your partner enabling family members’ behaviors, or allowing intrusive behavior to interfere with your relationship?
- Are other relationships (or career/job) frequently prioritized over you? Sometimes what is described early on as “this person is so unselfish, always helping out others” can turn into being with a partner who prioritizes everyone else above YOU and your needs! Additionally, someone may have an unhealthy focus on his or her career at the relationship’s expense (workaholic tendencies). This quality can be directly tied to the core character of the individual – which makes it unlikely to change.
- Sexual incompatibility. This is an important issue to address at the beginning of a relationship. If there are sexual issues early on, they are unlikely to go away without mutual effort. Too many couples ignored their differences, or believed they would get better, but found their sexuality issues only exacerbated over time.
- Your partner has drug, alcohol or addictive behavior, especially if he or she hasn’t even acknowledged what’s happening and/or refuses to address it.
- Inability to take responsibility for his or her actions. If your partner doesn’t own his or her behavior early on, this is a major red flag that doesn’t bode well for the future of your relationship.
- If someone has emotional relationship baggage that is unresolved and hasn’t been addressed. These issues commonly involve jealousy, envy, possessiveness, or insecurity.
- Treating family, friends, and/or strangers poorly can be a sign of abusive tendencies, and sometimes anger management issues. When might you be next?
- If your partner fundamentally does not accept who you are, or tries to change who you are at your core. Does he/she want you to be an extrovert when you’re really an introvert? Does he/she want kids, but you don’t? Assuming someone will change his or her mind, or core values and beliefs, is a huge mistake and an ominous sign.
- If your partner is critical or shows contempt for you. According to research by Dr. John Gottman, criticism and contempt (which is even more damaging) can destroy a relationship, sometimes very quickly. It’s a type of character assassination when your partner criticizes who you are as a person, and not your particular action or behavior.
- Noticing your partner has anger management problems – and ignoring it. This trait too will only get worse as the relationship progresses.
- Demonstrating behavior that is overly controlling and/or possessive. This can show up in how you spend your money, or even push back on your desire to be with your friends.
If you identify one or more of these warning signs, it doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, but it does make sense to get support and not ignore the problem(s). Staying alert for red flags and making smart decisions in the early stages of your relationship can save lots of grief and heartache down the road.
Most of us are pretty good at keeping up with maintenance on our cars. And we understand the importance of regular medical check-ups and physical exams to make sure we remain healthy and functioning properly.
Unfortunately, it is fairly unusual for people to realize that their intimate relationships could benefit from regular maintenance as well!
Throughout my years of working with couples in my practice, I’ve often been asked about my “success rate.” This is, in reality, equivalent to basically asking me if I can help them save their relationship.
Even if I had the exact statistics to quote, it wouldn’t really be helpful. Each relationship is a combination of the many unique characteristics of two individuals, different relational dynamics, and they all have their own particular problematic issues. However, there is an important set of factors that significantly determines if couples counseling will be successful or not: the qualities that each partner brings to the therapy office.
When both partners enter counseling highly motivated, ready to work, and are fully committed to the process, they’re much more likely to find the counseling sessions beneficial. It truly takes work and commitment to improve the connection and satisfaction in relationships, and to keep a relationship healthy. Simply put, going through the motions or giving a “half-hearted” effort is really not going to help!
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and famous relationship researcher, points out another important factor inhibiting any couples therapist’s ability to make a positive difference. His research found that couples are typically unhappy in their relationship for approximately six years before seeking help. When an unhappy couple waits six years to get help, can you imagine the depth of the resentment that each partner has developed? This built-up resentment dramatically increases the chances that at least one partner’s motivation is partially (and sometimes fully) compromised.
For this reason, as Dr. Gottman’s research points out, therapists are able to help the very distressed couples much less than moderately distressed couples. When problematic relational issues have festered for years, and resentment has been growing at the same time, the relationship is often in a state of crisis. There is typically little chance of a successful therapeutic outcome if only one partner is 100% motivated and invested in repairing the relationship and re-establishing a close connection.
In order to maximize the chances of couples counseling success, each partner:
- Is motivated and committed to work on the relationship.
- Takes responsibility for his or her actions and behavior.
- Listens to and understands their partner’s viewpoint.
- Empathizes with their partner.
- Demonstrates the ability to calm him- or herself down (self-soothe) without letting frustrations take over.
- Addresses troublesome issues instead of ignoring them.
Couples counseling can prevent minor issues from developing into full-blown conflicts.
Some signs a relationship is in need of a tune-up:
1. When conflict exists on the same issues over and over again without resolution.
2. Withdrawing from each other instead of trying to work out differences.
3. Partners becoming increasingly critical of one another.
4. The “blame game” has increased, perhaps with more cursing and name calling.
5. Sex life is incompatible or nonexistent.
6. Quality one-on-one time together has stopped becoming a priority.
7. One or both partners begin to seek emotional support outside the relationship.
Don’t hesitate to take action when the health of your relationship is in jeopardy. Commit to some couples counseling sessions; don’t wait and assume it will get better on its own. It won’t!
Better yet, invest in preventative care. Just as you wouldn’t wait three years to get an oil change in your car, don’t wait for problems to arise before getting a tune-up on your relationship, even when things feel “okay.“
Research has indicated that about two-thirds (67%) of second marriages with children fail. Blended families have unique and often complex issues to deal with in addition to the typical lifestyle changes that every new marriage experiences.
While all newlyweds must learn to adapt to each other’s routines and habits, opinions, and personal baggage (emotional and physical), a newly created family unit obviously involves blending these varied characteristics with a larger number of people. Since the majority of these newly-connected family members are often young children, and not mature adults, even greater care must be given to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. The process can be very tricky to navigate and the outcome can dramatically affect the quality of all involved relationships.
One of the biggest challenges often comes up even before the marriage when the engaged couple and their children start spending more time together: What’s the appropriate authority level of a stepparent when parenting stepchildren?
Unfortunately, this too frequently happens in one of two ways: (1) a stepparent assumes too much authority, or becomes almost a friend or peer, and cedes a parental role almost completely; or (2) major issues emerge when the stepparent tries to intervene, or become an authority figure, too quickly.
Another challenge blended families may face involves the role of ex-spouses. The “Ex Factor” can be the determinant that makes or breaks the relationship and typically stirs up lots of issues for the stepparent. This is especially the case if the #1 family priority is the kids, and not the couple’s relationship. If the stepparent feels secure with his or her partner, and the couple has prioritized their relationship, the “Ex Factor” issues are much easier to navigate.
The key to relationship harmony is in finding the right balance, with the stepparent gradually increasing his parental authority to an acceptable level that all parents and kids respect. Achieving this balance is particularly important if the children’s other biological parent is actively in the picture.
Effective communication between all adults involved can go a long way toward smoothing the household transitions. Establishing a parenting plan for all spouses, and their exes, is a critical goal that should be a focus as early on in the process as possible. It’s also important that the emphasis remain on what’s best for the kids. Personal issues between the adults should not color the decisions made while working out arrangements for their children’s wellbeing.
Stepparent/stepchild relationships need to be allowed to develop gradually, with the biological parent carrying out the primary parenting role in the beginning. Initially, the stepparent best serves as the “support parent,” not only for her partner, but also showing empathy to the child as well. This support will help build a solid foundation of trust and respect. It’s important to build a relationship with the child(ren) before becoming a disciplining parent.
Allowing the biological parent to have one-on-one time alone with his kids is also an important step in blended family settings. However, this can feel threatening to a stepparent, especially when the kids are deemed to be the #1 priority in the family.
Sometimes, stepparents are troubled by the fact that they may not love the child as much as the real parent does. Instead of trying to achieve an “unconditional love” status, the stepparent should focus on one or more qualities that they do like in the child. This is a helpful way to slowly develop a personal relationship.
Again, a blended family that prioritizes the children as #1 is often a setup for disharmony. The couple’s relationship will undoubtedly suffer if this happens and their children will likely witness yet another failed marriage.
Being on the same page with your new partner, as you work to merge two families into one, should ideally already be in place before the attempt at creating a single household.
Premarital counseling is often essential to support this process. Counseling can guide you on what to expect, and discuss possible solutions to any potential issues well in advance.
Therapy sessions can also address any concerns or reservations either partner may have about the new living arrangement. An open and honest discussion between partners can effectively help work through any grievances or doubts, and strengthen the couples’ bond.
If it’s too late for premarital counseling, attending marriage counseling sessions as a couple, or family counseling with the children, can still provide invaluable assistance and guidance in successfully maneuvering a blended family household.
If partners keep each other as their #1 priority in the family unit and respect is a central theme in all interactions (adults and children), blending two families can become a much smoother transition.
Contrary to general assumption, sleeping in separate bedrooms can be healthy and, for some intimate relationships, the best choice. Research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation indicates that approximately 25% of cohabitating couples sleep apart, in different rooms. One study performed in Britain by the Sealy mattress company found this statistic to be considerably larger, with 36% of couples sleeping separately, at least some of the time.
Additionally, construction plans with “dual” master bedrooms in new homes have been gaining popularity to go along with another recent trend, his-and-hers master bathrooms. Not surprisingly, support for this living arrangement can be found online too. One example is a blog called “Sleeping Apart, Not Falling Apart,” reinforcing the acceptance of the separate bedroom phenomenon.
Reasons for sleeping apart vary, but the most common ones include:
- Snoring. Sometimes both partners snore, but usually one partner is the culprit.
- Lifestyle differences/shift work. Some lifestyle variations known to cause problems are “night owl” versus “early bird” sleep patterns, and a preference for reading or television before bedtime, while the other person simply wants a quiet room.
- Restless leg syndrome. This is a neurological disorder, causing a person to frequently move around in bed.
- Incompatibility issues. These might include: trips to the bathroom multiple times at night, need for a hotter/colder room temperature, more light/no light, or when one partner is a very light sleeper.
In all the above situations, the number one advantage of separate bedrooms is clear: better quality sleep. By ensuring that both partners get a good night’s rest, each partner has less irritability, less resentment, and less negativity in the relationship. As most of us know well, trying to function after a night of insufficient sleep (not to mention the consequences of a long-term deficit), does not enhance personal or relational wellbeing.
It’s critical to point out, however, that some physical sleep disruptors such as snoring, nighttime cough, restless legs, or increased urinary frequency may indicate a treatable health condition. Seeking medical attention should always be the first course of action here, in order to rule out disease, and possibly get relief of symptoms.
That said, there are fairly obvious disadvantages to the separate bedroom arrangement. Some of these are:
- It is more challenging to stay close and feel connected as a couple.
- Sleeping in separate bedrooms can eliminate more spontaneous intimacy or “pillow talk.”
- Sex lives can suffer.
- Any conflicts or disagreements between couples might take longer to overcome.
Based on my experience as a couples counselor, I recommend that you follow the guidelines below to keep separate-bedroom relationships as healthy and satisfying as possible:
- Ensure that your intimate connection is maintained, with an agreed-upon understanding of how that will happen. This will involve discovering how to best connect outside the bedroom. Date nights and having “pillow talk” on the couch before retiring to sleep are two important ways to stay connected.
- Plan for a consistent sex life. For most, this will include scheduling regular “intimacy dates.” For more information on sex dates look here.
- Be aware that this sleeping arrangement does not have to be all or nothing. I suggest experimenting with sleeping together in the same bed one night a week, and try alternating bedrooms. Agree ahead of time on who will leave if a sleeping incompatibility arises. It will be helpful to remain tolerant and familiar with each other’s sleep behavior, for the time when sleeping together becomes a necessity, such as sharing a room when visiting friends/family or during a vacation.
Sleeping in separate bedrooms is one of many ways that intimate relationships can get derailed if care is not taken to keep the personal connection alive. Couples who commit and stay invested in maintaining the quality of their partnership can make sleeping apart an arrangement that enhances, instead of strains, their intimacy and connection.
Throughout my professional experience, I’ve noticed certain qualities in relationships that are less than healthy, and others that can even be toxic. While any one of these unhealthy aspects may not spell doom, it makes sense to eliminate as many as possible in your relationship. Do any of the negative characteristics listed below describe what’s happening between you and your partner?
1. Lack of joy, or lack of positivity, in the relationship. This quality can be observed in those couples who simply “go through the motions” of everyday life. Often, there may be very little interaction and connectivity in the relationship. Or it may be a relationship made up of complaints, criticisms, and negativity.
If the foundation of your partnership consists mostly of unpleasant interactions, the health of your relationship will be dramatically, adversely affected. According to Dr. John Gottman, well-respected researcher and psychologist, the ratio of positive to negative interactions in a healthy relationship should be a minimum of 5 to 1. Without the “buffer” of positive interactions, partners tend to no longer give one another the benefit of the doubt in their relationship. This can easily cause an escalating pattern of seeing the worst in one another.
2. Intolerance of differences. In virtually every relationship there are qualities or behaviors that rub each partner the wrong way. It may be overly simplistic, but couples basically fall into two groups: Those in which the partners learn to focus on other (more positive) qualities of each other, and those in which the partners become more fixated or stuck on each others foibles. Couples who become increasingly intolerant of each other’s behaviors, personality traits, or character “flaws” can end up at great risk of breaking up in short order.
Related in part to #1, they’re focusing on the negative instead of the positive aspects of their partner, which is a recipe for disaster. To learn more about how intolerance affects relationships, go here.
3. Righteous conflict. When each partner is primarily concerned with who’s right and who’s wrong, the relationship always loses. This attitude is a result of very poor communication skills and an inability to understand and empathize with each other. When each partner is more concerned with being right than in finding a mutually-acceptable compromise, the couples’ connection is destroyed over time.
4. Sweeping issues “under the rug.” This is connected to what Dr. Gottman refers to as “stonewalling,” and occurs when one person avoids conflict and shuts down from his or her partner. It sets couples up for increasing distance in their relationship. When this happens with any frequency, it does predict a breakup or divorce.
5. Lack of shared interests, hobbies or time spent together. Without common activities in a relationship, it only makes sense that a couple will grow further apart and their connection will continue to fade.
6. One or both partners’ individual problems are being ignored. If a partner is super controlling, a people-pleaser, drug dependent, an alcoholic, or suffers from depression (to name only a few unfortunate possibilities), it can cause major disruption in a relationship if the problem remains untreated.
7. Distrust. If there is a lack of trust in a relationship, or one partner has not worked through any distrust experiences that occurred in the past, it can erode a couples’ connection rather quickly. Not trusting your significant other often creates jealousy and insecurity, among other negative emotions. If not addressed, perhaps in counseling, these unresolved feelings of distrust can spell doom to the relationship.
The good news is, if you recognize any of these characteristics or qualities in your relationship, they can be overcome. If you feel you need assistance in doing so, seek professional help from a qualified therapist or couples counselor. Living together in a healthy, happily-ever-after relationship is definitely a goal worth striving for.