‘When one person is stonewalling, the person being stonewalled may try to trigger a row in order to get a reaction’ (photograph posed by models). Photograph: JackF/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Problems such as stresses brought on by circumstances (new job, moving, living somewhere too small, a new addition to the family, etc) are often fairly easy to address and work on. They are usually a blip unless they are ignored and turn into some of the bigger things below. None of the things listed mean your relationship is heading for divorce unless one, or both of you, are not prepared to work on it, either because one of you no longer wants the relationship to work, or can’t admit anything is wrong. While you are both still committed to making it work, there is always hope.
My wife keeps saying 'No sex tonight': the spreadsheet that lays it all bare
Not having enough sex. This does not mean you need to head to the divorce courts. It’s the mismatch that matters. If you want more, or less, sex than your partner, that can cause problems. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what anyone else does or doesn’t do, it’s what works for you as a couple. Unless there’s an underlying psychosexual or medical reason, a lack of sex is usually a symptom of a deeper relationship problem rather than the issue itself.
Spending time together. Date nights are not necessary unless you want them to be. But not having them does not mean your relationship is doomed. However, if we replace “date nights” with “spending time together”, that is important. It can be going for a walk, watching a film or cooking together. What it does is say “I’m making you a priority”. Otherwise there is a risk of disconnection. If you don’t make time for each other, you can’t know what’s going on with your partner and without that there will eventually be a loss of intimacy. What make you a romantic, rather than a purely functional couple, is being emotionally intimate.
Appreciation and gratitude. These are really important and if they go (or were never there in the first place) this can start to lead to one of the four bigger warning signs below. It’s not about the grand gesture, but small, everyday signs of appreciation. Saying, “I really appreciate how hard you are working for the family,” or even just doing things like making someone a cup of tea. However, in couples therapy there are the Gottman Institute’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse” signs, which are good to know about and look for. These are warning signs that we would look for in therapy that may signal a relationship where the problems go a little deeper and is in trouble, unless the couple are prepared to recognise and work on these areas.
Criticism. If you or your partner criticise each other habitually, you are attacking their personality. Over time, this will breed resentment. If one person is constantly criticising the other partner this can become a huge problem.
Contempt. This is the hardest to work with but not impossible as long as it’s named, recognised and both of you are prepared to work on it. But if one consistently looks down on their partner, is dismissive, constantly rolling their eyes at what the other says, mocks them, is sarcastic (and not in jest) or sneers at their partner, then they are seeing them as “less than”. Contempt can closely follow behind loss of respect.
Defensiveness. If you can’t talk to one another because one or both of you are defensive, this can be a problem because you won’t be listening to one another’s point of view and, over time, you will switch off. Communication is key to working on any relationship problem – without that you can’t get anywhere. Defensiveness can lead to “blame tennis” where each person is just lashing out in defence: “You did this.” “Yes, but you did this.” You’re indignant and everything is a battle. You’re so busy defending yourself that nothing gets resolved. If you can stop, get some perspective and give each other space and time to talk and listen, you have a hope of sorting this out.
Stonewalling. This is when one person retreats, won’t talk, and will block the other person. It usually happens if the person stonewalling doesn’t want to hear what’s being said, either because they are afraid of it or can’t deal with it, or both. This can result in the person being stonewalled desperately trying to talk to the other; they may even try to trigger a row to get the stonewaller to react and talk. It results in an awful atmosphere and can eventually make the person being stonewalled too afraid to have any sort of discussion because they are afraid of the silent treatment. This then shuts down any hope of communication and reconciliation.