Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
How do you know if you're having normal relationship ups and downs, or that it's time to call a marriage counselor?
After a decade as a Denver marriage counselor, and nearly two of being married myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that being in a relationship is a little like doing yoga: If it feels really easy all the time, you’re probably not doing it right. (Meaning that couples who never EVER fight are usually not talking about all things that they should be talking about.) Having a little friction, some differences of opinion, and yes — even conflict, is an entirely natural, normal and healthy part of the marriage / relationship experience.
However, there are some situations that are more concerning than others. There are dark patterns and cycles of negative reactivity that can take hold of your marriage in subtle ways, like toxic black mold that blooms unseen in the walls of your house — and that will likely get worse over time.
Unfortunately, there does come a point when it’s too late. Marriages can be broken beyond repair. When trust, empathy and commitment is damaged past a certain point, the best marriage counselor in the world cannot help you put the pieces back together again.
It's therefore important to tell the difference between “normal relational friction” and more serious problems that require intervention. Here are six signs “toxic mold” is growing in your marriage, and that it’s time to get some professional help:
1. Resentments linger.
You talked about it, everybody said “Sorry” but deep down you don’t feel like the problem has been solved. You don’t feel heard, or fully understood. You still feel bad about what happened, and you don’t trust that it won’t happen again. When you’re filled with unresolved resentment and mistrust, it’s hard to feel like the loving person that you’d like to be towards your partner.
2. You can’t communicate productively.
Every time something comes up, voices get raised and it turns into a street fight — not a productive (if intense) conversation. You get mean with each other and intentionally try to hurt each other. It feels impossible to solve problems and hear each other, because one or both of you are either focused on “winning.” Or, disagreement leads to someone freaking out, shutting down, or falling apart instead of listening and communicating effectively.
3. You expect negative reactions from each other.
Your trust in the emotional safety of your relationship is eroding. You anticipate that your partner will get mad at you, or be mean to you, or will be emotionally unresponsive to you. You start to feel anxious about being around them, and feel like you’re walking on eggshells.
4. You’re not talking…. To each other.
If your best friend / mother / sister knows more about how you feel about your relationship than your partner does, that is a problem. While it’s much more comfortable to talk to a third party about your feelings, it doesn’t do anything to resolve the issues. If you think your partner “must know how you feel” because of all the non-verbal hints and things you’re doing to show them how you feel, but you’re not actually saying the words out loud, it is likely that you need the support of a marriage counselor to learn how to address problems directly, and productively.
5) The “Four Horsemen” are present.
Dr. John Gottman, a researcher in the field of marriage counseling, has done wonderful research into the dynamics of relationships. He is able to predict whether a marriage will fail by the presence of four specific behaviors that are so toxic he’s nicknamed them “The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse.” These are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Avoidance. So if you feel like telling your partner why they are wrong for feeling the way they do, rolling your eyes, or leaving the room every time they talk, you need to get into marriage counseling — quick.
6) One person is loosing hope that things can change.
When relationships finally end, it is almost always because one person has lost hope that things can be better. They have tried to talk, tried to change, and tried to get their partner to understand them — sometimes for a very long time. It has not worked. At a certain point, they simply loose hope that their partner can love them in the way that they need to be loved. “It doesn’t matter anyway” are the lyrics to the funeral dirge of a marriage. If this is happening it is vital that you get into high quality marriage counseling before it’s too late to save your marriage.
If you’re reading these warning signs, and they feel familiar, don’t wait to get into marriage counseling. You CAN wait too long. If the trust and good will between you have eroded too far, the best marriage counselor in the world can’t help you put it back together again. But if you both still want to try, there is always hope.