I'm often asked if I can tell from my first contact with a couple if they are headed for divorce. The answer is, "Yes, but..."
Yes, if they are emitting nonstop words and gestures of anger and disrespect throughout the session. Yes, if their values and goals are galaxies apart. Yes, if there has been a bucketload of betrayal and no effort to make amends.
But the fact that they are seeking counseling means that a soupçon of hope remains. It becomes clear quickly whether there is something healthy left amid the dysfunction that can take root and flower.
Here are nine signs that the relationship is on life support. (All patients' names are changed.)
1) They're trapped in a tsunami of contempt
Andrew and Sheila sat on opposite ends of the couch, their bodies stiff as Buckingham Palace guards save for the occasional eye roll. They'd spent the entirety of the first session hurling insults and blaming one another for everything except global warming and the Sony hacking.
Andrew: "All you do is complain. You never appreciated when I did something nice, so I stopped bothering."
Sheila: "Oh please. As usual, you're rewriting history. I'm the one who constantly twisted myself into a pretzel pleasing you and got nothing in return because you are incapable of a kind gesture."
Andrew: "You are so stupid I can't bear listening to a word you say."
When a couple is this far in the weeds, they need more than a compass to get back.
I work to help each person own his or her share in what the relationship has become, to encourage them to remember what they saw in one another way back when, and to understand that being mean has a ricochet effect — nastiness will come whipping back.
If they can't moderate this abhorrent behavior, not only will this relationship implode, but so will any subsequent one they attempt.
Sheila said in our fifth and final session, "I don't like myself when I'm awful to Andrew. But he doesn't bring out the good side in me anymore. And I don't bring it out in him. So I think it is time for us to part."
2) They're more married to chaos and dysfunction than to one another
It is human nature to mirror behavior that is familiar. If you were raised in a home where yelling, uncertainty, and lots of drama were constants, that is your model for what marriage looks like.
This doesn't mean you are doomed to fail at long-term love. But old habits won't die unless you start forging better ones.
Growing up, Beth was forced to watch her parents loudly criticize one another and regularly break plans and promises to each other and their children. Her father was a compulsive shopaholic, plunging the family into financial turmoil.
Her husband, Paul, raised by two alcoholics, was no stranger to turmoil. He spent his first 16 years being the "good boy" so he wouldn't trigger his volatile parents.
Marriage counseling was their Hail Mary attempt to avoid divorce. Paul said, "When things are calm, I'm afraid Beth has stopped loving me. She shows passion by yelling. But her screaming gives me panic attacks." More and more frequently he began spending the night at a neighbor's house.
Partners need not wholly agree on core issues, but if their differences are extreme, conflict is inevitable
Beth admitted, "Paul is always so sweet, yet I live in fear he'll leave. So I make myself unlovable by acting like a bitch on steroids. Then I feel terrible."
Beneath the havoc, both longed for safe harbor. Once they realized they were copying their parents' relationship styles, it became easier to stop. We explored healthy boundaries and rules such as, "If you want to make a big purchase, first discuss it with your partner."
Most importantly, we explored the emotions underneath the defensiveness and fear. Rather than testing her husband's love by acting out, Beth began to ask for what she needed: "I'm feeling insecure right now. Can you hug me?"
And Paul was increasingly able to express his desires: "Your yelling makes me feel like a kid cowering from my parents. Can you please lower the volume?" He no longer needed to run away.
As their relationship went from toxic to trusting, instead of calling a divorce lawyer they began discussing having a baby. Beth said, "It won't be easy but I now believe I'm not doomed to repeat my parents' mistakes."
3) They've been rocked to the core by a tragedy
While wedding vows state "for better or for worse," some couples find being together after the worst a too-painful reminder of unbearable loss.
Kathy and Bill were childhood sweethearts who'd been passionate about starting a family. They came to therapy six months after their infant died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
As Kathy said in session, "When Dickie was born it felt like the culmination of all our dreams. Now, everything is ash."
In therapy, each admitted secretly blaming the other for the death. They came to see these feelings were an attempt to make a little sense out of an otherwise inexplicable horror.
They learned how to communicate instead of withholding, and to stop feeling guilty whenever they forgot about their loss for a few hours.
However, they ultimately decided to separate because, without the baby, there was little connective tissue. "We got married so young we didn't really know ourselves, much less the other person," Bill said at the last session.
Couples can survive tragedy when they have a rock-solid foundation. If a relationship is just about overcoming a crisis, the marriage will be in crisis.
4) They've become apathetic toward their own marriage
When a couple comes into my office and I see that one or both is psychologically disconnected I tell myself, "Houston, we've got a major problem."
This stage is reached only after a long and lethal drip, drip, drip period of increasing indifference. There is no more conflict, little communication beyond "We're out of milk." This stage is the result of months, perhaps years of a curling inward, not wanting to stick one's neck out and risk being emotionally vulnerable for fear of being disrespected or ignored. There is little sharing of grievances or even small joys. Sex is a memory.
The slim chance for a road back involves risking real communication, a commitment to listen to the other person with "open ears" — meaning leave the defensiveness at the door.
5) They've lost the ability to see things from the other's perspective
Ask someone if he or she understands how a partner feels on an issue that divides them, and odds are the answer will be, "Of course." But when someone is totally convinced of the rightness of his or her position, no matter what the other person thinks, "of course" is lip service.
For instance, Pamela proclaiming, "Ken hates it when I tell him to lose a couple pounds but I'm doing it for his own good" is not the same as her "getting" that every time she tells Ken his pants are too tight he flashes back to a childhood of being called "Porky" by his siblings and classmates. Casually steamrolling past her spouse's emotions can lead him to develop a hard shell around her — not conducive to long-term intimacy.
In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee said, "You never know a man until you ... climb into his skin and walk around in it."
A homework assignment I give empathy-lite couples is for each to sit with a notepad or tablet and write about what it must feel like to be married to him or her.
After Pamela did this exercise she better understood Ken's humiliation and pain whenever she made her "helpful" suggestions about losing weight. Once she realizes, "Oh yeah, he gets as hurt as I did when kids made fun of my lisp," she can be more sensitive. Now Pamela says, "Ken I'm worried about the health aspects of being overweight. But to me you will always be the gorgeous guy I married even when you take a second helping of pasta."
Without empathy, it is hard for a marriage to survive.
6) They don't trust each other (even when they should)
I have witnessed many relationships flounder on the shoals of obsessive jealousy.
Although Dave had never cheated on Carol, she was forever suspecting him of betrayal. Dave complained in session, "She's constantly checking my phone. She's suspicious if I want to watch a football game with my friends. She's called me at work crying that she knows I'm having an affair with a co-worker — I'm not! I can't take much more."
Her paranoia had a historical base: Carol's father was a habitual adulterer, as were her first two boyfriends.
If you were raised in a home where drama was a constant, that is your model for what marriage is like
I told her, "What you are doing is setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are pushing Dave away by your actions."
She said, "In my rational moments I understand that. But when the doubts come over me I feel this unbearable pressure, and I have to lash out to release it."
"You don't have to lash out. You haven't learned how to understand and control these impulses."
Carol accepted she had a problem and was willing to do individual therapy.
Relationships thrive on trust. Suffocating your partner will eventually extinguish love.
7) Their values and goals are out of whack
Sandy and Jim knew going in that they had very little in common, but felt love and lust would overcome all. That formula worked for several years. But once they had children, things unraveled.
She complained, "He wants me to be a stay-at-home wife. But work is a large part of who I am."
Jim responded, "It makes me feel rejected that you'd rather be at a law firm till all hours than with your kids and me."
Another potential deal breaker was Sandy's wish for an opulent lifestyle and Jim's aversion to anything ostentatious.
Who we are is shaped by our backgrounds. Partners need not wholly agree on core issues like money, parental roles, child-rearing, housekeeping, and faith, but if their differences are extreme, stress and conflict are inevitable.
Love and lust are important, but people can't ultimately change what is in their DNA. If acceptable compromises can't be reached, divorce is likely inevitable. It was in the case of Sandy and Jim.
8) They keep replaying the sins of the past
When the needle is stuck on the You-Done-Me-Wrong-in-2012 song, it's nearly impossible for a relationship to move forward.
Cara and Peter came to therapy five years into their marriage because neither could stop dwelling on old hurts. Cara couldn't get over Peter's going on a date with another woman the week before their engagement. (He'd confessed, said nothing happened, and that he'd done it to make sure he was ready for marriage.) For his part, Peter kept rerunning Cara's not being at the hospital with him when his father had open-heart surgery six weeks after their wedding.
Numerous apologies had been issued, each had "forgiven" the other, yet clearly not forgotten as the injurious behaviors kept being flung in each other's faces during disagreements.
Cara said, "I know you've been faithful, but the image of you with another woman while carrying the engagement ring in your pocket still haunts me."
Peter couldn't let go of the feeling of betrayal that Cara hadn't cut short a business trip to fly home for the operation. "I know you've been with me during other family health emergencies but in the back of my mind I still get that doubt, ‘Don't I matter more than work?'"
In therapy we discussed how no one is perfect — even, especially! — a mate. Expectations of who we want our partner to be, rather than acceptance of who he or she is, are termites eating away at the fabric of a loving relationship. Hanging onto old resentments past their sell-by date take up valuable psychic real estate and makes it impossible to enjoy what is happening in the moment. Being trapped in resentment also keeps one feeling victimized.
I told them, "You're afraid if you let down your guard, you will be hurt again. But if you don't you will never be able to truly come together."
It wasn't an easy process, but Peter and Cara were ultimately able to move the needle past the all-too-familiar song.
9) Their relationship has become a business partnership instead of a marriage
You are lifetime partners, not roommates. You cannot come and go with a wave and blithe, "See you later." Couples that fail to make one another the centerpiece of their life are straddling the red zone.
Dani and Jay came to therapy because they had begun living parallel lives — the kids, jobs, volunteer work and hobbies, Facebook updates — all took priority over spending quality time together.
Dani sighed, "I feel like we've become strangers. I don't know what to talk to him about anymore."
"I thought the marriage was in the bag so I could put energy to other areas. But it doesn't work that way!"
Jay agreed, "She used to be my best friend. Now we're more like business partners. I'm scared we can't find our way back."
They decided to do something about it. They stopped paying attention to anything but one another. Instead of doing separate hobbies, they enrolled in a dancing class together, turned off their tablets, and started talking to one another in the evening. They planned a weekend getaway sans children.
Dani said, "I thought the marriage was in the bag so I could put energy to other areas in my life. But it doesn't work that way!"
Indeed it doesn't. It is a rare relationship that doesn't hit rough patches. But studies have shown that marriages that have been bruised by "negative, angry, or hurtful" remarks can rebound if the contempt and dysfunction is exchanged for kind and thoughtful deeds and words. Even if the marriage can't be saved, stopping the poisonous behavior is still worthwhile!