What makes a relationship work? Arguably, compatibility is a highly nuanced and complex subject. Many perspectives inform our judgment, from the biological to the psychological and social components of the ideal match. Often, we may only be conscious of a limited number of factors involved in our decision-making process. Yet, in the "red flag" romance era, many are more critical than ever.
But it's hard to know whether we are being overly critical or whether our doubts are legitimate. Recent literature published in Psychological Review has developed a theory to shed some light on this -- it's known as the mate evaluation theory, which suggests there is much more to our evaluative process than one might think. To simplify, one theme from this research is that compatibility is built more through interactions over time more than from a set list of characteristics or features that we want from a partner.
In other words, someone might tick all the right boxes for us initially, such as their appearance, sense of humor, and intelligence. Still, the time you spend with them will be a much better indicator of compatibility than any of these attributes. This is probably why it's easy to fall into a relationship that seems perfect on the outside, only for cracks to surface over time. Read on for a list of potential relationship red flags.
Your Reasons For Staying In The Relationship Are Situational
During the pandemic and beyond, many people choose to cohabitate with partners to avoid separation. Though such relationships have a romantic basis, oftentimes, this can be motivated by situational factors. One study showed that, while love and companionship were the primary reasons for the married and cohabiting adults surveyed to live with their partner, practical reasons, such as financial convenience, also played a role in cohabitation.
However, while it is understandable that practical concerns may factor into a decision to move in with a partner or stay in a relationship, if those reasons are the primary driving force, this can lead to resentment and dissatisfaction. For instance, another study found that of the 63% of couples surveyed who had financial motivators when moving in with their partner, 42% regretted the move.
But it's often more than money that can hold us captive in an unsatisfying relationship. A fear of being single can lead to settling for less in relationships. Those with a stronger fear of being single tend to be more dependent on their partner and less likely to initiate a breakup even when unhappy. In either case, external factors intermixing our relationship may be a sign you're forcing something that's become untenable.
Your Sex Life Isn't Satisfying
Our sex lives can be an indicator of intimacy and relationship satisfaction. While getting to know your partner on an intimate level can take time, a satisfying sex life toward the beginning of a relationship can be a sign that it will last longer. For instance, one study tracked couples with the highest and lowest senses of relationship satisfaction over 20 years. Interestingly, the most satisfied couples also had the most fulfillment from their sex life at the onset of their relationship. While the trajectory showed changes between relationships and sexual satisfaction, generally, the longer couples are in a relationship, the less satisfying their sex life becomes. However, when couples had a very satisfying sexual relationship at the start, this helped compensate for the latter years of the relationship.
So, what if you don't have this strong start to the relationship? Well, sex is far from the be-all and end-all of relationships, but it can be a good sign. This might be because sex has a strong link to intimacy. For instance, when asked to define love, participants in a study from India used words such as "feeling" and "care." Interestingly, they also used these terms to define their reasons for breaking up -- having no feelings left. Loss of intimacy can lead to boredom, and, unfortunately, boredom is a relationship killer.
You Argue Frequently
Couples eventually break up for many different reasons, but some evidence points to the frequency and intensity of arguments around specific issues as being more likely to cause separation. In fact, the top six sources of arguments for couples are lack of affection or sexual intimacy, jealousy, infidelity, disagreements over responsibilities, controlling behaviors, and financial issues. Frequent arguments are also one of the major signs it may be time to end your relationship.
Research suggests that frequent arguments of these kinds often lead to dissatisfaction and could be strong indicators of relationship dissolution. Of course, we aren't saying that if you have argued over one of these topics, it means the relationship is doomed. But you should take it seriously if you find yourself in continual debate regarding the same issue over time without seeing a resolution.
We may not even realize that these six core areas are the underlying issues in a conflict. An argument over who controls the TV might seem superficial, yet it can lead to a full-on fight. Why? Because, potentially, the real issue is that one partner is trying to assert more control over the relationship. Or, this partner feels entitled to the choice after taking on more responsibilities than they should. In short, what seems like petty bickering now and then might be masking real incompatibility issues.
You've Overlooked Crucial Red Flags
It's easy for relationships to devolve into various checkboxes. For instance, you want someone funny, charming, and as passionate about cheesecake as you. But the reality is that even if a person fits your criteria to a tee, your actual compatibility might be less obvious. We can be so eager to enter a relationship that we dismiss real warning signs. For example, your partner may love cake and tell great jokes, but they also speak down to others or are emotionally dismissive.
Research points out that we're often more motivated to sustain unhealthy relationships than we may realize. Many cultural and social expectations get placed on single people, encouraging them to get into relationships and stigmatizing those who aren't coupled up. Unfortunately, this can also mean that individuals feel pressured to stay with incompatible partners.
Recognizing the red flags of a potentially volatile or toxic relationship is crucial but difficult in practice. Paradoxically, we often can see red flags from an outsider's perspective, but we become less proactive about such issues in our own lives. This is vital -- treat your relationship as though it were a family or friend in your position. If you would advise them against a potentially toxic relationship, this is a sign you may need to rethink.
The Relationship Makes You Feel Hopeless
A hopeless relationship is one where no matter how much you engage with the other person, you cannot resolve the issues. Research describes hopelessness in romantic relationships as a kind of psychological and physical exhaustion. It reaches the point where the more drained a person becomes during an argument, the more likely the couple is to separate -- so much so that the phenomenon can predict divorce in married couples with 94% accuracy.
The research suggests that behavior patterns such as stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, and contempt eventually create a sense of hopelessness. When this happens, either you will need to decide whether the relationship is worth saving by investing in couples counseling, for example, or whether it's time to call it a day. But it's important to realize that if a relationship isn't the one for you, therapy may only lessen conflict. There's no guarantee it will bring you happiness.
In fact, further research suggests that if the personality or interpersonal characteristics of two partners are fundamentally incompatible, even overcoming your personal feelings (referred to as intrapersonal traits) of hopelessness may not be enough.
It's Affecting Your Mental Health
Mental health is an essential but often underestimated part of the dynamic between two partners. The relative position of an individual compared to their partner when entering into a romantic engagement can be indicative of future relationship success or failure. If one or both partners feel physically, cognitively, or emotionally distressed from the relationship, this can impact how they see and interact with the other.
For instance, according to recent research, low self-esteem can trigger doubt about how we perceive our partner's feelings toward us. Although some insecurity can be a normal part of relationships, persistent feelings of low self-worth can gradually create an emotional barrier between parties that is difficult to overcome. And it's not always the partner with these feelings who is most affected. One partner's negative feelings about themselves or the relationship can eventually influence the other's perception of overall satisfaction in the relationship, even affecting their well-being.
This is why it's important to recognize when a relationship is taking a toll on your mental health, as it may be a sign that the relationship won't be viable long term. The more we project negative feelings about a relationship onto our partner, the more likely we are to push them away, which, ironically, creates the situations we most feared.
You Feed On Each Other's Negativity
"Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling" have been aptly named by influential marriage counselor John Gottman as the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. Gottman found that by studying the frequency of these behaviors throughout a marriage, he could accurately predict the likelihood of divorce.
While it may not be surprising that negative interaction with one's partner can forecast disaster, what is enlightening about Gottman's work is how couples in healthy relationships often engage in the same behavior but with a different pattern. To explain, in couples most likely to separate, arguments often begin at a neutral position which gradually become more negative over the duration of the dispute. Both partners would express criticism, become defensive, show contempt, or ignore the other. However, in healthy relationships, partners usually start at a negative point, practicing the same behavior, but, as the confrontation goes on, both intermix these negative expressions with positive interactions, such as humor, empathy, or pauses for reflection.
These gaps in negativity alleviated tension, usually meaning that couples ended a dispute in a better position than they started. Additional research similarly stresses that if neither partner can break the cycle of negativity, there can be no progress. But, by the same thread, if one partner doesn't reciprocate the other's positivity, there is an equally poor chance of the relationship moving forward.
You Aren't Equally Committed To The Relationship
Power dynamics can play an increasingly prominent role in relationship satisfaction. As we just saw, an unbalance in the relationship, either in terms of effort or communication, can be a sign that things just aren't working. Obviously, commitment takes effort, and we can't read our partner's mind, so it can be difficult to tell how committed to the relationship they are.
However, one way of thinking about commitment as a whole has been proposed by researchers, which posits that commitment issues are linked to the level of power one has in a relationship. They found that those with a strong "desire for power" are typically less committed to their partner. You might assume that exerting power over a relationship means that a person is, at the very least, invested in its success. However, when we look at the role of power as it relates to commitment, those who want power over the relationship are less interested in wielding dominance and more interested in maintaining their own autonomy.
A lack of commitment might be seen when one partner continually chooses their own interests over the other. This creates an imbalance in who has the power over what happens overall in the relationship, and should this be the case for you, it may be a sign to reconsider your relationship.
Feeling lonely now and then is to be expected. But, if you constantly feel isolated, disconnected, and unsupported in your relationship, this may be a sign that your relationship is not meeting your emotional needs. Satisfaction in a relationship is often drawn from the idea that the person to whom you're romantically attached fulfills some interpersonal need.
These needs might be feelings of belonging, love, or intimacy. Conversely, when they go unfulfilled, feelings of chronic loneliness begin to fill the void. This can be due to various factors, such as incompatible personalities, different communication styles, or a lack of shared interests. It's essential, however, no matter the reason, to address these feelings head on. If you feel constantly lonely in your relationship, it may be worth evaluating whether the relationship is right for you.
Some research further suggests that loneliness appears when we can't find meaning in our lives. For instance, while close relationships with others help to give our lives purpose and stability, their absence can highlight a mismatch between what we need from a relationship and the reality -- that you could be forcing meaning upon a relationship where it doesn't exist.
You've Already Thought About Breaking Up
In every relationship, there will be times when we have doubts or uncertainties. The problem is not having doubts in and of itself but how we address these questions -- which is vital for the relationship's longevity. For instance, what you do when you are concerned about the relationship, how frequently you have these concerns, and whether they focus on minor or major issues -- these can all be indicators of whether the relationship is right for us.
For instance, research suggests that people who experienced more uncertainty about their relationship, themselves, or their partner were less likely to be satisfied with their relationship. This is because when we have recurring feelings of uncertainty, we cannot depend on the relationship to provide positive outcomes, making us question ourselves and our partners even more.
Unfortunately, when we can't mediate these concerns through such methods as discussing them with our partner or resolving them ourselves, this will likely also affect the other party. Some evidence is presented that frequent ambiguity in a relationship actually contributes to relationship instability, reduced intimacy, and more contemplation about ending things. It may be a sign, in which case, that if you can't find a means to address these doubts, forcing the relationship further will only make both partners more unhappy.
You Feel Burdened By The Relationship
Relationships are about equilibrium. In fact, a developing theory in the psychology of relationships tells us that the unity of a relationship is contingent on it. To explain, the approach, known as "relational load," describes how conflicts or the "wear and tear" of a relationship can worsen when one or both partners feel their emotional, psychological, or physical needs aren't being met.
To navigate these issues, we must recognize that constructive dialogue is the key to reducing relational load. Research points out that we perceive our relational load as more burdensome after negative interactions with our partners. However, maintaining a positive conversation reduces the weight of our burdens, or loads.
Suffice to say, relationships require maintenance from both sides; this includes emotional support, sharing of responsibilities, and working together to improve the relationship. However, when we reach the point where our relational load becomes too great to carry, this can lead to burnout. When this happens, it can be detrimental to a relationship, as we become what the research calls "emotionally hardened" -- we don't want to be around our partner and stop communicating completely. It might be best at this point to acknowledge that the relationship isn't working.
You Aren't Growing Or Learning In The Relationship
Ideally, our relationships should be a way to elevate us and foster self-growth. Our partner is a team member in this effort, and we, too, can reciprocate in helping them achieve their goals. But, if your relationship is causing stagnation, this may be a sign that you need to evaluate. For example, many aspects of our lives can revolve around careers.
Thus, the attitude or support of our partner may or may not be a factor in this growth. From a research perspective, careers can play a significant role in families and relationships -- economic stressors, divisions of responsibility, and financial disputes may leave people overworked or, conversely, hold them back from their career goals.
Another aspect of growth that relationships can support or hinder is our self-esteem. This might be the value we place on ourselves or others. The development of self-esteem throughout a relationship can even factor into our overall satisfaction with a partner. While a lack of self-esteem might not hinder a relationship, if a relationship causes a low sense of self-worth, the relationship is definitely worth questioning.
Your Friends And Family Don't Like Them
Lastly, one underappreciated sign of incompatibility relates to how you perceive your partner compared to an outside perspective. Firstly, it's important to understand that when we're in the throes of romance, this psychologically can impair our ability to judge the target of our affection. According to research, there is evolutionary evidence that attraction can create positive bias. This is when we sometimes make inaccurate judgments of our partners and our relationships.
However, interestingly, this doesn't mean we don't see the other person's faults. But it may make us more inclined to weigh their positive traits more heavily than their negative ones. This is where an outsider's perspective can be helpful. Presuming that our friends and family know us well, they may be able to see our relationship in a way that we cannot.
But there is also another factor as to why their opinions may matter for the success of a relationship. An older 1992 study that followed romantic couples over two years found that having a solid support network in favor of your relationship can help it to succeed. Conversely, a lack of support can create doubt, making us question a relationship's future.