You just completed 15 sessions of couples therapy and you’re feeling optimistic about the future. But weeks later the worry sets in: What if the change is only temporary? How will I or we know our relationship is going in the wrong direction? What are some tell-tale signs?
In the last 1-2 sessions of couples therapy, the more common signs of “relationship relapse” are explored so that each partner knows what to look for when the relationship is trending in the wrong direction and leading to the same issues that brought them into therapy initially:
1. Quiet dislike of partner.
- Not listening when partner speaks.
- Resenting them when they enter your space.
- Talking in one-word sentences.
- Ignoring their needs when they ask for connection.
- Refusing intimacy repeatedly.
- Showing outward contempt for them.
- Allowing a 3rd party to be the focus as opposed to each other.
2. Weaponized silence or overreaction to little things.
- Giving them the silent treatment for days at a time.
- Becoming agitated or resentful when your partner forgets a family chore, or they forget to buy a specific item at the store.
- Getting angry when they don’t clean up after their mess or for not paying a bill on time.
- Normal spending habits are now big issues.
- Forgetting a birthday becomes a point of anger.
3. Blaming the other person.
- In lieu of finding a solution or negotiating through the conflict, it becomes much easier to blame each other.
4. Frequency of criticism increases.
- As does the intensity of the criticism.
- Criticism and disapproval become more personal and less about issues or specific behaviors.
5. Refusing to recognize or acknowledge the positives of the other person.
- Looking for what is wrong with your partner.
- Ignoring contributions from your partner (e.g., partner cooked dinner, folded the laundry, took the children so you could go to the gym or out with your friends).
- Looking for problems to fight about or as criticism that creates a wedge in the relationship.
- Setting expectations that the partner cannot achieve and subsequently criticizing them for their “failure”.
6. Becoming increasingly defensive.
- Discussions about issues lead to defensive posturing.
- Diverting attention from the issue by pointing at something the partner does.
- Referring to a past incident in which the partner failed to hold up their end of the bargain.
- “Gunny-sacking” or collecting/accumulating grievances from the past day, week or even years, that are then used in an argument.
7. Moody, anxious, stressed, or disengaged from partner.
- Spending more time apart.
- Fewer conversations and laughter.
- Loss of sense of humor that was once part of the relationship.
- Not coming home after work and spending more time with “the guys” or colleagues.
- Becoming anxious or agitated just before your partner comes home from work.
- Thinking about having an affair, even if only an emotional one.
- Texting or emailing family secrets or issues with someone at work, usually someone who has shown an interest in you.
- Not reaching out to your partner to talk or discuss feelings/thoughts (this can last days or even weeks).
- Ignoring bids or conversation starters (often very subtle) for attention and conversation.
- Hanging out in the garage or in the bedroom to avoid your partner.
9. Letting positive rituals go by the wayside.
- Weekly or daily breakfasts no longer a priority.
- Weekly or monthly dinners or dates end.
- Play time is no longer important (hiking, biking, walks, going on vacation, hanging out and watching TV shows or movies).
- Necessary or unnecessary chores precede time together.
- Going to bed at separate times to avoid contact.
10. Looking outside of the relationship to have your needs met.
- Having an emotional or physical affair.
- Engaging or increasing drug/alcohol use.
- Staying out later and later at night.
- Spending more time with friends and at work.
- Volunteering to avoid time with partner.
- Focusing on functional aspects of the relationship (e.g., children, the pets, grocery shopping, paying bills, cleaning house, getting things done) and avoiding relationship conversations.
Traditional couples and relationship therapies rarely address “marital relapse” (a return to the dysfunctional ways of being in the marriage). These “relapses” are usually seen by therapists and clients as outcomes comparable to a failure in therapy or the couple’s own failure to sustain changes made while in couples therapy. This perspective leads to dichotomous thinking — either the marriage or relationship is working smoothly, or it is not. In truth, “marital relapse” is usually a slow, transitional process — a series of incremental signs that a couple may need to consider a booster session or two to get back on track. These shifts (which are fairly common) unfold over time, and typically follow what appears to be a “successful” couples therapy experience. Marital relapse is usually a gradual, imperceptible, backsliding process that can seep into the relationship without notice by either partner until damage has been done.