Relationship Red Flags

What do couples mostly fight about? Why am I always the one giving in? When should I start worrying about my marriage? Joachim Lee, who is a Level 3 Gottman Method Couples Counsellor answers your questions.

Q: What is the most common conflict or problem you see among couples who come to you?

JL: Many people think that it’s the big issues such as an extramarital affair or divorce.  But couples who come to see us mostly face conflict over everyday challenges like sharing of household and caregiving chores, parenting styles, handling in-laws, spending habits and communication problems.

Examples: “We both have full-time jobs, why can’t we share the housework?” “The children hate me and love him/her because I’m the one disciplining the children, and he/she just brings them out for treats!” “I don’t like to bring up issues anymore because he/she always flares up, blaming me for everything, and I don’t want the fights to upset the children.”

Q: If disagreements between couples are normal and commonplace, when does conflict become a red flag?

JL: Conflict and disagreement are a given in everyday life. But the way each couple manages these conflicts is what reflects the type of relationship they have.

Some couples are able to resolve issues by having a calm discussion. Some may get into a heated argument but are able to apologise to each other after they have both calmed down.

Importantly, each side must feel heard by the other to be able to move past the argument.

When either side walks away feeling hurt or humiliated, the next time a fight arises, it’s very likely for them to bring up the issue again.  This is a red flag, because for them, the issue was not resolved and so they cannot move past it.

Other red flags are when a spouse is afraid to bring up issues to the other or finds himself/herself complaining to others about their spouse.

Q: What are other red flags couples should look out for in their relationship?

JL: John Gottman uses the phrase “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe potential red flags in a couple’s relationship. If these are present, I suggest speaking to a professional to learn ways to neutralise the red flags. The Four Horsemen are:

  1. Criticism – this is when you or your spouse criticise each other instead of raising concerns to each other
  2. Contempt – this is when a partner makes an attack from a position of belief in his/her own moral superiority
  3. Defensiveness – this is when you find a need to defend yourself during an argument
  4. Stonewalling – this is when you or your partner shuts down and/or ignores the other

 Q: What do you say to someone who believes that counselling would be a waste of time because “my spouse will never change”?

JL: The moment you label and put your partner in a box, you have declared the relationship is hopeless. As long as we are breathing and relating, we are constantly growing and changing.

Counselling is a waste of time if you’re approaching it as a way to “fix”a spouse.

However, it will be time well spent if you see counselling as a process and effective tool in which couples can learn how to connect with, relate to and support each other.

Q: I want to go for couple counselling but I’m pretty sure my spouse wouldn’t want to. How do I even bring it up to him/her?

JL: The fact that you are considering counselling suggests you already face challenges in your marriage. Your question also suggests that one of these challenges is in how you communicate with each other.

If you find it difficult to suggest couple counselling to your spouse, you could consider seeing a counsellor on your own to figure out the underlying issues for your hesitance.

Your counsellor could help you figure out what you would like to achieve through couple counselling and then a way to broach the subject with your spouse.

By seeking professional help for yourself first, you will learn better ways of communicating with your spouse and so doing, make an improvement and prevent the relationship from getting into a gridlock.

Q: What if I feel the counsellor is “taking the side” of my spouse?

A well-trained professional counsellor does not take sides. The counsellor facilitates the marital relationship, processing ways to connect and communicate instead of deciding who is right and who is wrong.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your counsellor if you feel misunderstood or “unheard” by him/her.

For the counselling sessions to be effective, it is very important that there is trust between you and the counsellor.

Q: Do you consider it your mission to save every marriage? Are there occasions when you consider a marriage can’t be saved?

JL: The decision on whether to save a marriage isn’t made by the counsellor.  It is made by the couple, and sometimes by one spouse.

If a couple wants to stay together, I would definitely do my best to help them work through their issues.

There may be situations in which the couple may need individual counselling to process some personal issues that are not related to the marriage but are affecting the relationship. Some examples could be work stress or a past traumatic experience.

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