Sue Gill, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

Relationship Red Flags

Are you and your beloved finding that it's harder and harder to feel good about your relationship?

Ah to be in love. It’s such a wonderful experience. We feel happy, energized, excited to see what the next day will bring. We celebrate one another’s quirks, overlook minor differences, and try new activities we may have otherwise never done.

How is it that most relationships start out this way, but so many end up with each person complaining about many of the very traits that were originally cute quirks? How do couples end up in my office 1 or 5 or 10 years into their relationship filled with hurt, anger, resentment and disappointment about the person they originally loved so deeply?

For those who are dating or want to be dating, some of the following red flags may be really important to note as you move forward in a dating relationship. If you are already in a committed relationship, look for these traits in your relationship. If you see any of these, it may be useful to talk about this with your partner. If left unattended, these could erode the foundation of your future together.

Note: if your relationship involves very serious problems such as physical battery, emotional or sexual abuse, addiction, or untreated mental illness, you need help right away. Please call a professional, as these issues must be addressed individually before the relationship can move forward. 

I firmly believe that a foundation for any good relationship includes an absolute contract for ongoing individual self improvement on the part of both people. Adequate mental health, maintaining physical health issues that can be controlled, managing individual addictions, dealing with things from the past that haunt you, and improving individual maturity are all foundational for any healthy relationship. Are you addressing these issues in your own life? It is important to do so, both for your own fulfillment and so that you can be the best possible participant in the relationships in your life.

If the above issues are reasonably controlled, it is useful to look for relationship based factors that indicate “red flags.” John Gottman specializes in doing research about relationships. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (sorry for the heterosexist bias, but it’s still a great book) Gottman describes the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” styles of interacting that can quickly poison a relationship. These include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. 

Let’s look at each of these to see how they can negatively influence a relationship. 

Criticism. Complaining is actually ok but criticism is not. The difference is that complaints are specific and criticism is global. “Da@# it, why didn’t you pick up your socks like you said you would?” (ok complaint) vs “Why don’t you ever do what you say you will do? What is wrong with you?” (Not ok criticism.)

Defensiveness. It’s so important to take responsibility for your part of any problems in the relationship and be willing to be influenced by your partner. Defensiveness just doesn’t work. Note that I am not saying you should allow yourself to be abused. I am saying that it’s important to acknowledge your own contributions to conflict in the relationship.

Contempt. Sarcasm and cynicism fall into this category, as do sneering, disgust, belligerence, mockery, eye rolling, hostile humor, condescension, and demeaning behavior. This stuff is highly lethal to a relationship, so if you note it in your partner or detect it in yourself toward your partner you had better get help fast!  To banish contempt from your relationship, Gottman stresses the need to “build a culture of appreciation.”  “He’s such a lousy cook” vs “Thanks so much for all the effort that went into this!” It’s important to learn the skill of resolving differences early so that those differences don’t brew contempt, and for both to look for opportunities to soften your interactions and reconcile differences respectfully.

Stonewalling. Tuning out. Unresponsiveness. Avoidance. Disengaging. These are techniques we use in relationships to avoid feeling emotionally flooded by the barrage of strong emotions that may be coming our way. If stonewalling is present, it’s important to figure out more productive ways to regulate the emotions of the moment because a successful conversation can’t happen when someone is in this state. 

Stonewalling can be present for several reasons, so it is a bit complicated. For example, a person may check out if there is a history of their partner getting very angry, or talking with a lot of criticism or contempt. Or a person may disengage in the face of perceived conflict if they have their own unresolved issues relating to past abuse or other childhood/family dynamics. Whatever the cause, a person is likely to disengage during a conversation if they are feeling too emotionally or physiologically activated. Or if they sense that the conversation is going in a direction that will lead to over-activation. Although this is an understandable response that ultimately comes from our primitive fight/flight/freeze/collapse system, it is not helpful when interacting in close relationships unless the other person is a true threat. If stonewalling is a part of your relationship pattern, look carefully for alternate ways to regulate your inner state and for ways to manage the level of emotion that is in the room during conversations with your partner.

If any of the above four are part of your relationship, take note, as these are likely to lead to serious disruption of all that could be good in the relationship. These are indicators of significant problems and they are not likely to go away on their own.

Success in relationships requires a foundation of health where both people address the individual issues that are necessary for participating in a relationship. It also requires banishing the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” My next article will examine ways to build on this foundation so that your relationship can be become vibrant, uplifting and long lasting!

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Our Lives Magazine