Relationship Red Flags You’re Missing, According to a Divorce Lawyer
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There is a common misconception that you can point to the same three issues to explain any divorce: infidelity, financial impropriety, or substance abuse. “That’s pretty much what any divorce lawyer is going to tell you is the unholy trinity,” says James J. Sexton, author of the ominously titled If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late. “But no single raindrop is responsible for the flood. Divorce, in fact, is like death by a thousand papercuts.”
In other words, while one of those big issues may represent an undercurrent of strain in a relationship, there will often be some much more subtle red flags that pop up before everything goes boom. And if you can catch those red flags early on, it might be easier to change the tide and lead your marriage back to dry land. “Marriage tends to be between two people who start out with a lot of optimism and want to stay connected, but have a hard time maintaining that over time,” Sexton says. And after seeing countless couples come through his office having lost theirs, he has learned that maintaining that connection is the key to a happy partnership.
Ahead, Sexton breaks down the sneaky relationship-ruiners to keep an eye out for, and relationship expert Megan Stubbs has advice on exactly what to do when you see them cropping up. With any luck, you’ll be able to defuse your problem areas, before, as Sexton diagnoses in his book, it’s “too late.”
Red flag: You feel the need to convince others of how amazing your relationship is.
Do you find yourself jumping to your partner's defense, possibly out of the blue, in conversation with close friends or family? When you’re on vacation with your partner, are you focused on posting photos to show what a good time you’re having more than, you know, having a good time? Sexton says that you might need to check yourself and see why. “I always reference the phrase ‘money talks, wealth whispers’ when talking about this,” he says. “Legitimately happy people don’t feel the need to advertise that connection to people.” All that oversharing can point to major relationship problem area, according to Sexton. “It spells insecurity.”
The fix: If you find yourself constantly humble bragging (or regular bragging), you need to figure out why you feel the urge to justify—or defend—your choice in partner to others. If any part of that is that your friends or family have some misgivings about your SO, then it’s a good idea to listen to them. “Chances are, your closest friends know you best, and they also want the best for you,” Stubbs says. “If they’re expressing some concerns, it’s a good idea to listen to them. They may be able to see things you can’t.”
Red flag: You’re comparing your relationship to other people's.
Between sexy vacation snaps on Instagram and engagement announcements on Facebook, social media is a battleground of relationship milestones—and it doesn’t care how ready you are to face them. If your relationship isn’t on solid ground, it’s so easy to fall into a stalking hole. Next thing you know, you’re awake at 3 AM looking at your ex’s new girlfriend and wondering why your boyfriend doesn’t post loved-up selfies of the two of you to his wall. (Or is that just me?)
This problem behind this red flag isn't relationship-specific, but it can be a doozy if you're in one. “The danger is that social media is curated,” Sexton says. “You wind up comparing your everyday life to someone’s highlight reel, so your real life will pale in comparison.” And since people rarely talk about the negative aspects of their relationship online, it can seem like you’re the only one hitting the rocks. Your high school crush isn’t going to write a Facebook status about how his wife of seven years has a crush on their dog-walker and they both know it. It’s just gonna be “happy anniversary, babe!” year after year. Try to remember that you may be envying something that's not even real.
The fix: Stubbs says this damaging comparison game sets up unhealthy expectations that can exacerbate an already less-than-Zen situation in your relationship. But, it’s not all bad.
“If there are attributes you see in other couples that you’d like to have in yours, have a conversation about it,” Stubbs says. But tread carefully. “Starting off with ‘why can’t you be more like so-and-so’ isn’t the best way.” Instead, frame it in a positive way. Saying something like, “Sara and Emily have a date night every Friday, and they seem to have so much fun doing it. I think we’d have a great time if we had a date night, too.” By framing it as a challenge you can overcome together, you’re making it about your partnership—not your partner’s shortcomings.
Red flag: You’re spending a ton of time on social media (or your partner is).
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen who come in for what I call the 'Facebook Divorce,'” Sexton says, ominously. “It’s definitely a trend that’s on the rise.” What he means is that Facebook is the perfect storm of the last two red flags. There, you can while away the hours justifying how amazing your relationship is while also comparing the intensity of your love to that of everyone you've ever known. Helpful.
“You also tend to be on Facebook or Instagram when you’re not enjoying or engaging with the situation around you,” he says. If you aren’t having a good time, you’re going to feel vulnerable—and you probably already know that social media is a terrible place to be in that moment. “The hits are going to hit harder when you’re vulnerable,” Sexton says.
Say vulnerability is a gas leak; Facebook—and its ability to show you everything about your exes at all times—is like a match. “It’s suggesting to you friends that you might want to add, specifically people from your past,” Sexton says. “And what do people tend to do on social media? You look up every ex-boyfriend or girlfriend you’ve ever had. That’s normal and human, but it creates a situation where people can reach out to people they have no business talking to," at the exact worst time to reignite those conversations. This, Sexton says, creates a colossal amount of infidelity in marriages.
The fix: “Everyone has their thing, and if social media is your partner’s, then that’s okay,” Stubbs says. “But if it’s starting to become an issue in your relationship, talk about it.” She says to frame the conversation in a way that isn’t accusatory, but understanding. Ask your partner what they like about social media and why they feel the need to spend so much time on it. It could uncover some rockiness in your relationship from their point of view.
“Social media is tricky, and I urge caution when equating likes outside of your relationship as a reflection of your own relationship happiness and status,” Stubbs says. A good compromise? One or two tech-free evenings a week. It will give you the ability to spend quality time together—without competing for each other's attention.
Red flag: You stop talking about sex.
Now a lot of people would argue that the red flag gets thrown when you stop having regular sex with your partner. But Sexton says that’s a misdirection. “People’s sex lives change throughout their marriages,” he says. “Bodies change, desires change, people have kids, and so on.” So while you may have started out all hot and heavy, things tend to ebb and flow as your relationship progresses. That isn’t a red flag—that’s life.
What is a red flag, however, is when you stop talking about having sex. “Sex is the one conversation you absolutely must be able to have with your partner,” Sexton says. Changes to your sex life don’t have to be a problem, if you’re open and able to ride them out together. But if changes are afoot, and you and your partner haven’t been able to face each other about it? That’s a big deal.
The fix: You guessed it: communication. “It is key in all things,” Stubbs says. “Assumptions really do nothing for us, so it’s always a good idea to bring up any issue you may have face-to-face with your partner.” That, it seems, is the absolute fix to all of these red flags. Discuss your problems instead of letting them fester. Give your partner a chance to share their feelings. Meet in the middle where possible. Talk things out until you figure out where that middle is.
Sexton agrees, and says he tends to see folks in his office who have bottled up feelings or concerns for far too long, only to have everything explode. “You’ll hear of couples who go from having a conversation about the weather to screaming about how one of their mothers got too drunk at the wedding,” Sexton says. Relationships take work, and keeping them going for years upon years at a time can feel like a big task, especially when new technology comes out seemingly hell-bent on ruining anyone’s chances. The good news—on which Sexton and Stubbs agree—is that there’s almost no problem you can’t unpack with a good talk.