1. When I see a couple in which one or both of the members are seeking to change something fundamental about the other person. We process where the need for the change comes from and the person with the issue evaluates whether it’s a dealbreaker for them or not. We work on acceptance and tolerance of others. I also recommend my couples are also in individual therapy on their own.
2. Contempt. When I experience true contempt from one in the relationship I know it is usually over. Look towards a peaceful ending at that point if possible.
3. People who approach therapy with the idea that they must convince the therapist that they’re right and their partner is wrong. Almost like they’re complaining to a parent or boss to have them sort out the problems.
4. One of the biggest red flags I see when working with a new couple is when they’ve totally forgotten the good. Part of relationship therapy is reconnecting a couple with what they like about each other, what initially attracted them to each other, and what the positives are between them.
When people come in and they’ve been so unhappy for so long that they actually can’t remember what it was like to be in love, or to even like each other, they’re just about hopeless.
You don’t have to be happy for therapy to work–but if you can’t even reminisce about the good times, then the good times are probably over.
5. Couples in a tit for tat arrangement. For example: I cheated so you can have one night to cheat with whomever. Or I violated your trust and did drugs, you can go out and do whatever for one night. It erodes trust and compounds the hurt.
6. An affair that won’t end. I’ve never seen a relationship bounce back where a partner is still in contact with their gf/bf (I don’t mean an ex gf/bf, I mean the person x is having the affair with), or is lying about it.
7. Control to an excessive amount. I most commonly see partners having to send pictures holding up a certain number of fingers or proving that it’s a live picture. This is abuse.
8. Overbearing parents and in-laws. I understand there’s a ton of cultural nuance here, and I work with couples who have arranged marriages, as well as the south Asian community. However, when a spouse is more allied with their parents and calls them on speakerphone for fights, or often speaks ill of their partner to their parents, I usually see these couples stay very unhappily married for years. It’s sad.
9. It’s very easy to work out when one person knowingly prioritizes their own wants and needs over their partners. Relationships like this are often doomed because the person simply doesn’t care enough to make any meaningful change.
10. Constant, needless escalation.
When “I don’t think we need this expensive thing” is escalated to “you don’t really love me” – major problem.
It shows up quickly in therapy if you’re watching for it.
Mostly because the one using this to avoid accountability is almost guaranteed to play this card in relation to therapy itself, either “I had to drag them here” or “they’re just trying to break up with me.”
What they’re doing is avoiding conversation about the issue by blowing it up into a bigger problem than it is, so they can make the other person respond to their feelings rather than dealing with their concerns.
11. What-aboutism. Instead of taking ownership and responsibility for their contribution to the degradation of the relationship one or both parties simply point out an example of the other exhibiting a similar behavior.
It’s a red flag because it illustrates their lack of self-awareness and poor communication skills. Communication is key when trying to mend a tattered relationship because without respectful communication the conflict-recovery process can never begin.
In the conflict-recovery model both parties agree to the terms under which they will communicate (no yelling, no interrupting, no I told you so’s… etc). Each party gets a chance to share how the other’s actions make them feel. Then they each propose their solutions and identify where they made assumptions or where they got triggered and why. Then they identify where they’re willing to compromise.
Next, we create an actionable plan with deadlines and we monitor the progress to see if the proposed solutions were effective.
IMO everything can go to shit, but once communication stagnates you’re in real trouble. So even if you’re arguing you’re still doing ok, you just need to work on how you’re communicating.
12. Refusal or inability to compromise is a ginormous red flag, one that, I believe, is empirically validated. Compromise is a significant predictor of satisfaction in relationships, and it plays an important role in the long-term success of marriages and relationships in general.
13. The biggest one I notice is respect. Respecting space, boundaries, feelings, interests, relationships are all so important and lack of respect by either person for the other is going to mean big problems. I would definitely try to help them work through it but it’s hard to point out to someone that something they are doing is hurting the other. Which leads to my second red flag, lack of communication.
14. In premarital counseling, when the couple states that they’re saving themselves for their wedding night, and then one or both confides privately that they’re not a virgin and the other has no idea. In broader terms, when a couple isn’t honest with each other about their sexual history. So many reasons why that’s unhealthy, I can’t even begin to list them all, but the biggest is that honesty is the most solid foundation on which to build a relationship. If you’re afraid of what your partner will think, ask yourself if you want to deal with it now or later. Deal with it now.
15. Whenever one half of the couple comes in and says they’re there because their spouse made them come, it’s pretty rare that they decide to stay together.
16. Substance abuse that is chronic, severe, or someone who is unwilling to disclose their use habits or someone who consistently uses more than they claim or intend to. Not that anyone with a substance use disorder isn’t a good person, but any of those may signal potential for distress and drama no one wants in their life.
17. In my experience strong healthy relationships are built on two very important qualities: trust and respect. Love is not included in these qualities because love is not a determiner of a strong/healthy relationship.
Dysfunctional relationships are still possible among people who love each other. And loving someone isn’t the only reason to stay with a person. Many of the clients that I’ve worked with in the past who are in very dysfunctional relationships have actually stayed solely because of love, but continue to struggle in those relationships because they lack trust and respect.
Without respect and trust most relationships are doomed to struggle or fail. For the couples that I’ve worked with I always assess whether or not trust and respect are present. And then build treatment goals around seeing if it is possible to develop those qualities. If they are not willing or able, then in most cases those relationships are likely to end.
18. When one person is entirely dependent on the other, especially at a relatively young age. I mean financially and emotionally.
These are typically young women (sometimes young men as well) who do not work, do not have children, stay home all day, and have no friends or hobbies outside of hanging out with their spouse. Very unhealthy, and a huge red flag. Always ends in a painful and messy breakup.
Generally, we try to get them to find a friend, join a community, get a job, or volunteer – something to provide them with self-worth and personal fulfillment outside of their spouse.
19. Spouses who don’t sleep together without a justifiable reason. As in, not due to work conflicts or medical reasons, but because one spouse just doesn’t feel like going to bed alongside the other. Lack of intimacy, both sexual and non-sexual, will lead to the two drifting apart.
20. When one spouse has a close relationship with a member of the opposite sex who doesn’t like the other spouse. The old “he/she is just a friend.” If it doesn’t lead to cheating, it still will usually cause unneeded strain that will break apart the relationship.
21. One that initially surprised me: “We’re staying together for the kids.” It leads to an unhealthy mindset where the couple sees the children as a burden and believe that by remaining in an unhealthy relationship, it will somehow make the kids turn out alright. Kids are smarter than you think, and if mom and dad don’t love each other, they’ll pick up on it. If the kids are really the priority, either learn to fix the relationship or end it.
22. Complete disrespect and true contempt with each other. Yet refusing to accept their relationship is over.
23. Name-calling in session.
24. Active physical abuse and each person admitting it and trying to be OK with it.
25. Partners refusing to listen. Absolutely deafening themselves to certain explicit statements.
26. One person digging their heels in and not accepting any feedback or suggestions, then that person tells me and partner that they are “trying.”
27. “High-conflict relationships.” If frequent and bitter conflict began a few months (or less) after the relationship began, and continued, relationship therapy is going to be a shitshow, won’t be helpful. Either the conflict will continue indefinitely, or come to an end. Not just my opinion. The research supports this.
28. I’ll just say that if you find yourself screaming “I’m not fucking yelling at you,” you might have a communication problem.
29. When a partner raises objections to meeting with me individually. During the first session I share that during the assessment I like to meet with them both together and once each individually. Occasionally I’ll have partners who suddenly become very critical or suspicious about this. Asking why I’d do that, and is it ethical, and the classic, “I’ve never heard of a marriage counselor doing that before?!” It goes beyond curiosity or simply inquiring about practice. There is an incredulous and almost panicked tone to it. And sure enough, Every. Single. Time. They turn out to be some variation of controlling, manipulative, abusive.
30. One partner says they’re seeking your services to help them determine if they want to stay together; the other partner says they’re seeking your services to make it so they stay together.
Then it’s about highlighting the points and allowing the person who is on the fence to decide what they want, since the other person knows.