Uh-oh: Your (seemingly innocent) daily habits—like scrolling through Insta in bed—could be destroying your marriage. "Research shows that there are a lot of little things people do that can indicate serious problems in relationships," says Carrie Cole, a couples therapist and certified Gottman master trainer at the Center for Relationship Wellness in Houston. The good news? Even if you're having problems now, it doesn't mean you're headed for divorce. A recent survey found that couples are more likely to try to work things out—and break the bad habits they've developed—than they were even 10 years ago. We're all for keeping you out of the lawyer's office, so watch out for these bad habits that couples therapists say always end in a split.
It might sound like advice on avoiding high school drama, but speaking in a mean-spirited way about your partner when he's not around—not just poking innocent fun at his Star Wars obsession—is a red flag that, surprisingly, is pretty common, says Cole. And it could have a lot to do with your friends. "Women may fall into this habit if they're surrounded by people doing the same thing," she says. "If your close group of girl friends are constantly talking poorly about their own husbands, it may feel more normal for you to chime in and say, 'You think yours is bad? Listen to mine.'" But in reality, it shines a light on a deeper issue, says Cole. "It shows a lack of respect for him and your connection, even if he never finds out," she says, and starts a pattern of negative comparisons that can lead to even more criticism and contempt. Before you know it, your relationship is in a fast, downward spiral.
Whether you're remembering how hilarious your ex was—unlike your comparatively quiet husband—or wishing your guy was a door-opening gentleman like your friend's husband, negatively comparing your spouse to others is another subtle kiss of death. "Even if you're only making notes in your mind, it can kill a relationship over time," says Cole. Try to remember that the grass always seems greener because one person is never going to have everything on your wish list, and your friends are probably jealous of something your own guy does—like the fact that he's got serious skills in the kitchen (#domesticgod). And if there's a habit he's developed that you'd like to, err, tweak (like his tendency to overspend), there's nothing wrong with that—so long as you're not ultimately trying to change who he is. Cole says to use a gentle approach, and at the end of the day, you might as well focus on the good. Your marriage—and sanity—will be better for it.
We're not into gender stereotyping, but experts widely agree that men tend to have more difficulty with a skill called "accepting influence," which means having an ability to understand your significant other's perspective, even if you don't agree with it. Experts think that guys struggle more to develop this skill because ladies tend to be more empathetic, thanks to the biological and neurological differences between the two genders. But just because it's harder to do doesn't mean it should be ignored. In fact, "marriages in which men don't accept influence from their wives are at a much higher risk for divorce," says Diane Gehart, professor of marriage and family therapy at California State University, Northridge. Research from the Gottman Institute even found that when men don't do this, their marriage has an 81 percent chance of failing. (Yikes.) But just because men are usually the ones to struggle in this department doesn't mean the ladies get off scot-free. Men inherently want to feel understood too (it ties into their need to feel respected by their partner), so both parties should try to walk in the others' shoes when working on a problem.
When you're having a chat with your husband and suddenly go from an emotional zero to sixty, that's not a good sign. Doing so drives your partner away, explains Gehart, because it immediately shuts down the possibility of having a productive conversation. And unfortunately, women are the usual culprits. "Women are more likely to raise issues aggressively than men are," she says, and a study found that it's likely because men are usually able to quickly "calm down" and analyze a situation sans emotions, whereas women are more likely to go by how they feel. We know it's way easier said than done, but if you tend to yell or use a harsh tone every time your husband grates your nerves, try to pull back—otherwise you could instigate his defense mechanisms, which halts his ability (or willingness) to talk openly and honestly. And if he's not being real with you—and only hearing your anger or irritation—then what's the point?
Once an argument gets going, it can be hard to stop it from spiraling out of control. But disengaging makes it easier to resolve problems, because you can then talk more calmly and compassionately, says Cole. If you don't, you're more likely to find yourselves yelling, crying, or freezing each other out—and that can have a literal effect on your body. "When people shut down during conflict, it's usually because their heart rates have skyrocketed to over 100 beats per minute, which throws you into fight or flight response," she says. "When that happens, you lose access to the part of your brain—the frontal lobe—that gives you communication skills. So sometimes you literally can't speak coherently, even when you try." So no, it's not a cop-out to take a break from talking mid-fight and resuming the conversation later. It can actually make the difference between a productive, solution-oriented talk, and one that sends you deeper down the rabbit hole. If it becomes a habit, that tunnel isn't going to lead you to Wonderland, but Divorceland.
Even when you're trying to look totally calm, your body often betrays how you're really feeling. A few subtle cues that tip experts off to problems: A high-pitched voice, dilated pupils, and a slightly paled complexion—and they all usually come with that classic, fake smile and rigid movements. "These are all signs that someone is overwhelmed with their own emotions and shifting into a flight or fight mode, so they simply can't tune into their partner in a way that shapes a safe dialogue," says couples therapist Sue Johnson, Ph.D., author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. When you regularly fall into this—rather than just letting loose and telling your partner how you really feel about the fact that he invited your mother-in-law to stay for an entire week without even asking—then you create a pattern of refusing to be emotionally honest, Johnson explains. That automatically shuts off the possibility for him to understand, support, and potentially correct the problem with you—and instead tips the relationship into even more distress and distance that could ultimately derail a marriage.
When crickets replace conversation—and yes, bickering, because no two people will agree on everything all the time—experts say your relationship could be dying a slow death. Because when you don't even bother to bring up something that bugs you, it means you've stopped putting energy into the relationship and could be emotionally checking out, says Gehart. Now, that doesn't mean you should be picking fights in order to show you care, but if there's a sense of quiet resentment or ambivalence, it's better to bring up the issue than let it simmer. Because eventually, Gehart says it always boils over…and so will your marriage.
It's super common to put off having tough conversations, according to the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College. After all, it's not like you're headed to a fun party. But not facing your problems soon enough can put you in a situation of too little, too late. "By the time many couples make their first therapy appointment—an unpublished study reported that the average couple waits six years from the onset of problems to seek help—the toxic dynamics have been in place for so long that it's harder to undo the damage," says Cole. That doesn't mean that all hope is lost, though. Just remember that the longer you wait, the more time and work it will take to get things back on track, and you both need to be willing to put in that effort in order for your marriage to succeed.