I have been doing marriage therapy for nearly three decades. And one thing is for sure- people experiencing marital difficulties wait a long time before they get help. In fact, research shows that, on average, people wait six years before seeking marriage therapy. Furthermore, many, if not most people never receive help; they run right over to a divorce attorney’s office. And when you think about the impact divorce has on their lives and that of their children, I find this to be a devastating finding.
What should people in the throes of marriage problems do instead? Get help when things start going downhill. Nip things in the bud. And if you’re wondering how to know when your marriage is headed for trouble, read on.
1. You’re thinking about having an affair
There are many reasons you may be tempted to have an affair. They may want the excitement that comes from a new relationship. They may want passionate sex with a different partner. They may be longing for attention and appreciation. They may enjoy risk-taking. They may be longing to connect with someone who they think is more similar to them. They might want to escape daily responsibilities and routines. There is no shortage of reasons people stray.
Regardless of the reasons people are unfaithful, affairs signal trouble in marriages. Going outside the marriage does not solve marital unhappiness. In fact, affairs often create unintended problems. Once emotional energy goes outside a marriage, the issues needing to be repaired take a back seat. Problems linger and become worse. Lies, deceit and the guilt and shame that is often a by-product lead to avoidance and separateness. Suspicions run high. Trust corrodes.
If your marriage wasn’t in trouble before the decision to stray, it will be. And healing from infidelity isn’t for sissies. It’s extremely hard work. It takes time, dedication, persistence and personal strength.
Know that if you’re even considering being unfaithful, it often signals something is wrong with your relationship. There are solutions to those problems, even if you have not been successful in unearthing them so far. Assume your extra-marital fantasies are merely strong signs you need to do what it takes to get your marriage on track.
2. You fight about the same thing over and over and over
Let’s face it. Marriage and conflict go hand in hand. It’s impossible for two people to live under the same roof without arguing from time to time. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. And although there are many problems in marriage that can never truly be completely resolved, if you find yourselves having the same argument over and over and over with no appreciation of your partner’s point of view and contempt at the end of the fight, you may be headed for trouble.
Your marriage will become very unpleasant and you will begin to focus on the negatives of your relationship. Or you will avoid spending time together. You will begin to feel defeated and hopeless. You might start to wonder if you are in the wrong relationship. This, without question, should be a red flag.
3. Escalating fights
In addition to having the same fights, when these arguments grow in intensity over time, you should be wary. Sometimes, escalating fights can result in either verbal or physical abuse, both of which are unacceptable. If you notice that your fights are becoming more and more hurtful, there may be deeper underlying causes that are not being addressed. Or the lack of communication skills might be preventing loving outcomes. Either way, fights that become increasingly hostile should be taken very seriously.
4. Spending less time together
When my book Divorce Busting was published, countless reporters wanted to know the number one cause for the breakdown in marriages today. The answer to their question was obvious. Couples aren’t spending enough time together. Everything is more important than setting aside sacred time for one another. Whether it’s the kids, work, friends, hobbies, relatives, and so on, everything seems to take precedence over the relationship. When this happens, couples stop being friends and their emotional connection suffers. They begin leading separate lives.
I have worked with many people who have let their marriages slip away because of “doing their own things.” Unless they’re willing to reprioritize what’s truly important- time together- their marriage will remain in the danger zone.
5. Focusing more on kids than each other
Our culture has become very kid-centric, meaning we place our children in the center of our lives. We make them our number one priority. There are many reasons we do this. Perhaps we felt neglected as children and we want to give our own children better lives. We see everyone else- friends, neighbors, relatives- doing it and we feel compelled to do the same. We are busy with work and feel that all of our free time should be spent with our children, and so on.
Although on the surface of things, these reasons make perfect sense. However, when we live our lives this way, our marriages suffer. We become strangers to our spouses. We feel more connected to our children than our partners. That explains why empty nesters are still divorcing in droves. Once the children leave home, the relationship void feels overwhelming.
I always tell couples that the best thing they can do for their children is to make the marriage the most important thing in their lives. Children benefit enormously when their parents have loving, close relationships. Plus, it makes marital longevity more likely. But most importantly, it models for children what good marriages are all about.
If you find yourself or your spouse paying more attention to your children than each other, stop, and switch gears. That will put your marriage on safer ground.
6. Having little or no sex
It’s not uncommon for one spouse to have a lower sex drive than the other. This, in and of itself, is not a sign that your marriage is in trouble. When this does become a problem, however, is when the spouse with lower desire refuses to care about the higher desire spouse’s feelings and rejects most, if not all, sexual advances. This can result in the spouse with the higher desire feeling hurt, rejected, deflated, emotionally disconnected, angry and desperate.
Once someone experiences these feelings, a multitude of things can happen. The spouses can stop being friends, spending time together, connecting emotionally, and enjoying each other’s company. They can also begin fighting a great deal, sometimes about sex and sometimes about other things. When they fight about other things, it might be a symptom of the deeper problem- being disconnected sexually.
If your relationship is sex-starved, you or your spouse should re-examine the reasons it’s happening and do whatever it takes to bring back the passion in your marriage. Even if it’s slow going in the beginning, you have to start somewhere. Allowing your sexual differences to divide you often puts a marriage at risk of infidelity or divorce.
7. Talking strictly about superficial topics
Although not everybody feels this way, for some, talking is the best way to feel emotionally connected. And if you’re someone who feels connected through words, not just any words will do. Meaningful, heartfelt conversations hit the mark. When couples don’t make time to talk- find out about each other’s days, discuss important matters about loved ones, dream together about the future, talk about vulnerable feelings- the marriage can seem perfunctory or superficial.
When partners have different “talk” needs, the person who has less of a need to talk usually has the greatest influence on what happens in that marriage. The “talker” feels hurt, frustrated and alone. Sometimes, in order to “fix” things, the talker talks about his or her unhappiness, which is the last thing the other spouse wants to discuss. So, they become at odds with one another. This often causes spouses to shut down and go into separate corners, which leads to loneliness and unhappiness.
If you or your spouse needs to have open, meaningful conversation on a regular basis, it behooves you both to set aside time to engage in frequent heartfelt discussions. Reluctance to do so is risky for your relationship.
Do you recognize yourself, your spouse or your marriage when you read through the seven warning signs? Don’t despair. There is a great deal that you can do to bolster your relationship. But don’t be complacent. Heed these warnings. And when you do, your marriage will be a healthier and happier place to be.