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3 Major Warning Signs of Relationship Trouble

Three key indicators of relationship distress, based on research.

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Most of us want to meet and settle down with the “right” person, and most of us want such a relationship to last. Yet 53% of marriages in the U.S., 48% in Canada, 47% in the U.K., and 43% in Australia end in divorce. What are some of the major warning signs of a relationship in trouble? (1)(2) Here three of the key indicators, with references from my books How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People and 7 Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success.

1. Contemptuous Communication

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, a foremost expert on couple studies, concluded after over 20 years of research that the single, best predictor of divorce is when one or both partners show contempt in the relationship (3)(4).

Contempt, the opposite of respect, is often expressed via negative judgment, criticism, or sarcasm regarding the worth of an individual. Here are four common characteristics of contemptuous communication:

  • “You” Language Plus Directives. Contemptuous communication is often characterized by the use of certain types of “you” sentences. Directives are statements that either pass negative judgment or order another person around. Examples include: “You are not good enough,” “You should pay attention,” “You need to do this now,” “You have to understand my position,” and “You better get it right.”
  • Universal Statements. These are expressions that generalize a person’s character or behavior in a negative way. The two most common types of universal statements involve the use of “always” and “never” in the negative. For example: “You always leave the toilet seat up!” “You never listen to me!” Universal statements tend to point out “what is wrong” instead of “how to be better” and discourages change.
  • Being Tough on the Person, and Soft on the Issue. In every communication situation involving another person, there are two elements present: the person you are relating to, and the issue or behavior you are addressing. Effective communicators know how to separate the issue or the behavior from the person, and be soft on the person and firm on the issue. Contemptuous communicators will do the opposite. They literally “get personal” by being tough on the person, while minimizing or ignoring the issue or the behavior.
  • Invalidate Feelings. Invalidation of feelings occurs when we recognize emotions, positive or negative, coming out of a person, and either discount, belittle, minimize, ignore, or negatively judge these feelings. For example: “Your concerns are meaningless to me!” “Your complaints are totally unfounded,” or “You’re blowing things way out of proportion.” When we invalidate another person’s feelings, we are likely to cause anger, hurt, and instant resentment. It is one of the main reasons why fallouts occur in intimate relationships.

If your relationship suffers from ineffective communication, the good news is that as long as you and your partner are willing, improvements can be learned quickly and put to use immediately. For tips on this topic, see my book, How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.

2. Incompatible Financial Values

Numerous studies have identified disagreements over finances as one of the top reasons couples seek marital counseling, as well as one of the top reasons for divorce. According to Jeffrey Dew of the National Marriage Project (5), “Couples who reported disagreeing about finances once a week were over 30 percent more likely to divorce over time than couples who reported disagreeing about finances a few times per month.” The accumulation of consumer debt, as well as one or both partners’ tendency towards materialism are also key factors increasing the likelihood of divorce.

“Married couples don’t have to be facing poverty or a job loss for financial issues to impact their marriage. Rather, decisions like whether to make a major purchase using consumer credit or how much of a paycheck to put into savings can have substantial consequences for the short-term and long-term health of a marriage." — Jeffrey Dew

3. Narcissism and Sexual Narcissism

The Mayo Clinic research group defines narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration." More specifically, sexual narcissism can be defined as a grandiose sense of one’s sexual prowess which, in the mind of the sexual narcissist, entitles him or her to engage in acts of emotional and physical manipulation at the partner’s expense. Both narcissism and sexual narcissism are marked by a lack of true intimacy in the relationship (4)(5).

Signs of narcissism may include (and are not limited to) superiority complex, conceit, frequent violation of boundaries, using others to serve one’s own needs, irresponsibility, rule-breaking, extreme selfishness, and contempt towards others.

Signs of sexual narcissism may include (and are not limited to) selfish gratification without consideration for the partner, sex without intimacy, frequent criticisms, unreasonable demands, and physical or emotional abuse.

Studies reveal a correlation between narcissistic personality disorder and domestic abuse (6)(7). In particular, sexual narcissism has been linked to:

Infidelity In a recent study, participants rated higher for sexual narcissism are also more likely to engage in acts of infidelity (8)(9).

Domestic Violence Research also indicates that there’s a link between male sexual narcissism and domestic violence (10)(11).

Sexual Addiction One study suggests that sexual addiction is a reflection of sexual narcissism (12).

Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach.

© 2015 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


(1) Marriage and Divorce Statistics. Eurostat. (2011)

(2) National Fatherhood Institute Survey. (2013, 2014)

(3) Gottman, J. The Relationship Cure. Harmony. (2002)

(4) The Gottman Institute Website Research FAQs.

(5) Dew, J. Bank On It: Thrifty Couples are the Happiest. The National Marriage Project.

(6) Johnson, S. Humanizing the Narcissistic Style. W. W. Norton & Company. (1987)

(7) Hurlbert, D.F., Apt, C., Gasar, S., Wilson, N.E., Murphy, Y. Sexual Narcissism: A Validation Study. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. (1994)

(8) Keiller, S., Twenge, J. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, DSM-IV. Sex Roles. (2010)

(9) McNulty, J. K., & Widman, L.. Sexual Narcissism and Infidelity in Early Marriage. Archives of Sexual Behavior. (2014)

(10) Hurlbert, D.F., Apt, C. Sexual Narcissism and the Abusive Male. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 17. (1991)

(11) Ryan, K.M., Weikel, K., Sprechini, G. Gender Differences in Narcissism and Courtship Violence in Dating Couples. Sex Roles (2008)

(12) Apt, C., Hurlbert, D.F. Sexual Narcissism: Addiction or Anachronism? The Family Journal 3. (1995)

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