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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

The 6 Signs of a Failing Relationship

Marriage is super tough work! I've worked with many couples (some married and some not) that after being together for a few years, start to notice bumps along the road. Couples frequently fall into "ruts," where you feel stuck in the same old routine of everyday life. Then, you add some major life commitments (like kids or buying a house) into the mix and you have a whole new pile of ups and downs that throw your relationship off course.

The good news is that it's nothing Couple's Counseling can't handle. The bad news is that, by the time most couples come in for Couple's Therapy, their relationship is in so much trouble that it can't be saved. That's why Couple's Therapy has a poor success rate. Essentially, Couple's Therapy doesn't work most of the time! So why would you even try it?!? Right?

Let's take a step back and look at this from a different perspective. Theories and interventions used in Couple's Therapy can be immensely helpful. They've been researched and most studies show they are quite successful. So, if that is the case, why is it that so many couples end up leaving therapy with no success?

The reality is that most couples wait until the relationship has deteriorated so much, the likelihood of saving it is slim. Unfortunately, most individuals use psychotherapy as their last effort to save their relationship. By then, one or both individuals in the relationship have already given up, but are still "going through the motions" before finally seeking a separation. Essentially, it's doomed before it starts.

It's not that Couple's Therapy "doesn't work," it's that most couples wait too long before they get help. They read books on it, talk to friends about it, argue with each other about it, and maybe consider it, but they just don't do it until it's too late.

Couple's Therapy takes Time and Commitment

So what is Couple's Counseling all about? Couple's Therapy can include many different components, depending on your therapist. It includes everything from improving your communication skills, to arguing more effectively (and respectfully), to understanding where everything went wrong and why. It's all tackled in the therapy room, even sex and other forms of physical intimacy are looked at too!

But it takes time and commitment to work. As a therapist, I had many couples come in, hoping for a resolution after only a month (that's about 4 sessions). Unfortunately, that's not nearly enough time. Most relationships have been spiraling down hill for YEARS before couples can finally admit that there's a problem. But then they want the problem solved in a matter of months.

Realistically speaking, you should expect treatment to take roughly the same amount of time that it took to create the problem in the first place. So, if your relationship has been struggling for 1 year, expect 1 year of treatment (at least) to solve it! This is assuming that both partners in the relationship are equally committed to making it work.

Commitment to the therapeutic process is an important component to effective therapy. Frequently, when couples come in, 1 person is very dedicated to the process and truly wants the relationship to work out. Essentially, this person is still very much in love with their partner. Sadly, the partner isn't nearly as invested. This person is usually going through the motions, but it's pretty evident that they've already given up. In this situation, therapy will never work. It takes 2 to tango, so if one person has (emotionally) walked off the dance floor, there won't be too much dancing happening at all.

When you have 2 committed individuals that are willing to put in the time needed, Couples Counseling is very effective and has great results! Research has even shown that couples can move past infidelity successfully, and move on to a relationship with one another that is loving and fulfilling!

The Difference between Success & Failure in Therapy

So what makes the difference? Well, timing! It's all about recognizing that your relationship is struggling early on. Once you see that your relationship has some problems, you have got to get help! Don't wait until things are so bad that you and your partner are miserable and fighting all the time!

But how do you do that? How do you know when you can't fix the problem anymore on your own?

One of the best couple's therapists and relationship experts in the United States is John Gottman, Ph.D. He is so good at what he does, he can predict divorce in a relationship with 91% accuracy after listening to a couple argue for as little as 5 minutes! If you ask me, that's pretty incredible!

But how is it that he can do this? Well, he's been in the business for a long time and has conducted extensive amounts of research on relationships. So he truly is an expert in the arena of Couple's Therapy. And his interventions for Couple's Therapy WORK! But, once again, they only work if the couple is able to accept help before the relationship is completely gone.

How Can You Tell if Your Relationship Can be Saved?

Determining whether or not your relationship can be salvaged is difficult. Every relationship is different and what is considered "normal" in 1 relationship may not be "normal" in another.

Through years of research, Gottman has been able to determine that there are 6 signs that a relationship will likely fail. It is these same 6 signs he would look for to determine if the relationship would end in divorce. Let's look at these 6 signs to determine whether YOUR relationship can be saved:

1. A Harsh Startup- Whenever you begin an argument with your partner, how does it start out? Gottman looked for "harsh startups" as one of his keys for possible relationship failure. As you can imagine, couples that start their arguments harshly right at the onset have 1 strike against them. If you start your arguments slinging insults, with hurtful critiques, or with sarcasm intended to sting your partner, you are engaging in a harsh startup.

2. Presence of the "Four Horseman" - When you argue in your relationship, is there a presence of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling (emotionally shutting down)? Arguments that are laced with any of these things mean that you have the Four Horseman visiting you. Gottman considered their presence in arguments as another key in predicting relationship failure. If these are present in your arguments with your partner, consider it as strike 2!

3. Flooding- Do one or both of you feel frequently overwhelmed in arguments and emotionally shut down? If the answer is "yes," then you are experiencing flooding. Flooding simply means that what is happening in the argument is so overwhelming to you, that you can't emotionally handle the situation anymore. Frequently experiencing flooding in your relationship is another strike against it.

4. Body Language- Is your body language accurately reflecting what you feel? Congruent Communication is an important part to all relationships, and non-verbal communication is a part of that. Your body language should be congruent with what you are saying. So, if you are hurting or are angry with your partner, then you really shouldn't be engaging in physical intimacy. This sends your partner mixed messages. If you're sending mixed messages, this is another strike against your relationship.

5. Failed Repair Attempts- How often are you or your partner trying to make amends in any given argument? This is a good thing, and it's called a repair attempt. We all do this, often without even thinking about it. It might be an apology, a joke to try and lighten the mood, or an offer to try and make things better. The problem lies when 1 person in the relationship keeps throwing out repair attempts and the other person shuts them down. This is a failed repair attempt. Relationships with frequent failed repair attempts have another strike against them.

6. Bad Memories- Have you begun to re-write your history with one another in a negative way? Every relationship has a narrative. This is the "story" of your relationship together. As relationships deteriorate, the story starts to take a dark turn, and memories that were once seen in a positive way begin to look negative. The bad memories of the relationship are remembered much more frequently, and the good memories are slowly forgotten. If your relationship's story begins to feel more negative, then you can count this as another strike against you.

How Does Your Relationship Measure Up?

Believe it or not, these 6 signs really do help predict how successful a couple will be in Couple's Therapy. But it often takes a trained eye to catch and see these things within a relationship, and help guide the couple back to a better and healthier place.

So, how did you do? How does your relationship measure up to Gottman's 6 signs? If you found yourself with a few strikes, it might be time to consider Couple's Counseling. You're relationship still has a strong chance of success!

If you find yourself with many or all 6 strikes, you guys are in deep waters! I still recommend Couple's Counseling if you want to try and make the relationship work, just remember that you'll need time and commitment to make it successful.

What's Your Take-Home-Message?

Well, for starters, become familiar with the 6 signs of trouble in a relationship. Know them well, and see if you can find them lurking around in your relationship. Do your best not to engage in these 6 signs, and educate your partner too so they can do the same.

Next, don't wait to get help! Failure to get Couple's Therapy early on is like hammering the last nail in the coffin that is divorce or break-up.

Finally, be sure you find a therapist that you BOTH like and trust. You won't get very far in therapy if you hate your therapist. Don't be afraid to "shop around" if you have to, but just be sure that once you find a therapist you like, that you stick with it! It will be uncomfortable sometimes, it can get a little bumpy, but it will all be worth it in the end.

If you are interested in learning more about Gottman's 6 signs, I highly recommend Gottman's book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It's written for couples to use together at home, with helpful exercises to help you work through the problems and rebuild the relationship. You can check it out be clicking the link below:

That's all I have for you today. I hope you found this helpful! I wish you the best on your relationship journey.


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Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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