In the 11 years I’ve been practicing marital therapy I’ve seen hundreds of couples exhibiting a wide variety of behaviors–some healthy, some dysfunctional and some that are, well, super-dysfunctional.

In many cases, the dysfunctional couple’s union can be saved. Perhaps they lacked good marital role models and need education about how a couple should treat one another (i.e.: with respect, a desire to sometimes give without receiving, and an ability to not throw a partner’s mistakes in his or her face with monotonous regularity). Perhaps they are unmoored by a crisis or a challenge and can’t find their way back to one another without being taught tools to truly communicate…

My job is neither to judge, or be drawn into taking sides.  My job is to help each person become his or her best self, both independently and as part of a couple.

However, not judging doesn’t mean I can’t quickly deduce signposts that foretell the future health of the relationship.

4 Ways I Can Tell You’ve Got What it Takes for the Long Haul

You still go on adventures together

Numerous studies have shown that couples who don’t just keep repeating movie and pizza evenings, but inject new activities into their relationship from enrolling in a massage or cooking class to volunteering for a cause to simply trying a sport together, have a better chance of staying happy than do couch potatoes. That is because, as documented by Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology, new experiences flood the brain with  dopamine and norepinephrine, the ‘feel good’ brain chemicals that typically get activated early on in a relationship, then drop away as deadening routine and familiarity take over.

You celebrate one another’s successes

Research1 bears out a factor I have witnessed: that couples able to truly root for their partner to triumph often emerge triumphant in their relationships. For instance, after Paul won his long-sought promotion, his wife Sheila not only cooked up a special dinner, she draped a banner saying I KNEW YOU COULD DO IT, SWEETHEART in their living room.  Paul said in a session, “That meant the world to me. I knew I could never let go of a woman who was so thrilled to see me happy, even though the way she sulks when she was angry (one of the reasons for the therapy) drives me crazy.”

You don’t live in one another’s pockets

Crucial as it is for couples to make time together a priority, it’s also vital that they give one another space. Interests outside the marriage help keep a partnership vital.2

When Karen and John first came to therapy they spent almost all their free time together. Karen would say, “I love John but whenever my friends ask me to come out, I feel guilty leaving John at home with the dog.”  John’s response to his wife: “It’s true I love being with you, but I’ve never said you shouldn’t see your friends.”  Karen’s reply, “I love being with you too but not all the time.”

While it was not Karen’s responsibility to be John’s social life, it also was up to John to build his own network of activities and friendships. When couples have outside resources, they are less emotionally dependent on their partners. When you have other things going on in your life – for instance, belonging to a sports team or bi-weekly chess club – you have more to bring back to the marriage.

You can solve differences of opinion through listening and compromise

Drs.  John and Julie Gottman, with 40 years of marriage research under their belts, have put much energy into studying the healthy and unhealthy ways couples fight. John Gottman has said, “The thing that all really good marriages have in common is that they communicate to their partner a model that when you’re upset the world stops…I listen and we repair things.”

We are not born with the ability to hear our partner’s side and treat him or her with patience and kindness.  But hopefully we can learn. One tip I offer people who ‘just can’t stop themselves’ from lashing out when they are upset is to pause. Take a deep breath and ask yourself, ‘What will happen if I say this mean, impulsive thing to the person I love most in the world?’ If the answer is you will hurt your partner deeply and live to regret your outburst, use the pause to regain control. If you need to, say, “I need to walk away because I’ll say stuff I don’t mean and I don’t want to do that. Let’s get back to this discussion later.”

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2 Ways I Can Tell You’re Probably Doomed

You fight for the kill

Probably one of the likeliest predictors of a couple that will divorce is a destructive fighting style.3

This means yelling, screaming, not listening to, degrading and otherwise disrespecting your partner. When a couple walks in to my office that are obviously full of contempt for one another and light up only when the opportunity to ‘crush’ the other appears, I cringe. I know if they cannot quickly learn how to moderate this horrific behavior, and to not only stop blaming their partner but take responsibility for their own share of dysfunction, this is not a case I want to take on.

You hold onto grudges like a camel stores water

Four years after Bill was 40 minutes late to their Valentine’s dinner, Jeannie still holds a grudge. Even though he was stuck in a subway underground with no cell signal. Bill refers to the event that has launched 1000 sulks as “the Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

Olympian grudge holding is toxic for a relationship. At some point the one eternally held accountable will begin feeling mighty resentful. Additionally, holding a vendetta is toxic for the angry person as  the “blood is boiling” feeling that rises up whenever you think of how you were wronged lead to the “fight or flight” stress response of your sympathetic nervous system which ups your cortisol level and raises your blood pressure.

Fortunately marriages bruised by “negative, angry or hurtful remarks” are capable of rebounding once the dysfunction and meanness morphs into gentleness and thoughtfulness. Even if the union ultimately ends in divorce, learning to curb a vengeful tongue will benefit you regardless.

Editor’s Note: Names and identifying details of patients are changed

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Last Updated: Mar 6, 2018