4 Science-Backed Signs That Your Relationship Could Be in Trouble

If you’re like most entrepreneurs and successful business leaders, you love your work–a good thing, since you spend so many hours at it. You also love your spouse, partner, or significant other. You already know that the likelihood of a marriage or relationship ending in a split is 50-50 at best, and that the additional strain of starting a company can make that likelihood even greater.

What can you do to beat those odds? Begin by paying attention. When you’re fully absorbed in launching a company or solving a tough business problem, it’s easy to mentally put your relationship on the back burner, assuming it will still be there when you’re ready to focus your attention on it. It might not be. So begin by paying close attention to what your partner is thinking and feeling–and even closer attention to your own emotions and actions.

In a post at mindbodygreen, licensed marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw draws on the research of John Gottman to identify habits that increase the chances that a couple will split. The full list is well worth reviewing, but here are four that are especially important for entrepreneurs. Most people with happy marriages–including me–have done all these things at least a few times. But if you catch yourself or your partner doing any of them with any frequency at all, it’s time for immediate action.

1. Becoming immediately defensive.

Your spouse or partner has just started talking to you, or maybe yelling at you, about something you did or failed to do. You’ve heard it before and you’re well aware of their complaint, so rather than let them go on about whatever it is, you cut them off with your explanation or justification for whatever it was you did.

This may seem like conversational efficiency to you–you’re constantly squeezed for time so you want to cut to the chase. But it’s likely to feel dismissive and disrespectful to your partner. Gottman included defensiveness among what he called “The Four Horsemen”–communication styles that tend to predict divorce.

Even if you’re fairly sure you know what your partner is going to say, take at least a few minutes to hear them out and actually listen. It’s just possible that they may say something unexpected. Even if not, they’ll know you cared enough to really listen. That will help your relationship, and it may help the two of you resolve whatever the issue is.

2. Stonewalling.

It’s incredibly easy to fall into stonewalling behavior, especially if you’re already feeling overwhelmed by work. Your partner is venting their feelings, letting you know how upset they are and you remain calm as a rock. You may feel superior or that you’re keeping the argument from escalating, but in fact stonewalling is another one of the Four Horsemen that can foreshadow the demise of a relationship. Don’t do it.

If you can’t engage in a discussion right now because you’re feeling overwhelmed, or you absolutely have to work, say so. Ask for a break and tell your partner when you will be available to discuss this matter with them. Never is not an acceptable option. Better yet, at some time when you’re both feeling calm and not in a fight, you and your partner could agree on a signal that either one of you can use to say that you need a time out, and how long the time out will be.

If your partner is stonewalling you, it’s smart not to continue the argument at that moment–your partner may be too overwhelmed to respond, and you’re likely to make things worse. Instead, initiate a break on your own, and then return to the discussion when you’ve both had the chance to cool down.

3. Fight or flight.

It’s normal in any marriage or long-term partnership to have moments when you wish your partner would go away. But if you frequently find yourself wanting to withdraw from your partner or shut them out, that’s a cause for concern. You may be experience flooding–a reaction that arises when you and your partner are frequently in conflict so that the first hint of disagreement releases stress hormones into your system, making you want to run and hide, or else fight back with enough aggression to make your partner run and hide.

Before things get to that very bad place, learn to manage your disagreements so that you each have the ability to stop and rest and take care of yourselves from time to time. That may help keep your conflicts manageable rather than overwhelming.

4. Failed (or missing) attempts to repair.

How often does this happen? You’re in the middle of an argument with your partner, and one of you says something like, “Wait a sec. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a fight. Can we take a step back and maybe start this conversation over?”

And when that happens, what’s the most likely response? Does the other partner say, “I don’t want to fight either. Let’s try to talk about this more calmly, or maybe take a break for a little while.” Or do they say, “Oh now you’re trying to get out of it? You turned this into a fight and you don’t want to deal with the consequences!”

Every couple fights. But Gottman observed that in couples with a low likelihood of divorce, attempts to repair the conflict occurred more frequently, and were more likely to be accepted by the other partner. If you never make repair attempts during arguments with your partner, maybe it’s time to start. And if your partner makes a repair attempt, make sure to accept it.

There’s a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. (Interested in joining? Here’s more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.)

Many subscribers are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and often they text me back about their work, their lives, or their biggest ambitions. But they also tell me how important their partners and families are, not only to their well-being but also to their success. It’s all too easy to let your relationship go south while you’re focused on building or running your company. Make sure you don’t let that happen.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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