What to do: Aim to make the relationship a place of refuge or comfort. This may first mean exploring why you turn away from your partner for contact or conversation, versus toward them. What do you need to feel emotionally safe and vulnerable? Some couples may need a structured method of conversation if each partner processes information and emotions differently. One person may need time to think before deep conversations. Another may want to talk in the moment to address difficulties. Having a structured method of conversation may mean using a timer, so one spouse doesn’t interrupt another, or incorporating deep breathing when feeling misunderstood or frustrated.
During these discussions, which can be intense and emotional, try sharing your thoughts by focusing on your own feelings and eliminating the word “you,” which can feel accusatory. (“I feel ignored” instead of “You always ignore me.”) Don’t feel embarrassed to use a third party like a therapist to navigate safe passage through these conversations.
4. Preferring quality time by yourself
A subtle but risky red flag is when couples stop spending quality time together — from going on dates, to taking walks, to having sex — and prefer to spend time alone. It essentially signifies a parallel living experience where couples are coexisting without the companionship of a strong marriage.
What to do: Find new, fun outlets together to create shared experiences. Couples will shed a layer of their previous existence as they grow and change through the years. If you’ve grown more apart than together, be intentional about finding new hobbies and activities to create alignment and quality time. Some couples sign up for cooking classes. Others do partner dance. Some start a garden or travel to new places.
5. Building a pile of unspoken resentments and secrets
Of all the possible danger signs, this one may be the most destructive. When one person gets angry at another, it is often because they want more connection or a different kind of connection than what is being offered. But when people start to store their anger quietly, building a list of wrongs in their head, then the anger can morph into deep-seated resentment. Resentment becomes a form of permission to keep secrets or to feel entitled to step out of the marriage altogether.
What to do: Clear out the resentments, then get laughing. With this red flag, a therapist can be particularly helpful. A professional can help you sort out the origins of resentments and cause for secrets and can facilitate the delicate conversation that is often needed if there was a betrayal by either or both parties. A therapist can help create a new pattern of interaction — one that doesn’t lead to resentments by either person. Whether you choose professional support or not, make sure you try to add more laughter to your life. Couples often make the mistake of having hard conversations about their rock-bottom status and forget to add laughter and fun to their healing process. Those lighter moments allow for happy chemicals to flood your brain, body and relationship, thus giving you more hope. Don’t know where and how to laugh? Find a TV comedy series or buy tickets to a live comedy show.
Think of marriage as a verb rather than a noun. When you are struggling in the trenches of distance and resentment, remember why you chose this person. Consider the larger purpose of the life you have created together. What are your shared dreams, values and beliefs? What is unique and special about your shared life together? Remember, every day is a new day to turn toward your partner, choose them with intention and offer a generous act of love.
Jenni Skyler is a certified sex therapist, a board-certified sexologist and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She has been director of the Intimacy Institute for Sex and Relationship Therapy for more than 12 years.