Being in a relationship is not a walk in the park. After the initial falling in love buzz and those sweet butterflies are over, the reality sets in. And couples have to find ways to navigate through their not-so-picture-perfect lives.

It may involve dirty dishes, piles of laundry, work stress echoing at the dinner table, arguments and constant what about yous, in-laws from hell, or more recently, quarantine-induced fatigue from everything, your partner included.

But sometimes, couples' relationships take a way more sinister turn, and this is what signals a red flag. Whether it’s co-dependency or inadequate control, some couple dynamics can be truly damaging.

So when someone asked couples’ therapists the question “without breaking confidentiality, what are some relationships that instantly set off red flags, and do you try and get them to work out?” the family experts weighed in on the sensitive topic. Their answers are in right below, and they’re more illuminating than you could think.

#1

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags "We're staying together for the kids." It leads to an unhealthy mindset where the couple sees the children as a burden and believe 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.

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New Prometheus
Community Member
1 month ago

This needs to be higher. Children deserve better. Nobody needs a mentally broken family.

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#2

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags When a partner raises 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.

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Juririn
Community Member
1 month ago

Totally. This is a BIG red flag, maybe indicative of abuse.

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#3

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags 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.

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Anne
Community Member
1 month ago

I would hold up one finger if ever asked to "prove myself".. guess which one..

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To find out what an expert has to say about navigating through the ups and downs of married life, Bored Panda contacted Dr. Lise Deguire, a clinical psychologist and author of “Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience From a Burn Survivor.”

When asked about critical red flags in relationships, Lise quoted John Gottman, a famous marriage researcher who identified what he calls "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." “These Four Horsemen are actually four behaviors that indicate a marriage is in trouble and needs work. The 'four horsemen' of marital trouble are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling."

However, Lise assured readers that many red flags can be solved with skilled intervention. “A wife may not realize that rolling her eyes and making a face at her husband qualifies as 'contempt' and is highly destructive to the marriage. A husband may not realize that his refusal to ever discuss his wife's feelings is stonewalling, and could bring about divorce if he doesn't learn new behaviors.”

#4

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags I’ll just say that if you find yourself screaming “I’m not f**king yelling at you,” you might have a communication problem.

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Marc
Community Member
1 month ago

One thing I've learned in 40 years on this earth is that a) people who yell are wrong 99% of the time (and know it) and b) there is absolutely no point in arguing with someone if they are that upset. Especially in a partnership. Yelling is an emotional, unobjective act, if you want to call it that. It serves to reduce pressure and stress. However, one should make the effort, in a partnership, to understand why the other person is shouting. This is at most a symptom of a deeper cause. In the beginning, I always ignored my wife when she got louder. But that's no solution either, as you quickly realize. I rather try to find the way back to a more objective level. It's not always easy.

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#5

Overbearing parents and in laws. 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. However, when a spouse is more allied with their parents and calls them on speakerphone for fights, or often speaks ill of their partner to their parents, I usually see these couples stay very unhappily married for years. It's sad.

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New Prometheus
Community Member
1 month ago

Calling parents on speaker during argument? Well, that would be an embarrassment to all parties in my country (Finland).

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#6

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags 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.

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Marc
Community Member
1 month ago

I have observed this very often. If a person in a relationship has no life of his own, but is completely dependent on the other, then in 99% of cases this simply cannot go well. It is not good for the dependent person, but not least for the other person. Certainly there are exceptions.

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In order for a couple to heal, Lise said it’s vital to find a marriage therapist who specializes in marriage therapy and has advanced training in the area. “Marriage therapy is very hard to do well. But with a skilled therapist and a motivated couple who want the marriage to work, most marriages can be helped considerably.”

If partners are not on the same page, though, getting help may be complicated. Lise named a couple of signs that she, as a clinical psychologist, truly worries about.

“I worry about couples when neither of them seems to care about each other any more. I also worry about couples when only one of them desperately wants the marriage and the other never truly engages in marriage therapy. I worry about couples in which they continue to repeatedly lie to each other, because intimacy can not be reestablished without trust.”

On the other hand, Lise is positive that marriage therapy as a method of healing the relationship, when given a good clinician and a motivated couple, usually works quite well. “Most couples’ problems can be helped by learning better communication skills, and by having better insight into oneself and each other,” she concluded.

#7

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 loan without the others knowledge, or planning personal trips without consulting the other, I know that the couple is soon doomed.

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ProfessionalTimeWaster
Community Member
1 month ago

Where does one apply for car loath?

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#8

Boundary violations.
Testing boundaries a little bit is ok but repeatedly violating boundaries is a big red flag.
I work a lot with people who have left abusive relationships and often they doubt they ever will date again and eventually want to. We work on their personal boundaries but I also suggest some easy boundaries to have and how they can help.
Boundary 1: maintain your routine. If you go to bed at 9pm and wake up to work out at 5am, 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", "its romantic to talk all night". If you aren't a teen, it isn't cute. It actually makes you too tired to be able be present and critically reflective of the relationship. If they are teasing and making fun of your routine, you probably dont have the same values. It isn't about who is right or wrong, you probably aren't on the same page.
Boundary 2: (cultural trend here is to move in together within a month so might not apply elsewhere so much) for almost 6 months, dont get together more than 3-4times a week. This boundary helps you to preserve your "you-ness". It gives you time for your interests and friends. It very quickly flushes out insecurities or controlling behavior in a potential partner.

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Marcellus the Third
Community Member
1 month ago

Wow I cannot imagine a place where moving in within a month is a good idea; you must have a lot of housing stock available to quickly (and somewhat affordably) move out again when things go wrong.

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#9

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags Relationship therapist here.

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.

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Marc
Community Member
1 month ago

The death of a partnership can be everyday life. After 23 years of marriage, I know this from my own experience. Especially when routine things like children and a job come into play. You lose focus very quickly and only have problems and problem solving in mind. At some point, we realized that we had to create spaces for ourselves in which we could consciously create positive experiences for ourselves. That's not something that just flies in on its own. You really have to work actively at it, which is not always easy.

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#10

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags 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.

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Lily Mae Kitty
Community Member
1 month ago

this has to be so common. there are things that are really one partner doing something wrong(or perceived to be wrong) by the other partner and you feel like you need someone to tell you you're not crazy and it really is wrong. My husband won't fill the sugar bowl-he only fills it about 1.5" when he could put a week's worth in there(4" tall) and it drives me mad. He won't say why he does it this way and won't change how he does it. It's a weird quirk and it means it'll be me filling it up properly in a couple days time. I think it's passive aggressive and it's annoying af. He turns it into a joke if I bring it up. I wouldn't go to a councilor for it of course but it's annoying and he's not going to change.

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#11

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags 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.

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DC
Community Member
1 month ago

You shouldn't be afraid to admit stuff to your spouse in the first place - no matter if it is on purpose or not, if it's legal or not ... your spouse should never be the one you're afraid to tell.

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#12

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags When one spouse has a close relationship with a member of the opposite sex who doesn't like the other spouse. The old "He/She's just a friend." If it doesn't lead to cheating, it still will usually cause unneeded strain that will break apart the relationship.

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Sum Guy
Community Member
1 month ago

Which is why my best friend is lesbian... I can still have a woman friend and not have my girlfriend worry about her

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#13

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags 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

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Shelp
Community Member
1 month ago

This is sad

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#14

In my experience strong 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/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 for whether or not trust and respect is present. And then build treatment goals around seeing if it possible to develope those qualities. If they are not willing or able, then in most cases those relationships are likely to end.

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lenka
Community Member
1 month ago

Agree. When I hear ".... but I love them", I sigh internally. It's almost always preceded by some vaiaration of 'he lied to me, but I love him, she doesnt respect my space but I love her... it goes on. Love is not enough.

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#15

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags 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.

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JessG
Community Member
1 month ago

If there's something about your spouse that you absolutely loathe, then you shouldn't be together. Loving your spouse for all of their flaws is a good relationship

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#16

My wife and I (separated now) went to couples counseling where it was a husband-wife counseling team. I thought that would be great, since it may help us open up more having a member of both sexes there. My wife was hesitant about couples counseling, but agreed to try it.

We had our initial session together and it was cold and difficult (as expected), and my wife said she still wanted to leave, but they convinced her to try a few more sessions to see if anything clicked as we opened up. We had an individual session the next time, and I thought it went fantastically. I gained a completely different understanding of intimacy (not sexual, but emotional and relational) and I was jazzed to start working at putting it into practice. My wife came out with tear stains and sat in her car crying before she finally left for home. (We drove separately because she was coming from work and I from home).

Our next appointment was another individual session. The male counselor and I were talking again, and he started digging into my expectations and desires in the relationship, what I loved about wife, etc. He point-blank asked me "Do you feel wife is a good match for you in life, and that you want to continue this relationship" and I was a little off-put, but figured yeah it's probably a good thing to establish that right off the bat, so I answered emphatically yes, and he just looked heartbroken and so very sad. I knew pretty well right then that we were toast. Wife admitted her affair the day before our next session and left.

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ispeak catanese
Community Member
1 month ago

That's heartbreaking. 😢

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#17

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.

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ProfessionalTimeWaster
Community Member
1 month ago

The only person you can change is self.

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#18

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. So many reasons 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 in now or later. Deal with it now

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Jayne Kyra
Community Member
1 month ago

I wish we could just do away with the whole "virginity" concept. There is no membrane that just breaks when a woman has sex for the first time. Period blood has to glow through someplace after all.

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#19

Constant, needless escalation.

When "I dont think we need this expensive thing" is escalated to "you don't really love me" - major problem.

It shows up quickly in therapy if you're watching for it.

Mostly because the one using this to avoid accountability is almost guaranteed to play this card in relation to 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 then it is, so they can make the other person respond to their feelings rather than dealing with their concerns.

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Mewton’s Third Paw
Community Member
1 month ago

Yikes

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#20

I was just talking about this case today.

Years ago when I was starting out I had a female client come in and she reported anxiety, depression, etc because her ex husband was bothering her.

I thought that was completely average and normal, so I asked her about it. She recounted many times that her and the ex clashed. I said, you know, you don't have to interact with him and maybe just distancing yourself is the way to go.

Then she told me that they still lived together and had no plans of moving...

The red flag, indicted I was dealing with two crazy people.

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Aroace tiger
Community Member
1 month ago

Why would they live together??

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#21

Active physical abuse and each person admitting it and trying to be OK with it.

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Lis A
Community Member
1 month ago

NEVER be ok with physical abuse from anyone. It is unacceptable.

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#22

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.

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Micah Patchen
Community Member
1 month ago

THIS!!!!!!!!! how am I wrong when I say a color isn't pretty? I'm not a big fan of the color blue, neither is my SO, but if I say "they only had the short in blue, and I don't like it", then I'm wrong and should like the shirt anyway because there is nothing wrong with blue. I don't understand why in not allowed to not like things that don't matter to SO at all. I could understand if I was negative about him or negative about everything, but its just constant. I'm wrong no matter what. His mom is the same exact way, so its learned behavior.

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#23

One of the big red flags I look for, is metaconversation. 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 thats 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, same base issue at hand.

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Pamela24
Community Member
1 month ago

I'm a little confused about this one and also very curious (possibly because the example used at the beginning is literally what I'm dealing with right now). Could someone please help me by better explaining what this therapist meant?

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#24

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags Name calling in session and when I intervene they both get mad at me.

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Verena Gitterle
Community Member
1 month ago

Then they deserve each other

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#25

"High-conflict relationships." If frequent and bitter conflict began a few months (or less) after the relationship began, and continued, relationship therapy is going to be a sh*tshow, won't be helpful. Either the conflict will continue indefinitely, or come to an end. Not just my opinion. The research supports this.

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ispeak catanese
Community Member
1 month ago

Damn, this one hit the nail on the head for me. I've noticed it usually takes 3-6 months for a romantic partner's true colors to come out. I dated a wonderful charming guy but at the 1 month mark all hell broke loose and his psychopathic behavior came out. People who are abusive or manipulative cannot keep the pretense of normalcy up for very long. I'm glad I got out alive.

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#26

Couples-Therapy-Relationship-Red-Flags An affair that won't end. I've never seen a relationship bounce back where a partner is still in contact with their gf/bf (I don't mean an ex gf/bf, I mean the person x is having the affair with), or is lying about it.

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Marcellus the Third
Community Member
1 month ago

Not sure these people in the picture agreed to be linked to this topic. In fact, lose all the pictures so it's more readable, the images add colours and nothing else.

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#27

Am a therapist, newer to couples counseling, but one of the flags I've seen is one person digging their heels in and not accepting any feedback or suggestions, then that person tells me and partner that they are "trying." I called him out on it, said that he needed to evaluate what he's willing to do and NOT do. Needless to say didn't hear back from them.

Another weird one is separating without a plan. All that's gonna do is teach you how to live without each other IMO. I would ask them "ok, how do you know when the separation works?" "I dunno, when I start missing them I guess" is what I typically hear.

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Mewton’s Third Paw
Community Member
1 month ago

These are very insightful.

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#28

Saying, directly to each other, “I don’t love you. I am just here to try and like you enough to stay together”. And the other person replaying with “good. We can do that”.

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Shelp
Community Member
1 month ago

I could've guessed that one too

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#29

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 others actions make them feel. Then they each propose their solutions and identify where they made assumptions or where they got triggered and why. Then they 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 sh*t, but once communication stagnates you're in real trouble. So even if youre arguing you're still doing ok, you just need to work on how you're communicating

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Carmen McLellan
Community Member
4 weeks ago

If you recognize that the other person's behaviour, that is similar to yours, is unacceptable, then it's unacceptable when you do it too. Also, just because your partner is worse, does not make your behaviour right.

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#30

It's very easy to work out when one person knowingly prioritises their own wants and needs over their partners. Relationships like this are often doomed because the person simply doesn't care enough to make any meaningful change.

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JessG
Community Member
1 month ago

Yup! A lack of empathy is a deal breaker. This goes for every single person in your life

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