By Dr. Beth Erickson
The current divorce statistics suggest that many too many couples whose marriage is in trouble throw up their hands and decide to end their marriage. The current divorce rate for first marriages is about 50%. Although the divorce rate is decreasing slightly, it still is too high. The rate of second marriages that end in divorce is between 60 and 63%. And for third marriages, the divorce rate is 70 – 73%.
One wonders in how many of those instances couples missed warning signs that their marriage was in trouble. And how many couples had a dim awareness that their marriage was in danger, but they turned a blind eye, deciding to remain in denial. The situation with those couples undoubtedly will have to worsen in order to get their attention.
In their most recent fight, couples now need to be able to discern whether this conflict is a harbinger of a brewing tornado that is about to blow their family apart? Or is it a normal disagreement? In this article, I will offer some warning signs that couples definitely need to take seriously lest their relationship collapse under the weight of significant dysfunction.
As a practicing couples therapist for over three decades, I have seen marriage from every camera angle, including that of a divorce mediator and arbitrator. From all of my experiences, I offer the following major signs to read that will tell help couples discern whether their relationship is in danger. For those that are, the couple will need to seek the help of a relationship counselor or therapist to remedy the situation. Otherwise, the relationship will go on the critical list before one or the other or both of them decide to pull the plug on it.
Continually rehashing the same argument. Whether couples literally have the same argument, or the dynamics of the fight are the same with different content, their relationship is in trouble if it happens repeatedly. For example, a couple may fight about why they have to visit the mother-in-law every Sunday, and why one of the partners continues to feel overlooked because of too much attention being showered on their children. The theme in both instances is unclear boundaries. In healthy marriages, couples know how to identify and address their issues with each other before they become ongoing problems that tear at the fabric of the marriage. And they know how to resolve their issues. So couples who find themselves having an old, familiar argument that is never settled are wise to seek marital help before they dig a rut so deep that it is difficult to get out of it. They need to learn new problem solving skills.
Arguing and fighting are the primary way spouses emotionally connect. To these couples, fighting is “safe” because neither party has to feel exposed and vulnerable to the other. So their conflict generates an intense connection. However, this mode of connecting inevitably will become emotionally – and sometimes physically – dangerous.
The self-esteem of one or both spouses has been eroded since they have been a couple. Of course, their relationship isn’t necessarily the only challenge to people’s self-confidence. But sadly, it can be a main one. Especially if one spouse senses that the other spouse is deliberately undermining them, they are in danger of losing themselves in the relationship’s dysfunction. This benefits nobody and in fact, often becomes abusive. If a spouse has sinister intentions, s/he may seem to benefit. However, if there are children involved, this kind of behavior will corrode their self-esteem and set them up for acting out as well. Another predictable risk is that this sort of situation can be a precursor to abuse.
Everything and everybody is more important to intimate partners than each other. Lopsided investments in relationships cause frustration, insecurity, resentment, and emotional distance. If these are familiar feelings, professional help would assist couples heal old wounds that both created the situation and result from it. This needs to be explored and corrected so it doesn’t keep happening. The rejection people who feel left out is enormous. If this pattern isn’t interrupted, it will be difficult for those couples to develop a sense of “coupleness” and partnership. Consider this counterintuitive thought. It is possible that couples may have unconsciously chosen to marry that person because of his/her self-centeredness. For people who have chronic low self-esteem, this feels familiar. And there is a comfort in that. They already know their lines, and the steps in this dance are well-practiced. And if their spouse is very self-centered, they definitely will need professional help to assess this untenable situation to determine whether or not it is correctable.
Not liking your spouse any more. If this is the case, something is going very wrong. I am not talking about the temporary feeling all intimate partners occasionally experience when they are convinced that being with their partner was the dumbest decision they’ve ever made! Rather, if this feeling is persistent and deteriorates to contempt, the relationship definitely will need help. Otherwise, soon there will be nothing left of the relationship except the shell of what formerly existed.
No longer spending time together. It certainly is advisable for couples to develop separate activities that are in line with their individual interests. However, this can be too much of a good thing, if there are seldom joint activities. To combat this situation, I highly recommend that couples take for just themselves the first 10 minutes after a day of separate activities to just check in and connect. It is surprising what just 10 minutes of uninterrupted time and focus a day can do to nurture a relationship. It positions the whole family for a pleasant evening while it strengthens the couple bond.
Loss of respect for your partner. Respect for each other is the sine qua non of a workable relationship. When that is gone, unless it can be rekindled by people carefully sharing their feelings, the relationship is in effect over unless they seek professional help. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time until one of the partners moves to officially end the relationship.
If you are experiencing any of these situations on an ongoing basis in your marriage, you and your spouse or partner need to address these problems before whatever love and positive intentions you have had erodes and gradually turns to hate.
There is no shame in seeking professional help. Only fools bury their head in the sand, hoping their problems will go away. If couples do this, the marriage will only further deteriorate and become a casualty of divorce wars.
About the Author: Dr. Beth Erickson is a marriage and family therapist and host of “Relationships 101” on webtalkradio.net. The author of “Marriage Isn’t for Sissies: 7 Simple Keys to Unlocking the Best Part of Your Life,” and “Longing for Dad: Father Loss and Its Impact” has been featured in Fortune, Reuters, USA Today, Better Homes and Gardens, Cosmopolitan, Forbes.com, Entrepreneur.com, Christian Science Monitor, The Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Huffington Post, ABC Twin Cities Live and NBC Chicago. Sign up for her Daily Words of Wisdom on her website, www.DrBethErickson.com, or call her at 952-546-1580.