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7 Easy-to-Miss Signs of Relationship Trouble

5. Feelings about friends.

Key points

  • A relationship’s sudden demise is rarely as sudden as it may seem. The end may seem like it came out of nowhere. It didn’t.
  • Your partner may not come right out and say what's wrong, but small signs—like how they use pronouns—could help you identify a problem.
  • Notice how your partner acts: Are they sharing less? Are they getting lazy? Do they like your friends?
  • Subtle signs can encourage conversations and efforts to fix problems before they threaten the relationship.

Few feelings are worse in a relationship than being blindsided. Major relationship problems shouldn’t sneak up on you. Breakups shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s demoralizing and embarrassing.

The truth is, though, that those unexpected issues and surprise breakups or divorces are rarely as sudden as they seem. The signs were most likely there. If you never saw it coming, it's probably because you didn’t know what to look for.

The signs won’t be obvious. If partners advertised that they’re having doubts, or thinking about ending things, this would be easy. But in reality, your partner isn't likely to clearly communicate about looming trouble because they may not fully realize it themselves. That means you’re going to have to read the not-so-obvious clues.

You may wonder, “If the signs are so slight that they’re hard to notice, how threatening could they be?” The fact is that big problems in relationships don’t happen all at once. No one wakes up one day and decides to cheat out of the blue. Partners don’t go from perfectly happy to contemplating divorce overnight.

Rather, problems have a way of accumulating until they become too much to handle. Our emotional connection slowly fades, while relationship satisfaction erodes little by little over time. That makes it hard to notice and hard to believe it’s a real problem. But it’s a death by a thousand papercuts until one day, the wounds are too deep to heal.

Thankfully, being savvier about recognizing issues early allows you to do something about them before they ruin everything.

Nick Fewings/Unsplash
Source: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

The 7 Subtle Signs

Here’s what you need to look out for so you can see trouble coming and, more importantly, take steps to prevent a disastrous outcome.

1. You have to care to share. Early in your relationship, you and your partner shared everything with each other. Your hopes, dreams, fears, and failures were all laid out in the open. Those long, heartfelt conversations brought you closer together—and as you grew closer, you became more comfortable being vulnerable and sharing even more.

But here’s the thing: Partners (usually) won’t just come out and say, “I want to be less close,” but they may start sharing less. That’s why it’s worth noticing if either of you becomes increasingly superficial with what you’re willing to disclose.

Be careful here: Every conversation can’t be emotional and deep. Sometimes, we really just need to figure out what we want for dinner. But if all of your conversations trend toward the super practical and mundane, and you aren’t having any meaningful discussions—especially about the future or the relationship itself—it can indicate that one (or both) of you is pulling away.

2. Dishing the dirt. Our partner is a big part of who we are—so much so that we often merge identities and see our partner as an extension of ourselves. When we include our partners in ourselves like this, we experience their successes as our own (Aron et al., 2022). Similarly, their setbacks and anything that reflects poorly on our partner also reflect poorly on us.

When partners become willing to criticize each other or talk poorly about their relationship with others, it suggests a shift in identity. Normally, we wouldn’t consider sharing bad information because it would also hurt us or make us look bad. But a greater willingness to divulge negative aspects may reveal a desire to create psychological distance. That distancing is the opposite of closeness and can indicate the beginning of the end.

3. "We" becomes "me." You wouldn't think something as simple as pronouns would impact your relationship. Yet those tiny words can offer clues to the strength of your bond as a couple.

Happy couples are highly interdependent and tend to use a lot of plural pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “our.” (Agnew et al., 1998). For example, if you ask someone in a healthy relationship about their favorite TV show, they may answer, “We really like watching 'The Bachelor' and 'Schitt’s Creek.'” They’re referring to “we” even though their partner isn’t there, because they think of themselves as part of a couple.

If you start hearing your partner using more words like “I,” “me,” and “mine,” it may be a sign that they’re thinking less in terms of being part of a couple and more as a single person.

4. Effort matters. We all want our relationship to be fun and exciting. At some point, though, life inevitably intercedes, and things start to slow down. You have to go to work, pay bills, and be an adult with responsibilities.

That calm stability is a natural part of a relationship’s evolution. But while comfort is one thing, complacency and laziness are another. You don’t want to resign yourself to a life of boredom.

Being indifferent to an unexciting relationship can be a sign that it is no longer a priority. If it isn’t a priority, it can make it seem pointless to put in any effort or to have fun together. That’s a problem because great relationships take work and require that couples keep dating. Being comfortable is good, but don't mistake that for laziness or apathy.

5. Feelings about friends. How much do you like your partner's friends? How do they feel about your friends? The answers to those questions are subtle indicators of your relationship’s future. Research finds that as long as partners like each other’s friends, they're on the right track (Fiori et al., 2018).

However, if there’s a lot of negativity, look out. Especially in the early part of marriage, a husband’s negative feelings about the wife's friends matter more (and are more predictive of divorce) than how the wife feels about the husband’s friends.

In that study, what was it that made husbands dislike their wives’ friends? Often, the answer was meddling. When husbands felt their wife’s friends interfered in the marriage, divorce was much more likely.

6. Sneaking a peek. Your partner goes into another room but leaves their phone behind. You see some notifications pop up. What do you do?

There is nothing subtle about the fact that not trusting your partner is a bad sign. But how that feeling manifests itself in your relationship may not be obvious. According to one survey, 60 percent of people check their partner's phone, likely because they feel it’s fairly innocuous. After all, if that many people snoop, it can’t be a bad thing.

Except it is. Those who snoop on their partner's phone have less trust, are less emotionally stable, experience more conflict, and are more likely to break up (Arikewuyo et al., 2022). It’s a little peek that says a lot about the state of the relationship.

7. ”Let’s talk.” Imagine that your partner texts to say, “I’d like to talk.” How do you react?

That text could literally mean anything. Hopefully, you’re optimistic and assume it’s about something positive (e.g., a possible job promotion). However, if you’re hesitant, it may be a subtle sign that your relationship isn’t as solid as you might hope.

Now, imagine your partner said, “I’d like to talk about our future.” Here it is. This is the big one, the “talk” about what we are and where this relationship is going. How do you feel? Optimistic or full of dread?

If you’re a bit fearful, you’re not alone. Having the “talk” was found in older research to be the number one taboo topic in relationships (Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). But just because it’s a common fear doesn’t mean that it’s OK to avoid the talk or feel so apprehensive. Rather, that hesitancy can be a sign there’s something wrong.

For those in healthy relationships, the “what are we and where is this going” conversation is often quite enjoyable. What could be better than discussing your shared life together? However, if that talk evokes more agony than joyful anticipation, you want to figure out why. It also means you really should have the talk to get things figured out.

What to Do

These subtle signs can give you an inside scoop and offer insights into what your partner is thinking. But don’t go overboard. You could be missing other signals or reading something wrong. Instead of going into full-fledged detective mode, the best thing to do is have a conversation with your partner:

  • Ask if everything’s OK, or if anything is going on.
  • You can also be more specific and address one of the seven subtle signs: “I noticed X. Should I read anything into that?”
  • Or you can address the state of the relationship more generally: “I’m feeling a little disconnected lately. How about you? Let’s make an effort to get back on track.”

Relationship troubles don’t magically appear. You don’t want to be surprised. You want some warning, and the key is to know where to look. There are clues along the way.

Subtle signs aren’t dealbreakers that guarantee impending doom. They are, however, like the “check engine” light in your car: an indication that something isn’t quite right and needs your attention. Being aware of these hard-to-notice signals could allow you to spot issues before they grow out of control and threaten your relationship’s future.

Facebook image: Nataliya Dmytrenko/Shutterstock


Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 939–954.

Arikewuyo, A. O., Eluwole, K. K., & Özad, B. (2021). Influence of lack of trust on romantic relationship problems: The mediating role of partner cell phone snooping. Psychological Reports, 124(1), 348-365.

Aron, A., Lewandowski, G.W. Jr., Branand, B., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. (2022). Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of others in self: An updated review. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1985). Taboo topics in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2(3), 253-269.

Fiori, K. L., Rauer, A. J., Birditt, K. S., Marini, C. M., Jager, J., Brown, E., & Orbuch, T. L. (2018). “I Love You, Not Your Friends”: Links between partners’ early disapproval of friends and divorce across 16 years. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(9), 1230–1250.

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