What are the Signs that a Relationship is Failing?
Last updated on July 5, 2023
The end of a relationship can be a painful, heart-breaking experience and it is safe to say that most adults have been through this at least once in their life. It is an experience we all wish to avoid and one that we think is not going to happen as we feel we have met the one and only person for us. However, more often than not there are signs that a relationship is on the path to ending long before it actually does. Unfortunately, many people do not see the signs meaning that the relationship cannot be saved. It is highly likely that many relationships that have ended could have been salvaged if the signs had been caught early enough and acted upon immediately. Many people are interested in how to improve or enhance their relationship and it can be said that the way to do this is to look at the signs that a relationship is failing and ensure you do the opposite. It could be said that you are going to learn how to prevent your relationship from making mistakes that lead to failure or rescue it if it already has thanks to situations others have found themselves in. We will look into the main signs and red flags to keep an eye out for that show a relationship is failing. Some of these may be very hard to spot but if you are in a relationship you want to stay in, you will make sure to spot any possible signs as early as possible.
In the Article "What are the Signs a Relationship is Failing"
- Negative Conversation Starters
- Negativity Presents Itself in Four Ways
- Flooding and We Do Not Mean Water!
- Commitment is Lacking
- Looking, or Venturing, Elsewhere
- Conflicts, Arguments, and a Breakdown in Communication
- Conflict Avoidance is Not Conflict Resolution
- Feelings are Heard but Not Listened To
- Future Plans, Whether Short or Long-Term, are Non-Existent
- Lack of Affection Equals Lack of a Relationship
- If the Trust has Gone Then so Has the Relationship
- No Time Together Signifies a Problem
This may seem obvious or a sign that would present itself and be immediately recognizable. However, many of us will go through life with people starting conversations or arguments with us using criticism or sarcasm (and not the funny kind). It is no surprise that if a conversation starts with sarcasm or criticism it will end on a negative point. As Gottman states, 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation within the first three minutes of the interaction. If this happens often during your relationship then it is a sign that something is not right. If you love each other you would not continually criticise your partner. You would think that this is a sign that would be easy to spot. However, our emotions will often cloud over this one and we miss it because of our love for the other person. As soon as you realize that this is a common occurrence you need to strongly consider how your relationship is going.
Unfortunately, negativity is a certainty in life. Everyone will experience negativity at some point. However, negativity in a relationship can cause it to fail. We are not talking about negative moments like burning the dinner or being late for date night. More often than not negativity in a relationship turns up during conflicts or heated conversations. Negativity in this way is referred to, by Gottman, as the four horsemen. If these present themselves it could be a sign that the relationship is on a downward spiral. How you approach them will be the deciding factor in your relationship.
- Criticism. The first of the four horsemen is criticism. This is very different from giving your partner constructive criticism or voicing a complaint politely. If you criticize your partner you are effectively attacking their character. Criticism does not mean the relationship is doomed but it does allow for the other horsemen to come into play. Being overly critical can lead to feeling assaulted, rejected, and hurt. If this is the case it can lead to both partners falling into a circulating pattern whereby criticism occurs more and more often and with greater intensity. This will eventually lead to contempt forming.
- Contempt. Contempt is an awful trait. When people communicate in this way there is no other way to describe them than mean. People use sarcasm to ridicule others and call them names. They will also use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. Contempt usually stems from long-standing negative thoughts about the other person. It has even been proven that couples who act with contempt towards each other get ill (colds, flu, etc) more often than others due to their immune systems being weakened. If you or your partner are acting with contempt then you need to consider that your relationship is falling apart. You then have a choice to make, try and salvage it or get out before one or both of you get hurt.
- Defense. When people feel criticised or treated with contempt they often become defensive. When a relationship is suffering you will find that defensiveness is ever present. When someone feels accused (unjustly) they often search for excuses and play innocent to make their partner back down. However, this can cause more problems as your partner will feel their concerns are not being taken seriously and that we do not take responsibility for our actions or mistakes. Defending yourself is a natural reaction if you are stressed or feeling attacked. Being defensive will only cause the conflict to escalate if the spouse does not recede or apologize. If you remain defensive and always blame your partner you will not manage your conflict healthily and cause more issues.
- Stonewalling. The final piece of this is the act of stonewalling and this is usually in response to contempt. This occurs when the person who has been the victim of contempt shuts down. They withdraw from interaction and simply stop communicating or responding to their partner. People will refrain from confrontation by tuning out, looking busy, or taking part in distracting techniques. Stonewalling does not appear out of nowhere, it often takes time and a lot of previous contempt and/or criticism. Over time stonewalling can become a habit that is very difficult to stop. If stonewalling starts to become apparent you both need to take a break and come back to the conflict later. Once you have calmed down you can come back to the conversation and resolve it peacefully. If you realize that one or more of these features become a regular occurrence in your relationship it is probably not going how it should.
Flooding is a feature that is the consequence of the aforementioned reasons for a relationship failing. This occurs when your partner’s negativity is so overwhelming that it leaves you completely stunned. This can make a person feel numb and completely distant in a relationship. If this feeling occurs regularly it can cause a relationship to fail as each partner will grow further away from the other.
American football coach, Vince Lombardi, once said that “most people fail not because of a lack of desire but because of a lack of commitment” while Author Neil Strauss said that “Without commitment, you cannot have depth in anything”. While these are not directly linked to relationships they can certainly be applied to them. When you enter into a relationship you make a commitment to the other person, even if you do not get married. 75% of individuals and 94% of couples believe that a lack of commitment is the primary reason for a relationship failing or a marriage ending in divorce. Some people feel that a lack of commitment caused their relationship to gradually fall apart until the lack of commitment caused the relationship to fail. Others believe that a sudden drop in commitment, often caused by infidelity, causes a relationship to fail. People are quoted as saying that their partner became more of a friend than a romantic partner and that the connection failed because they saw each other in a different light. There are other scenarios where one person is just not willing to make any effort to work on the relationship anymore. If you notice that either of these becomes apparent in your relationship, either from you or your partner, it is a sign that the relationship is failing. At this point you either have a frank, honest conversation and attempt to resolve the situation or the relationship ceases to exist. Ultimately, if one or both partner’s commitment dwindles the relationship is at risk of failing.
One of the most painful ways for a relationship to end is when someone has an affair or develops a relationship with someone else. The reason this is so painful is that the victim, generally, has no idea and is suddenly presented with information that turns their world upside down. It could be said that this is the ultimate sign that a relationship is failing because it causes a definite end. However, if you are beginning to have feelings for another person or engage in extramarital activities then this is a strong sign your current relationship is on the rocks. 88% of couples and 59% of individuals cited this as one of the major contributing factors toward a relationship failing. However, more often than not only one person in the relationship will see this as a sign of the relationship failing as the perpetrator will blame a host of other things. It is more likely that all or most of the other signs we have mentioned will present themselves before a person realizes or discovers that their person is cheating on them. It could be argued that infidelity is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, in this case, it ends the relationship.
Conflicts and arguments are a part of life. We partake in these from the moment we can talk until the day we die. However common they may be, even in a successful relationship, they can still cause monumental problems that will ultimately end a relationship. 72% of couples and 57% of individuals explained that arguing is one of the biggest contributors to a relationship failing. They also agreed that one partner was to blame e.g. there was always one instigator. The first thing to consider is how often there is a conflict or an argument while also taking into account how you both resolve the issue. If you and your partner begin arguing regularly, even about the smallest of things, then this should be a sign that something is wrong and that your relationship is in a precarious position. If you come to realize that you and your partner regularly argue about things that are not worth fighting over or are situations that others would deem ‘unarguable’ then you need to stop and take stock of what is happening. This constant conflict will cause discontent, defensive behavior, and distance in your relationship. If you notice this happening it is a sign that your relationship is falling apart. It is salvageable from this point if you are both willing to accept it is a problem. The problem arises when one of you deems this a problem but the other argues about it. If this happens you need to realize that your relationship is failing and that a conversation needs to be had.
Another aspect of this is a breakdown in communication. It is such a big part of our everyday lives. We communicate hundreds of times a day, whether verbally or through our body language. As we have discussed in another article there are many ways to improve communication and an issue with this area does not necessarily mean the relationship is failing or coming to an end. However, if you couple it with one or more of the other areas we have mentioned you need to think about where your relationship is and whether it can be saved. A relationship can only survive if both parties communicate effectively and appropriately. We do not just mean your everyday conversations. The most important part of communication within a relationship is that both of you feel respected and listened to. This is especially important during a conflict. If one person refuses to listen or uses criticism during a conflict then it will never be resolved. This begins a cycle of negativity that is hard to get out of. If communication is an issue then conflict resolution cannot happen. If you notice that communication with your partner is suffering, and this is the only issue, then you need to address it quickly or your relationship problems will continue and grow into worse issues. If communication issues become apparent alongside other things then this could be a sign that your relationship is beginning to fail.
Many people believe that they avoid conflicts with their partner by walking away, giving in to their opinions or simply staying quiet. While this may solve the problem in the short term it will not make the problem go away. Avoiding conflicts will only make the person doing the avoiding get to the point of resenting the other person for making them feel put down, disrespected, and, ultimately, unloved. Conflict avoidance will also make the other person feel that their opinions are not valued or respected enough to talk about. If you notice that you are always agreeing during an argument or that you ‘run away’ from conflicts then you may need to consider that your relationship is beginning to falter. This works the other way as well. If, when a conflict or argument arises, you notice that your partner always gives into your opinion or does their utmost to avoid them you need to realize that your relationship is not working the way it should. Conflict avoidance is just as much a sign that your relationship is failing as constantly arguing is.
Communication is definitely what makes a relationship successful. However, this does not mean that all communication is positive. In a relationship, you want to be able to express yourself, express your opinions, and, most importantly, express your feelings and have your partner listen to them. However, a sign that your relationship is possibly starting to fail is when your feelings are heard by your partner but are disregarded completely. This is not to say that your partner has to agree with everything you say or with every feeling you have. If you notice that your partner does not seem interested in how you feel or completely ignores any feelings you divulge to them then you should be warned that your relationship is heading down a rocky road and has already started to fail. If you notice this is happening you can enter into a conversation with your partner and see what they say. If they still completely disregard your feelings then you have your worries confirmed. It could be that they do not know how to manage your feelings or have another reason for appearing to disregard them but you must remember, if they love you they will do all that they can to support you and make sure your feelings are listened to and understood.
Whether you are planning where you would like to be in five years' time or what you want for dinner on Saturday, every successful relationship involves two people who thrive on planning together. You and your partner should be planning your time together, date nights, meals out, or little trips away. If you notice that your partner is always making plans with other people but never, or at least very rarely, with you then you may have a problem. This is not to say that you both should spend every waking moment together but a successful relationship will have two people that will not only plan time together but will enjoy every part of the process. You must understand that this works both ways. If you notice that you have lost the desire to make plans with your partner and you are not bothered about what they get up to this should show you that your relationship is not working.
In a relationship, the emotion you feel and the passion that may have taken you during the early stages often dwindles. This is completely normal as you will both have many other commitments. You still love each other and will have the occasional moment of pure passion. This is not the same for everyone but is commonplace. However, affection is a different story altogether as this is something that should never disappear. How many times have you seen an older couple walking down the street hand in hand or sharing a cheeky peck on the cheek? Is that not something we all want in life? We all want to have someone to share those little affectionate moments with. However, if you get to the point in your relationship where those affectionate moments do not happen or, worse, your partner’s touch irritates you then your relationship is at the point of failing. If you realize that your partner avoids your touch or seems agitated when you touch them then your relationship is suffering. As with every aspect we have discussed, you could have a conversation about this and see if there is a reason for it. However, if the relationship is struggling you may face defensiveness or stonewalling. Without affection, you and your partner are drifting apart and possibly becoming more like friends than a romantic couple.
Entering into a relationship occurs when a foundation of trust has been established. You and your partner trust each other with your emotions, your feelings, and your safety. You trust the other person to be there for you when you need them the most and promise to reciprocate. When you lose trust in your partner you will begin to doubt your partner which in turn will cause you to keep information from them. This will cause the distance between them to grow and a defensive approach to conversing occurs more often. A lack of trust will cause most, if not all, of the other factors we have mentioned to occur which will inevitably lead to the relationship failing. If your partner loses their trust in you, you will notice them becoming more distant and secretive. They may be less likely to discuss things with you or only provide you with very short, simple answers. You will begin to notice that you know less and less about their everyday lives, their opinions on things, or how they are feeling in general. While you can have a conversation and establish if there is a lack of trust and if so, why, you could face stonewalling or defensive behavior due to their lack of trust being at an irreparable point. In short, if the trust is gone then so is the relationship.
At the start of a relationship you want to spend every possible moment together and will do whatever possible to make time for the love of your life. As time goes on the amount of quality, spare time you have together does get smaller. This is only natural as work commitments and other events cause your and your partner’s time together to be limited. However, in a successful relationship, you will both ensure that you make time together. This is the only way to keep the relationship happy. Quality time spent together ensures that your relationship is always getting stronger while helping the smaller issues to improve. If you notice that your partner often avoids spending time with you e.g. always has a way out, excuse, or ‘work problem’ then you need to consider the possibility that something is wrong.
It is also worth mentioning that if you yourself are not worried about spending time with your partner or actively avoid it then the relationship is certainly failing. It is possible to catch this early as long as the lack of time together is purely due to work or family commitments. If there is an active avoidance then you have a problem and need to decide whether the relationship is over.
The final sign that we will discuss is probably the most obvious one to notice but the hardest one to accept or deal with. While anyone in a relationship is able to look at another person (not their partner) and think that they are attractive, actually developing feelings for another person is another story altogether. If you notice that you have feelings for another person and/ or are fantasizing about being with them (whether physically, emotionally, or both) then this is a sign that your relationship is failing. It is very important that, if you have these feelings, you are honest with your partner from the outset and do not go behind their back. If this happens and your relationship is at an end it is better to be honest rather than have them hurt further by lies.
It is important to remember that while there are many, many signs a relationship could be failing you should not spend all of your time looking for them. Doing so could actually end up being the reason your relationship fails! Just make sure you are aware of the signs and spot them early.
- The Gottman Institute "The 6 Things That Predict Divorce"
- The Gottman Institute "The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling"
- National Library of Medicine "Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship"
- Greta Hysi — University of Tirana; Agna Group "Conflict Resolution Styles and Health Outcomes in Married Couples: a Systomatic LiteratureI Review"