You never saw it coming.
Just like that. Your relationship is a mess, or worse, it’s completely over.
Everything seemed to be going well, then suddenly, it wasn’t.
No one likes to be blindsided. While it may seem like the end came out of nowhere, the truth is there are always signs. You just missed them.
Being savvier about recognizing issues early allows you to do something about them before they ruin everything.
What Should I Look For?
The signs aren’t going to be obvious. That would be too easy. Inevitably your partner won’t be the clearest communicator about looming trouble because they may not fully realize it themselves. That means you’re going to have to read the not-so-obvious clues and detect the subtle signals.
You may wonder, “If the signs are so slight that they’re hard to notice, how threatening could they be?”
Well, the fact is that big problems in relationships don’t happen all at once. No one wakes up one day and decides to cheat out of the blue. Partners don’t go from perfectly happy to contemplating divorce overnight.
Rather, problems have a way of sneaking up on us. Our emotional connection slowly fades, while relationship satisfaction erodes little by little over time. That makes it hard to notice or hard to believe it’s a real problem. But it’s a death by a thousand papercuts until one day, the wounds are too deep to heal.
Here are 7 subtle signs you should pay attention to so you can see trouble coming and, more importantly, take steps to prevent a disastrous outcome.
- Sharing is Caring – Early in your relationship, you and your partner shared everything with each other. Your hopes, dreams, fears, and failures were all laid out in the open. Those long heartfelt conversations brought you closer together. As you grew closer, you became more comfortable being vulnerable and sharing even more. Here’s the thing: partners won’t just come out and say, “I want to be less close,” but they may start sharing less. That’s why it’s worth noticing if either of you becomes increasingly superficial with what you’re willing to disclose. Be careful here: every conversation can’t be emotional and deep. Sometimes we really just need to figure out what we want for dinner. But, if all of your conversations trend toward the super practical and mundane, and you aren’t having any meaningful discussions (especially about the future or the relationship itself), it can indicate that one (or both) of you is pulling away.
- Dishing the Dirt – Our partner is a big part of who we are. So much so that we often merge identities and see our partner as an extension of ourselves. When we include our partner in ourselves like this, we experience their successes as our own (Aron et al., 2022). Similarly, their setbacks and anything that reflects poorly on them also reflect poorly on us. When either partner starts criticizing their partner or the relationship with others, it’s a subtle sign that there’s a problem. Normally we would never share bad information because it would also hurt us. But, a greater willingness to divulge negative aspects reveals a desire to create psychological distance. That distancing is the opposite of closeness and can indicate the beginning of the end.
- Words Matter – You wouldn’t think they would have any influence on your relationship, but the pronouns you and your partner use are clues to how strongly bonded you are as a couple. Happy couples are highly interdependent and use a lot of plural pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “our.” (Agnew et al., 1998). For example, if you ask someone in a healthy relationship about their favorite TV show, they may answer, “We really like watching The Bachelor and Schitt’s Creek.” They’re referring to “we” even though their partner isn’t there because they think of themselves as part of a couple. If you start hearing your partner using more words like “I,” “me,” and “mine,” it may be a sign that they’re thinking less in terms of being part of a couple and more as a single person.
- Getting Lazy – We all want our relationship to be fun and exciting. At some point, though, life inevitably intercedes, and things start to slow down. You have to go to work, pay bills, and be an adult. You have responsibilities. While that calm stability is a natural part of a relationship’s evolution, comfort is one thing, while complacency and laziness are another. You don’t want to resign yourself to a life of boredom. Being indifferent to an unexciting relationship can be a sign that it is no longer a priority. If it isn’t a priority, it can make it seem pointless to put in any effort or to have fun together. That’s a problem because great relationships take work and require that couples keep dating.
- Feelings about Friends – How much do you like your partner’s friends? How do they feel about your friends? The answers to those questions are subtle indicators of your relationship’s future. Research finds that as long as partners like each other’s friends, you’re fine (Fiori et al., 2018). However, if there’s a lot of negativity, look out. Especially in the early part of marriage, a husband’s negative feelings about the wife’s friends matter more (and are more predictive of divorce) than how the wife feels about the husband’s friends. Now you may wonder, what makes husbands dislike their wives’ friends? Meddling. When husbands felt their wife’s friends interfered in the marriage, divorce was much more likely.
- Just a Quick Peek – Your partner goes into another room but leaves their phone behind. You see some notifications pop up. What do you do? There is nothing subtle about the fact that not trusting your partner is a bad sign. But how that feeling manifests itself in your relationship may not be obvious. According to one survey, 60% of people check their partner’s phone, likely because they feel it’s fairly innocuous. After all, if that many people snoop, it can’t be a bad thing. Except it is. Those who snoop on their partner’s phone have less trust, are less emotionally stable, experience more conflict, and are more likely to break up (Arikewuyo et al., 2022). It’s a little peek that says a lot about the state of the relationship.
- Having the “Talk” – Imagine this, your partner texts to say, “I’d like to talk.” That could mean anything. How do you react? Hopefully, you’re optimistic and assume it’s about something positive (e.g., a possible job promotion). However, if you’re hesitant, it may be a subtle sign that your relationship isn’t as solid as you might hope. Now, imagine your partner said, “I’d like to talk about our future.” Here it is. This is the big one, the “Talk” about what we are and where this relationship is going. How do you feel? Optimism or dread? If you’re a bit fearful, you’re not alone. Having the “Talk” is the number one taboo topic in relationships (Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). Just because it’s a common fear doesn’t mean that it’s okay to avoid the talk or feel so apprehensive. Rather, that hesitancy can be a sign there’s something wrong. For those in a perfectly healthy relationship, the “what are we and where is this going” conversation is quite enjoyable. What could be better than discussing your shared life together? However, if that talk evokes more agony than joyful anticipation, you want to figure out why. It also means you really should have the talk to get things figured out.
What To Do
As much as these subtle signs can get the inside scoop, don’t go overboard. Remember that you could be missing other signals or reading something wrong. Instead of going into full-fledged detective mode, the best thing to do is have a conversation with your partner.
Ask if everything’s ok or if anything is going on. If you want to address the specific subtle sign, you could say, “I noticed X. Should I read anything into that?”
Or, you can address things more generally, “I’m feeling a little disconnected lately. How about you? Let’s make an effort to get back on track.”
Relationship trouble doesn’t just magically appear. You don’t want to get surprised. You want some warning, and the key is to know where to look. There are clues along the way.
Subtle signs aren’t dealbreakers that guarantee impending doom. They are, however, like the “Check Engine” light in your car: A sign that something isn’t quite right and needs your attention. Being aware of these hard-to-notice signals allows you to notice issues before they grow out of control and threaten your relationship’s future.
Hope this helps,
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D. an award-winning professor, researcher, writer, and relationship expert. His TED talk and relationship programs have been enjoyed by millions worldwide. As a Love Strategies Instructor and Course Designer for Relationship Synergy, he shares insights from 25 years of experience studying the science of relationships to help women build a deeper, more meaningful romantic connection with their partner.
Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 939–954. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.119
Arikewuyo, A. O., Eluwole, K. K., & Özad, B. (2021). Influence of lack of trust on romantic relationship problems: The mediating role of partner cell phone snooping. Psychological Reports, 124(1), 348-365. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0033294119899902
Aron, A., Lewandowski, G.W. Jr., Branand, B., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. (2022). Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of others in self: An updated review. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221110630
Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1985). Taboo topics in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2(3), 253-269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407585023002
Fiori, K. L., Rauer, A. J., Birditt, K. S., Marini, C. M., Jager, J., Brown, E., & Orbuch, T. L. (2018). “I Love You, Not Your Friends”: Links between partners’ early disapproval of friends and divorce across 16 years. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(9), 1230–1250. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407517707061