Santa Monica Counseling, Therapist in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Culver City, CA, California - Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Warning Signs of Relationship Problems


Good relationships run smoothly and enable you to enjoy your life, work, and activities beyond the relationship. You’re not always worrying or talking about it. Like a smooth-running car, you don’t have to keep repairing it. You may have disagreements and get angry, but you still have goodwill toward one another, talk things over, resolve conflicts, and return to a loving, enjoyable state.

Cars do need maintenance, however. Take care of it, and it performs better. Relationships also take time and effort to maintain an intimate connection. This happens naturally in the initial romantic stage when you want to get to know your partner, spend time together, have frequent sex, and are more open and flexible. You’re less willing to compromise and may want less intimacy. Even if you don’t actually argue, you may return to the same emotional state you were in before you met – or worse – and wonder where your love went or whether your partner loves you. This is where the “struggle for intimacy” is required in order to maintain that love connection.

Here are some warning signs that your relationship may be in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not salvageable or that you can’t get the love connection back, but it does mean you both need to have honest communication and may need the assistance of a marriage counseling. The following list of relationship problems applies to either you or your partner. They’re also common characteristics of codependent relationships, and codependency may be the underlying issue.

1. Inflexibility or repeated unwillingness to compromise on decisions, such as social activities, chores, moving, and having children.

2. Selfishness or self-involvement with your own feelings and needs, without concern and support for those of your partner.

3. Meddling by parents.

4. Repeated deference to a friend or relative over your partner’s  objection.

5.  Repeated instances of critical, undermining, blaming, sarcastic, disrespectful, or manipulative comments. This is verbal abuse. See my blog, “Emotional Abuse – Beneath Your Radar.”

6. A pattern of withholding communication, affection, or sex. This is often a sign of veiled anger.

7. Arguments or problems that don’t get resolved.

8. Raging or name-calling.

9. Keeping Secrets.

10. Passive-aggressive or aggressive behavior, including shoving or breaking objects.

11. Controlling behavior, including giving unwanted advice, ordering, or withholding money for affordable expenses in order control.

12. A secret romantic relationship or pattern of flirting.

13. Use of drugs or alcohol that impacts the relationship or work.

14. Too much time apart if it causes your partner dissatisfaction.

15. Persistent resentments, judgments, or disappointments.

16. Lack of open communication generally, or communication that lacks personal content. Note that this may not be a problem for some couples with low intimacy needs, where their relationship functions well like a business partnership.

17. Breakdown of trust. This can be caused by numerous things, such as dishonesty, using personal information against your partner, unreliability, broken promises or agreements violating personal boundaries, or infidelity.

18. You need constant attention, validation, or reassurance – whatever’s given is never fulfilling for very long.

19. There are subjects that are off-limits or you’re afraid to talk about.

20. Violating personal boundaries, such as, disrespecting your request to not be called at work, to not have confidential information repeated to others, to not be criticized about something, or to not read your mail.

This purpose of this checklist is not to score your relationship or your partner, but to raise issues that you may need to address personally and talk openly about with him or her. Many of these relationship problems revolve around lack of healthy, assertive communication – communication that is open, direct, respectful, honest, and personal. Couples get into problems when they’re afraid to be honest – usually because they think the truth will upset their partner and might jeopardize the relationship. They don’t express their hurt or to ask for the love or support they want, or they do so in a way that’s critical or blaming. People learn to communicate and problem-solve with others in their family growing up. Without good role models, some never learned how to be assertive. Assertiveness can be learned, but takes practice.

Other relationship problems are created by an imbalance of power, where one partner attempts to dominate the other through aggression, control, or emotional or verbal abuse. This is damaging to the relationship and the self-esteem of the other partner. It’s not uncommon in relationships with an addict or narcissist. One partner can control the other through neediness, demands for attention or validation, or playing the victim, with the expectation that the other person make him or her happy.

Repetitive negative relationship patterns stem from problems originating in childhood, such as disrespectful communication, lack of nurturing or free emotional expression, a controlling parent, violation of boundaries, neglect, witnessing parental conflict, mental illness, addiction, or abuse. A variety of dysfunctional parenting styles cause shame and undermine a child’s self-esteem, which continue into adulthood. Shame and low self-esteem thwart love, intimacy, and assertive communication. Individuals with shame and low self-esteem don’t feel worthy of love and/or respect, and either withdraw emotionally or push their partner away directly or indirectly. They abuse or allow abuse, imagine they’re being criticized when they’re not, and are so afraid of losing the relationship that they smother or control their partner or withhold negative feelings and build resentments.

The struggle for intimacy requires the courage to face unhealthy behavior and attitudes and be vulnerable. It entails overcoming defenses of denial, withdrawal, control, or placating to avoid a real connection.  Because relationships are dynamic systems, when one partner behaves in a manner listed above, it damages the relationship. Similarly, when he or she improves his or her self-esteem and communication skills, the relationship improves. Many times, one spouse in individual therapy makes positive changes, and the marriage changes for the better.

Because assertiveness and good self-esteem are so important to both happiness and relationships, I wrote ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits. Many of my blogs are helpful to deal with these problems, including, “Rebuilding Trust,” “Your Intimacy Index,” “The Power of Personal Boundaries,” “The Truth about Abusive Relationships,” and “24 Tips to Positive Conflict.”

©Darlene Lancer 2013

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5 thoughts on “Warning Signs of Relationship Problems

  1. Darlene,

    Your web page and blog is one of the best I’ve seen in our field I have recommended it to some of my consultation clients. I particularly like the subject of parenting in a way that breaks the cycle of codependency.

    I understand the helpfulness of feedback so I just wanted to make sure the compliment got out of my head and into yours.


  2. Your website is very nutritious of healthy and need it information. I met someone special and that someone met my children and I his son. We are thinking to merge families one day but I completely find myself incapable of such compromise. He learned by observing my household that I am a codependent parent. So here I am enlightening my self in your website. Thank you

    • At least now you know what the problem is, and there is a solution. It will take some courage, support, and work, but I get messages and emails all the time from so many people that just reading my books and doing the exercises in them has changed their lives. Best wishes to you on your journey.

  3. I find your web page very informative too, its not just the same scratch-the-surface junk I find in most articles. On the check list a few things stood out to me- particularly withholding of information and parental meddling. I feel very stuck in a relationship and just don’t know how to get help. I’ve found your site very relevant.

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