Long-term relationships don’t usually come to an abrupt end overnight, but they don’t erode slowly after years and years, either. Sometimes, it only takes a matter of months for a relationship to disintegrate. In that chunk of time, if the right things go awry, both partners may retreat so far from each other that it’s impossible to find a way back to one another.
So how do you know if you’re just experiencing the normal ups and downs any relationship goes through over the years or if it’s something much more serious? We spoke to relationship experts to find out the signs that indicate your relationship might not just be on the rocks—but headed toward a more permanent crash.
Your home is eerily quiet
As a rule, no one is chatting, laughing, and sharing the big or little details of their day. “This is often where marriages crumble first,” says Wendy Strgar, loveologist and sex educator, author of Love that Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy. “Conversation about what partners are feeling or needing stops and get replaced with either cursory conversations about how to coexist—i.e., who is taking out the garbage, picking up the cleaning or whatever.”
We’re not talking about the comfortable and content kind of silence people who’ve been together for a long time often have. It’s more like a silence that’s heavy with unsaid words and feelings. “One of my clients who is in the process of divorce said he knew he needed to end the marriage when he’d come home after a long day at work and he and his wife would sit together on the couch with nothing to say,” adds Samantha Burns, a marriage counselor and relationship coach.
You can’t communicate without bickering or being sarcastic
On the other hand, if every time one of you opens your mouths, something negative or cutting comes out, that’s almost as bad as loaded silence. “If your relationship has devolved to this point, then you’ve lost more than the ability to communicate,” says Strgar. “You’re living in a landmine where the heart connection that keeps relationships safe has eroded and no one is expressing themselves except through indirect, passive-aggressive comments.”
On the other hand, at least you’re still talking at all — even if your communication is dysfunctional. But this is definitely a last-straw sign that you need to get help, change, or you’re headed for a breakup. “When your partner puts you down, ridicules you in front of other people or makes fun of you, it’s a sign to get out or go to therapy,” says sex and relationship therapist Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of The New Monogamy: Getting the Sex You Want. “Once you’ve tried that, if things don’t change, your marriage is over.”
You flirt with other people—or think about it… a lot
Even if you don’t act on your interest in your sexy co-worker or former friend with benefits, if you’re thinking about it a lot, it’s a sign that you’re not getting your physical and emotional needs met in your current relationship. There’s harmless flirting that people in healthy relationships do casually and playfully because their partnerships are secure enough that it’s not a big deal. But flirting in order to see what else is out there because you’ve become so unhappy is a whole other story.
“You might think you’re just looking, but this is a breach of trust and security in your relationship, even if you don’t message or go out with anyone,” says Burns. “In an at-risk marriage you may look outside of the relationship to feel attractive, desired or to feel like you matter. Do you go out with your friends but secretly hope to flirt with other men? Do you try to lock eyes with the cute guy at the grocery store? Though it may seem subtle and innocent, these are small signs you’re not getting what you need in your relationship.”
You touch each other way less than you used to
Happy couples—whether they’ve been together for a year or 10 years—touch each other in ways that indicate comfort and intimacy. They hold hands at the movies, lean heads on shoulders, or just brush up against one another while they’re walking. So if little touches like this start to feel awkward or forced—or if they’re not happening at all—it’s a red flag, as is, of course, an infrequency of kissing, sex, or other physical affection.
“We often associate the end of physical intimacy as the moment that the relationship ended,” says Strgar. “Generally, this is more like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In a marriage when there’s no genuine relationship to hold and sustain sex, it’s simply too vulnerable to give oneself to the estranged partner. So if either of you are saying no to sex perpetually, you need to look deeper at what is really going on—or get out.”
You’d rather go out with friends than stay in with your S.O.
“Maintaining a social life and your own interests while in a relationship is healthy, but realizing that you much prefer to spend your time with friends is a serious red flag,” says Burns. “If you’ve stopped enjoying leisure time with your partner or you tend to feel more excited to spend time with other people over your spouse, you need to get your priorities straight and invest more in the marriage, or else it might be over.”
Another way this can show up: Avoiding or putting off responding to each other’s texts and calls. “Both of you might even ‘go dark’ just to avoid one another,” says Dr. Wendy Patrick, a behavioral expert and author of Red Flags: Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People. “You know where your partner spends most of his or her time — at work, at the gym, picking up your kids from school—and yet there are time blocks spent off the radar.” She suggests discussing any time periods that are “missing in action” with your partner sooner rather than later, because secrets breed suspicion.
What’s more, your phones can create a way for you both to avoid direct communication. “When your primary communication method consists of texting from a device designed for talking, it may signal drifting,” says Patrick. “If you or your partner is glued to a device during time together, the message is loud and clear: do not disturb. We live in a world where online relationships can replace real ones. Consequently, relationship red flags often include an inordinate amount of time spent interacting online as opposed to with you.”
You’re getting your emotional needs filled elsewhere
Have you noticed you’d rather talk to your co-worker, best friend or mom about what’s going on in your life than your partner? It’s one thing to vent and get support from outsiders, but if you’re consistently running to a friend—or worse, an ex or a flirtation—to talk about your secrets and stresses, that means the emotional richness and trust that was formerly placed in your S.O. is going elsewhere.
“Emotional affairs typically signal a crack in the foundation of your relationship and are symptomatic of something else that might be wrong,” says Burns. “Oftentimes there’s underlying disconnection and emotional or physical needs that have gone unmet for a long time. It’s possible to overcome an emotional affair and come out stronger as a couple, but it requires hard work that may involve professional help, commitment to the process and learning new communication skills.”
You have a “me” instead of “we” mentality
Remember the days when you used to decide everything together and it felt like it was the two of you against the world? When relationships are reaching their breaking point, this unified feeling is often a thing of the past. “In healthy marriages, you think of what’s best for you as a collective unit, not just what’s in your best interest,” says Burns. “Whether it’s small decisions, such as checking in with your partner before making or committing to weekend plans, or bigger choices about moving to pursue your own career goals, having a ‘we’ mindset over a ‘me’ one is essential for the survival of your marriage.”