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7 Signs of Doom in a Relationship

3. A total lack of conflict.

Key points

  • All relationships have challenges.
  • Unrealistic expectations, uncompromising stances, and lack of conflict can be signs of a doomed relationship.
  • Other signs include irreconcilable differences in sexual desire, negative predictions, and lack of affection and gratitude.

There didn’t appear to be much hope when Allen and Anne first came for couples counseling.

They were angry, not speaking, and hopelessly at odds about the future of their 30-year marriage. The kids who had been at the heart of the family were independent adults, living in different states. Allen was eight months away from retirement and considering his options. He was convinced that his best option was divorce and starting over with a new partner with whom he might have more in common. Anne, a homemaker, said that she had spent the last 30 years catering to his needs and wishes and caring for the children. Wiping tears away with a crumpled tissue, she said that she had “put my heart and soul into this marriage and now he wants to throw it all away.”

They sat at opposite ends of the room—he in a lounge chair, she at the far end of the couch—and wouldn’t look at each other.

And they were utilizing insurance that permitted only five sessions.

This was not promising.

We worked intensely for five weeks, exploring feelings and wishes, resentments and pain. We reviewed new communication skills. They were diligent about following homework assignments: establishing clear communication, managing anger and conflict, and reconnecting for fun adventures— from a hike in the nearby mountains to a weekend trip to the nearest beach town.

Each session, they moved a little closer to each other in the room. By their fifth and final session, they were sitting beside each other on the couch, holding hands and smiling. They had brought flowers and a thank you card to celebrate their renewed love and commitment to each other. Two years later, they report that they’re still experiencing joy and gratitude in being together.

It's wonderful when a troubled couple can help each other back from the brink of a breakup to build new closeness and resilience. But there are some couples that don't make it, some relationships that just can't be saved.

What are the signs that a relationship may well be doomed?

1. Unrealistic Expectations of Each Other

Some people cling to idealized visions of the perfect relationship and become angry or hopeless when their partner turns out to be merely human. They often say things like, “If she loved me, she would…” or “The fact that we fight means we shouldn’t be together.” One client complained, "My fiancé should make me feel like a princess” while her partner complained that her regal demands imperiled their bank account and his patience and made their relationship seem terribly lopsided. She wanted gifts for every and any occasion, including the monthly anniversaries of their meeting, but never gave him gifts or showed any gratitude. Those who cling stubbornly to notions of achieving relationship perfection, of never fighting or never feeling disappointed in some way, are missing opportunities to find happiness in an imperfect, but loving relationship.

2. Uncompromising Stances

This can include “my way or the highway” kind of thinking, with an unwillingness to consider the other’s point of view or feelings. This inability or unwillingness to compromise can manifest as contempt—something John Gottman calls one of the Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse. It can also include another of the Four Horsemen: stonewalling—which means withdrawing from any discussion during conflict, often as a result of feeling overwhelmed. Both preclude any resolution of conflicts.

One young couple, engaged to be married, came in for counseling because they felt stuck in an unresolvable conflict. She felt that his parents were stingy and unloving because they would not (could not) buy the young couple a house as a wedding gift. He contended that his parents, who were not wealthy and were recently retired, living on a fixed income, had already paid for his college education and weren’t able and shouldn’t be expected to give more. He said that his fiancée had lashed out at everyone in his family, telling each member what was wrong with them and how she hated them. She was now demanding that he estrange himself from his entire family and agree that none would be invited to the wedding. He expressed love for his family and regret over this conflict. She insisted that if he really loved her, he would not hesitate to cut his family out of his life. Not surprisingly, there was no wedding.

3. Lack of Conflict

This sign of a doomed relationship may surprise those who think that fighting is a definitive sign of trouble in a relationship. However, lack of conflict and never fighting can be a sign of emotional disengagement and lack of hope for resolving conflicts. Anger and resentment can go underground, perhaps surfacing as occasional snark or continuing to simmer as unresolved feelings pile up. Instead of evolving, the relationship can stall into ongoing numb indifference.

4. Differences in Sexual Desire and Unwillingness to Compromise

While many couples experience differences in desire, most find ways to work out these differences. The hopeless cases involve partners who decide they never want to have sex at some point despite the wishes of the other.

One couple, now divorced, cycled through one feeling rejected while the other felt pressured after their second child was born. She decided that, now that their family was complete, there was no need to have sex again. He protested that he wasn’t demanding frequent sex, just a continuing connection of affection and occasional intercourse. The simmering conflict eroded their affection. He moved to the living room couch and eventually out of the marriage. The discrepancy of desire was one of several factors that made it impossible for them to stay together.

5. Addictions

The difficulty of resolving relationship problems stemming from a partner’s addiction can spell doom for many relationships. The promises, the betrayals, and the hope too often dashed can erode love and relationship goodwill. While not all marriages affected by addiction end up in divorce or estrangement, compulsive behavior of any kind—not only substance abuse and alcoholism but also gambling, overspending, or serial infidelity—can be a formidable challenge to relationship survival.

6. Negative Predictions

Some studies have shown that couples in which one or both fear or anticipate a future break-up tend to be less committed to making their relationship work. Some of these negative predictions may come from unrealistic expectations of the relationship and panic when it turns out to be less than perfect. Others may be due to ghosts of past relationships haunting the present. One young woman observed that every man she had ever dated had cheated on her, and she expected this would happen with her fiancé as well. Her constant jealousy and vigilance and insistence on checking his phone and social media accounts daily for evidence of his potential or ongoing infidelity led to his emotional withdrawal and eventually caused their breakup.

7. Lack of Affection and Gratitude

Some couples become more like roommates than spouses and stop the small but significant bonding habits—holding hands or hugging, cuddling or kissing, shared in-jokes, and finding joy in ordinary as well as extraordinary experiences together. Lack of gratitude may be evident in constant criticism, blaming, and reminding the other of his or her shortcomings.

Partners in healthy relationships feel safe with each other and enhanced by the other’s positive view of them. Putting the emphasis on a partner’s positive qualities and feeling grateful for having this person—however imperfect—as one’s partner in life can make an incredible difference.

Facebook image: Manop Boonpeng/Shutterstock

References

Brassand, A., Lussan, Y and Shue, P (2009). Attachment, perceived conflict and couple satisfaction test of a mediational dyadic model. Family Relations, 58, 634-646. doi: 10.111/j.1741-3729.2009.00580.x.

Sciana, S., Pantaleo, G. (2018) Relationships at risk: how the perceived risk of ending a romantic relationship influences the intensity of romantic affect and relationship commitment. Motivation and Emotion, 42, 137-148. doi.org/10.1007/511031-017-9650-6

Gottman, John Mordechai. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last. Kindle edition: Simon and Schuster, First edition: December 11, 2012.

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