Was that just a nasty fight? Or a sign that your relationship is failing?
If you don’t know the signs that a relationship is failing, it can be hard to tell the difference. All couples have conflict and points of disconnection, but some forms of conflict are healthy and even beneficial, while others can be cause for concern. As a longtime couples counselor, I can tell you that many people don’t understand the gravity of the issues in their relationships until it’s too late to resolve them. By the time they land on my couch, their emotional bond may have deteriorated so much that the best marriage counselor in the world couldn’t stitch it back together again.
It is also true that some people in fundamentally healthy relationships feel a lot of anxiety about whether or not the ups and downs they’re experiencing with their partner are “normal.” They may believe that even minor disagreements are a sign that they’re not right for each other. Like being oblivious to problems, being overly alarmed by any point of friction in a relationship can create problems of its own, especially when it leads couples to avoid conflict at all costs.
I hope this article helps you understand the difference between a truly negative relationship cycle, and the healthy, normal conflict that is a part of every relationship. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast on this topic. You can find it at the bottom of this page, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Why Relationships Fail
We all begin relationships with good intentions and high hopes. But over time, differences begin to emerge. These could be differences in sexual desire, or worldviews, or in their love languages. It doesn’t really matter what the differences are, what matters is how couples address them.
Some couples are skilled at having constructive conflicts that help their relationships grow. But many are not — not because of a flaw in either partner, but because they simply haven’t had the chance to develop the skills to have healthy conflict yet. When couples don’t have these skills, they can damage their relationships without realizing it.
Here’s a common pattern that I’ve seen in marriage counseling many times: One partner who shuts down in conflict, while the other gets more passionate and intense in an effort to be heard. This turns into an exhausting pursue-withdraw cycle where nothing ever feels resolved. At this point, both partners start to develop negative narratives about each other to explain the problems they’re having, without being aware that they’re each playing a role in their relationship’s destruction.
One partner, usually the one who has been trying to create change in the relationship (they may appear to ‘always’ be upset, critical, or argumentative), begins to lose hope that they’ll ever get through to their partner. The constant arguing may come to an abrupt and unexplained end, replaced with an icy silence. The couple will continue to grow farther apart until the relationship feels lonely and hollow. Eventually, they’ll reach the emotional “point of no return,” and someone will call it quits in the relationship.
The person who gets left usually doesn’t see it coming. From their perspective, things got better when the fighting stopped, so why is their partner suddenly done? At this point, the dumpee may feel highly motivated to get into couples therapy. But if their partner has already done the work of emotionally detaching from the relationship, it may be too late.
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How to Know if Your Relationship Is Failing
Cycles like these can be tough to recognize when you’re in the midst of them. Here are some signs that your relationship may be in trouble:
- Conflict has not been productive.
It’s okay to fight — in fact, never fighting can also be a sign of problems. But conflict should always be emotionally safe, respectful, and productive. That means that, after an argument, you’re able to reach some kind of resolution that leads to positive change.
This doesn’t mean that every issue should be getting fixed on the spot. Most differences require several conversations, and every couple has some differences that can never be fully resolved and will continue coming up throughout their relationships. But conflicts should still lead to greater connection, not disconnection. When it feels like you’re going around and around in a draining loop, then ending up back where you started, that’s a sign that your system for working through differences together has started breaking down, which is a red flag that your relationship is failing.
- Your attachment bond feels threatened
Our brains maintain our attachments to our romantic partners on a deep subconscious level. This part of your mind doesn’t speak to you in words, it speaks to you in visceral, gut-level feelings that warn you when something is amiss. You may not trust your partner, or that they have your best interests at heart. When your relationship is failing, you may begin worry that you can’t rely on them. You may sense that something has changed and they’re just not in this with you in the way that they used to be.
If your relationship feels shaky on foundational levels, it’s important to get into good couples counseling sooner rather than later. When you catch this kind of disconnection before it’s too late, it’s still possible to heal your bond and reconnect.
As relationships fail, there is often one partner getting increasingly angry, which is usually their way of trying to fix the relationship before it falls apart. The other partner only knows that their partner seems irrational and a little scary, and so begins shutting them out. This may look like avoiding their partner, avoiding important conversations, refusing to respond or even physically leaving the room when conflict arises.
From the stonewalling partner’s perspective, they’re doing the best they can to not make the problems in the relationship worse. But their partner feels invalidated, and begins to believe that the non-communicative partner just doesn’t care. This hastens a relationship’s demise, which is why relationship expert Dr. John Gottman calls stonewalling one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
- Negative narratives take hold
When a relationship is failing, it’s really hard for any of us to see the role that we’re playing in that. It’s much easier to look outward at all of your partner’s “issues” to explain what’s going on. This is human nature, letting negative narratives about each other take root can ruin all of the love and respect in your relationship for good. It fundamentally changes the emotional climate of the relationship so that it won’t feel good for you to be together, even when you’re “getting along.”
If you start telling yourself a story about how your partner is selfish, they have poor character, they’re irresponsible, emotionally immature, hopelessly avoidant, or an irredeemable narcissist, that’s a sign your relationship will likely fail unless something changes.
As an aside, some people really do have deep character issues that make having a healthy relationship difficult. This is not intended to negate that reality, just to make you aware that, when a relationship is failing, it’s very common to begin believing that’s what’s going on when that’s not the case.
- The fighting stops
If you were arguing constantly and then the fighting suddenly stops for no apparent reason, that can be a sign that you’re nearing the end of your relationship. Conflict in relationships is an effort to create change — to get your needs met, and to feel understood, respected, cared for, appreciated, and loved. But after months or years of unproductive fights, people start to burn out. If your partner stops fighting with you and starts saying things like, “Sure, whatever you want. I don’t care,” they may be giving up on making your relationship better and starting to disengage.
What to Do When Your Relationship Is Failing
As a marriage counselor, I believe that conflict is the path to greater connection, growth, and intimacy. But there are some patterns that, when present in a relationship, must be snuffed out…and fast. You can either grow together, or grow apart. If not remedied, the last stop on this sad train is a breakup or divorce (or bitter, lonely cohabitation).
You don’t want that, and you don’t have to accept it — if you are still together, then there is still hope for your relationship. Working with a good couples counselor can help you break these harmful patterns, reconnect, and restore your emotional bond. If you or your partner are already feeling ambivalent about staying together, discernment counseling is your best bet.
With the right support, it is possible to pull a failing relationship back from the brink. If you’d like to meet with one of the talented clinicians on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — For more advice on navigating conflict in a way that helps your relationship grow, check out our “Communication that Connects” collection of articles and podcasts.
Music in this episode is by Swan Lake with their song “Hand at Dusk.” Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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