Sometimes, it’s hard to spot a red flag in relationships right away. But for a trained professional, it can be easier to instantly identify red flags.
So recently, Redditor u/Gnerdy decided to ask, “Couples therapists, without breaking confidentiality, what are some relationships that instantly set off red flags, and do you try and get them to work out?”
Here are some of the most eye-opening responses they received:
“When one person is entirely dependent on the other, especially at a relatively young age — I mean financially and emotionally.”
“These are typically young women (sometimes young men, as well) who do not work, do not have children, stay home all day, and have no friends or hobbies outside of hanging out with their spouse. Very unhealthy, and a huge red flag. Always ends in a painful and messy breakup.
Generally, we try to get them to find a friend, join a community, get a job, or volunteer — something to provide them with self-worth and personal fulfillment outside of their spouse.” —u/milksteaknjellybean
“One partner says they’re seeking your services to help them determine if they want to stay together; the other partner says they’re seeking your services to make it so they stay together.”
“Then it’s about highlighting the points and allowing the person who is on the fence to decide what they want since the other person knows.” —u/ChickenSoup4theRoll
“Control to an excessive amount. I most commonly see partners having to send pictures holding up a certain number of fingers or proving that it’s a live picture. This is abuse.”
“One of the big red flags I look for is metaconversation. An example to use for sake of discussion: Partner 1 is mad that Partner 2 doesn’t help out at home more.”
“There are always two levels of communication, one is the direct message intended (‘please clean up the dishes’) and the second is communication about the communication (‘I expect you to do what I ask’). When communication about the communication turns meta, the message gets muddled and a power struggle erupts from misunderstandings. Tone, body language, and the way one responds to the request… all become the focal point.
If the arguments don’t fall into meta arguments, then that’s a sign the couple has a strong foundation, and the work is usually about exploring expectations of the relationship or readjusting roles. If they fall into meta arguments, it’s a sign the couple needs to build up their foundation which will likely lead to them able to adjust the roles themselves once that happens. Two different approaches, the same base issue at hand.” —u/mybustersword
“Couples in a tit for tat arrangement. For example, ‘I cheated, so you can have one night to cheat with whomever.'”
“Or, ‘I violated your trust and did drugs, you can go out and do whatever for one night.’ It erodes trust and compounds the hurt.” —u/crode080
“When I see a couple in which one or both of the members are seeking to change something fundamental about the other person.”
“We process where the need for the change comes from, and the person with the issue evaluates whether it’s a dealbreaker for them or not. We work on acceptance and tolerance of others. I also recommend my couples are also in individual therapy on their own.” —u/ladyledylidy
“‘We’re staying together for the kids.’ It leads to an unhealthy mindset where the couple sees the children as a burden and believes that by remaining in an unhealthy relationship, it will somehow make the kids turn out alright.”
“Kids are smarter than you think, and if mom and dad don’t love each other, they’ll pick up on it. If the kids are really the priority, either learn to fix the relationship or end it.” —u/NEM3S1S
“I saw a couple that was doing ‘retaliatory’ cheating (and telling each other about it). When they got through their anger, they decided to call a truce and made peace.”
“With their level of emotional maturity, I doubt it lasted. I don’t know if I helped them or prolonged their suffering. It was their decision to come to counseling, so I think it was the help they wanted.
Other clients realize what they really want is ‘divorce counseling.’ What’s the best way to behave civilly and minimize damage to the kids while we go our separate ways?” —u/lightspeeed
“People who approach therapy with the idea that they must convince the therapist that they’re right and their partner is wrong.”
“Almost like they’re complaining to a parent or boss to have them sort out the problems.” —u/Hyujikol
“One of the biggest red flags I see when working with a new couple is when they’ve totally forgotten the good. Part of relationship therapy is reconnecting a couple with what they like about each other, what initially attracted them to each other, and what the positives are between them.”
“When people come in and they’ve been so unhappy for so long that they actually can’t remember what it was like to be in love or to even like each other, they’re just about hopeless.
You don’t have to be happy for therapy to work — but if you can’t even reminisce about the good times, then the good times are probably over.” —u/TiredMold
“Contempt. When I experience true contempt from one in the relationship I know it is usually over.”
“Look towards a peaceful ending at that point if possible.” —u/threerottenbranches
“It’s very easy to work out when one person knowingly prioritizes their own wants and needs over their partner’s. Relationships like this are often doomed because the person simply doesn’t care enough to make any meaningful change.”
“Boundary violations. Testing boundaries a little bit is okay, but repeatedly violating boundaries is a big red flag. Folks, knowing your boundaries, knowing how to set them, and knowing how to maintain them are so very important to your own personal wellbeing. Also, learn how to respect other people’s boundaries. Boundaries don’t have to be permanent, they can change, but they can change because someone has earned it or lost it.”
“For example, maintain your routine. If you go to bed at 9 pm and wake up to work out at 5 am, maintain that. A decent person will respect that. A non-decent person will try to bulldoze through it. It might look like, ‘Awe, stay up talking with me, I’m lonely,’ or, ‘It’s romantic to talk all night.’ If you aren’t a teen, it isn’t cute. It actually makes you too tired to be present and critically reflective of the relationship. If they are teasing and making fun of your routine, you probably don’t have the same values. It isn’t about who is right or wrong, you probably aren’t on the same page.
Other good ones to pay attention to are ‘cute things’ that violate a boundary. ‘Hey, I have my kids this weekend, so no in-person time, and I will only spend time on my phone after the kids go to bed at eight,’ and — guess what — the person ‘cutely’ surprises you with a coffee. I’d give this a one-time pass, ‘thanks for the coffee, sorry I can’t have you in, I’m not ready for you to meet the kids, etc.’ The person’s response to being called out tells you so much.”
“I’ll just say that if you find yourself screaming, ‘I’m not fucking yelling at you,’ you might have a communication problem.”
“Active independence from each other is my #1 sign of ‘this marriage is about to spiral downward.'”
“As soon as I realize a couple is doing things separately, like applying for car loans without the other’s knowledge or planning personal trips without consulting the other, I know that the couple is soon doomed.” —u/Mattrockj
“When one spouse has a close relationship with a member of the opposite sex who doesn’t like the other spouse — the ol’ ‘they’re just a friend.'”
“If it doesn’t lead to cheating, it still will usually cause unneeded strain that will break apart the relationship.” —u/NEM3S1S
“When a partner raises an objection to meeting with me individually. During the first session, I share that during assessment, I like to meet with them both together and once each individually.”
“Occasionally, I’ll have partners who suddenly become very critical or suspicious about this. Asking why I’d do that, and is it ethical, and the classic, ‘I’ve never heard of a marriage counselor doing that before?!’
It goes beyond curiosity or simply inquiring about practice. There is an incredulous and almost panicked tone to it. And sure enough — Every. Single. Time — they turn out to be some variation of controlling, manipulative, abusive.” —u/the_friar
“High-conflict relationships. If frequent and bitter conflict began a few months (or less) after the relationship began, and it continued, relationship therapy is going to be a shitshow and won’t be helpful.”
“Either the conflict will continue indefinitely, or come to an end. Not just my opinion. The research supports this.” —u/jollybumpkin
“An unofficial litmus test is when I ask at some point in the first few sessions how the couple met.”
“If there is absolutely no positive effect from either person — no one even cracks a smile, or they just give me a single sentence answer (‘We met at a party’) — that’s usually a signal they’ve been so unhappy so long, or the conflict is so overwhelming that they can’t access those good warm fuzzy feelings from the beginning.” —u/future_es_ms_malcolm
“Constant, needless escalation. When ‘I don’t think we need this expensive thing’ is escalated to ‘You don’t really love me’ — major problem.”
“Mostly because the one using this to avoid accountability is almost guaranteed to play this card in relation to the therapy itself, either ‘I had to drag them here’ or ‘they’re just trying to break up with me.’
What they’re doing is avoiding conversation about the issue by blowing it up into a bigger problem than it is, so they can make the other person respond to their feelings rather than dealing with their concerns.” —u/PsychoPhilosopher
“Spouses who don’t sleep together without a justifiable reason. As in, not due to work conflicts or medical reasons, but because one spouse just doesn’t feel like going to bed alongside the other.”
“Lack of intimacy, both sexual and non-sexual, will lead to the two drifting apart.” —u/NEM3S1S
“An affair that won’t end. I’ve never seen a relationship bounce back where a partner is still in contact with their affair partner or is lying about it.”
“In my experience, strong and healthy relationships are built on two very important qualities: trust and respect. Love is not included in these qualities, because love is not a determiner of a strong or healthy relationship.”
“Dysfunctional relationships are still possible among people who love each other. And loving someone isn’t the only reason to stay with a person. Many of the clients that I’ve worked with in the past, who are in very dysfunctional relationships, have actually stayed solely because of love but continue to struggle in those relationships because they lack trust and respect.
Without respect and trust, most relationships are doomed to struggle or fail. For the couples that I’ve worked with, I always assess whether or not trust and respect are present. And then, I build treatment goals around seeing if it’s possible to develop those qualities. If they are not willing or able, then in most cases those relationships are likely to end.” —u/sparky32383
“Respect. Respecting space, boundaries, feelings, interests, and relationships are all so important, and lack of respect by either person for the other is going to mean big problems.”
“I would definitely try to help them work through it but it’s hard to point out to someone that something they are doing is hurting the other.” —u/RLampkin318
“Overbearing parents and in-laws. When a spouse is more allied with their parents and calls them on speakerphone for fights, or when a spouse often speaks ill of their partner to their parents, I usually see these couples stay very unhappily married for years. It’s sad.”
“I understand there’s a ton of cultural nuance here, and I work with couples who have arranged marriages, as well as the South Asian community.” —u/crode080
“What-aboutism. Instead of taking ownership and responsibility for their contribution to the degradation of the relationship, one or both parties simply point out an example of the other exhibiting a similar behavior. It’s a red flag because it illustrates their lack of self-awareness and poor communication skills.”
“Communication is key when trying to mend a tattered relationship because without respectful communication, the conflict-recovery process can never begin. In the conflict-recovery model, both parties agree to the terms under which they will communicate (no yelling, no interrupting, no I told you so’s, etc). Each party gets a chance to share how the other’s actions make them feel.
After, they each propose their solutions and identify where they made assumptions or where they got triggered and why. They then identify where they’re willing to compromise. Next, we create an actionable plan with deadlines, and we monitor the progress to see if the proposed solutions were effective.
IMO, everything can go to shit, but once communication stagnates you’re in real trouble. So even if you’re arguing, you’re still doing okay — you just need to work on how you’re communicating.” —u/BeDazzledBootyHolez
“I’m not a therapist, but my therapist straight face told me that ‘there are worse options than divorce.'”
“Got divorced and it was the best thing that happened to me.” —u/pconwell
“In premarital counseling, when the couple states that they’re saving themselves for their wedding night, and then one or both confides privately that they’re not a virgin and the other has no idea.”
“In broader terms, when a couple isn’t honest with each other about their sexual history. There are so many reasons why that’s unhealthy, I can’t even begin to list them all — but the biggest is that honesty is the most solid foundation on which to build a relationship. If you’re afraid of what your partner will think, ask yourself if you want to deal with it now or later. Deal with it now.” —u/NEM3S1S
“Invalidation. This comes in many forms, from gaslighting to just simple denial of another’s opinion. Most of the time, one or both parties are simply trying to be heard on an emotional level with an event or topic that was brought up, but the other party takes this as a personal attack on their ideals.”
“We’ve all heard of or know people who will literally disagree with anything you say simply because you said it. That’s the invalidation I’m referring to.
Attack the problem, not each other. People rarely have the exact same stance in a conflict, but they usually (in healthy relationships) have very similar core values. While two parents may disagree on how to parent a child (authoritarian vs authoritative for example), the core value of caring about their children and wanting them to succeed is often the same. By determining they are within the same realm of issue, two parents with different ideals can see themselves as allies in a conflict rather than enemies.” —u/Shozo_Nishi
Are these also red flags that you try to look out for in your relationships? Or have you experienced them yourself? Let us know in the comments below!
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