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A rift in your marriage can feel like the end of the world. One minute, you’re two lovebirds enjoying a cozy night on the couch; the next, you feel like your partner is becoming distant and isn’t interested in making things right. Fortunately, not every uncomfortable moment means you’re headed for a split. But there are a few serious issues that could be cause for concern. Here, therapists break down the red flags that could spell divorce or separation. Now you’ll be able to spot the real warning signs from the ones you don’t need to worry about as much.
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The way you speak to friends, family, and even yourself can say a lot about your marriage. “For instance, people who are happy in a relationship will use ‘united’ terms like we, our, us,” says Nancy Fagan, LMFT and marriage mediator in Plano, Texas. “As a person starts to emotionally separate from the relationship, the pronouns change to those of an individual—my, mine, me.”
If you spot this shift, it could be one of the first signs that you’re moving away from seeing your marriage as a partnership. However, you don’t need to panic just yet. “Instead, be aware,” says Fagan. “It’s a time to start reconnecting with your partner emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”
It can be unsettling when your partner seems angry or unhappy. But according to therapists, one of the real red flags is when they’re indifferent. “One easy-to-miss sign that a marriage may be headed for divorce is this phenomenon called uncoupling,” says Jeanae M. Hopgood, LMFT, founder of JHJ Therapy. “Frequently, one member of the couple begins pulling away, showing less emotional empathy or intimacy, lack of interest in spending time together, or lack of investment in the quality of the time spent.”
This behavior can sometimes inspire conflict. “However, one person usually views the conflict as areas that need to be worked through, while the initiator of the uncoupling has actually been exiting the relationship,” says Hopgood. “The desire to repair from the uncoupling initiator is low to nonexistent.” When both parties aren’t interested in repairing the marriage together, the partnership begins to crumble.
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According to renowned psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman, the four horsemen that can predict the end of a relationship are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. However, Ashley Damaj, BCBA, MSW, CN, CPT, and founder of Mothership Wellness, says stonewalling is one of the easiest to overlook. “Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner,” explains The Gottman Institute. “Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.”
Damaj notes that people stonewall to avoid conflict and passive-aggressively show disappointment and distance themselves from their partner. “Simply put, when a person stonewalls, they have either given up hope or they are trying to say something without having to say it,” she says. “They don’t feel they can be heard or listened to and they have lost the energy to try.”
Do you ever feel like you never see your spouse, even though they live with you? That could be a red flag. “When one or both partners are unhappy in their relationship, they start to spend less time together,” says Fagan. “They can create a relationship where two people live in the same house, but their daily activities don’t overlap.” Unfortunately, the less interaction the couple has, the more they begin to grow apart.
To break this streak, suggest that you and your partner do something together. “It doesn’t matter what it is, the point is to merge your time,” says Fagan. “This creates an emotional bond, which is critical to having a fulfilling relationship.”
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Think about your relationship during its honeymoon phase: you and your partner likely greeted each other hello, kissed before bed, and acknowledged each others’ concerns in a patient way. In other words, you had more positive interactions than negative ones. If you see this change, it could be cause for concern.
“As a general rule, couples that are happy have approximately 20 positive interactions to every one negative interaction,” says Tatyana Dyachenko, psychologist and sex therapist at Peaches and Screams. “Couples that are struggling to bond have a five to one ratio, and couples that are on the brink of divorce have equal numbers of positive and negative interactions.” If you fall into one of the latter camps, it’s time to find professional help, ASAP.