3 Sure Signs of a Relationship at Risk

... and 3 solutions to explore before giving up.

Posted Feb 01, 2016

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Most relationships have expiration dates, just as every other ballad on the radio reminds us. A relationship unraveling is like a sinking ship, calling to mind the Annie Lennox lyric, "Why can't you see...this boat is sinking." The actual "end" of a relationship doesn't happen overnight but over time, through a series of events, in no perfect order, each leading to the same place—a sad and lonely end.

When a committed relationship ends, it's one of the most difficult experiences people ever have to deal with. Here are three signs it may be on the horizon:

1. You stop asking how your partner's day went.

Sure, there are exceptions to this rule: If you're married with a screaming baby, for example, you are just surviving. But couples whose relationships are ending know what I'm talking about. Once you stop caring how the other person's day was, you have lost interest, and likely just don't care enough about that person anymore to make the relationship last over the long term. (Not caring about your partner's day, keep in mind, is different from still caring about the person but not asking about his or her day because you're angry in the moment, and you've shut yourself off to that person temporarily.)

Solution: If you've been unhappy for a while, it's time to have a heart-to-heart in which you tell your partner the needs you have that are not getting met in the relationship. Ask your partner if he or she is happy, too. And ask if he or she is willing to make some changes to improve the relationship—using very specific examples. If both of you are not willing to make the changes the other asks for, you should have an honest discussion about whether it is time to start planning to end the relationship.

2. You (or your partner) keeps pushing for sex, but the other has no interest, or simply won't do it.

Many marriages—a lot more than most married people like to admit—survive without regular or frequent sex. Usually, though, the partner who tends to want more sex reaches one of two points—the individual starts cheating, or the individual finds a way mentally to accept the sacrifice, thereby avoiding the need to start cheating. But when one of you keeps pressing for sex, the relationship is going to suffer endless conflict and tension; often this issue leads to the end.

Solution: Sex is a tricky, high-voltage issue in relationships, one that taps into strong, primitive feelings, and which often generates arguments or resentments too big for a couple to handle. If sex is the problem in your relationship and you really want to make things work, seriously consider meeting with a therapist who does couples therapy, at least for a session or two. I find that, often, only outside counsel can help couples mediate this complex and sensitive issue.

3. The two of you have already experienced an impulsive breakup, only to get back together soon after.

In working with hundreds of couples over the years, I found, anecdotally, that someone who initiates an impulsive breakup, even if they get back together the next day or month or whenever, was responding to a gut-level, instinctive wish to break free from the relationship. In other words, that individual had a primitive sense that the relationship either wouldn't meet their long-term needs or would be dangerous by subjecting them to unnecessary hurt. So, even when such a couple gets back together, the original feelings that caused the impulsive breakup in the first place are still there, bubbling under the surface. For many of these relationships, getting back together merely postpones the inevitable, as the clock continues to tick toward an inevitable expiration date.

Solution: Once you've gotten back together, ask yourself if you really are happy and at peace overall with the relationship. If you're still struggling with some of the same feelings that contributed to the earlier breakup, talk to your friends and get their opinion. Ask hem: Does it seem reasonable for me to want these things to change in the relationship? Have I given my partner enough time to change? Am I someone who can let myself feel happy in a relationship, or do I need to have some level of conflict or turmoil as a rule? Feedback from a few reasonable friends can be just as valuable as that of some of the best therapists.

The takeaway lesson: Relationships are supposed to be reliable and comforting above all else. If your relationship has gone off the tracks and you realize that any of these factors apply to you, you must confront the situation directly, by means of uncomfortable conversations. Though facing these issues provokes anxiety, that anxiety is a lot more manageable now than it will be if it keeps bubbling up inside you.

Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter.