I was driving through the San Bernardino Mountains when I noticed a sign of Smokey the Bear issuing a red flag fire warning. Knowing that this was a common issue in the dry mountains of California, I was unfazed and kept driving despite the potentially dangerous conditions. Likewise, I believe that many of us see red flag warnings in our relationships, but we ignore them and keep driving on together. I did too! I was dating a girl in high school who was hot, but the relationship wasn’t healthy. Even though I realized this, it was so hard to break it off for numerous reasons – perhaps some of you can relate. Eventually, however, I mustered the strength to break it off.
What about you? How do you know you are in a healthy relationship? If you are a pastor or leader advising others, what signs do you look for to measure the health of a relationship? I want help identify some red flags in your relationship that may be causing a relational forest fire, so that you can either work towards a healthier relationship or if not yet married – know when it is time to end one. As Smokey says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
John Gottman, the marriage guru, has combined science and psychology to research and write books on relationships. He’s so good that he can predict with 94% accuracy whether a couple will get divorced after spending ten minutes with them. He’s identified several red flags and I want to share five of them. This applies to not only those who are married, but also those in a serious relationship.
1. Do you show contempt towards each other?
This is the most toxic of all the five red flags because you are taking away the other’s dignity and showing extreme disrespect. It is not just disagreeing with them, it is feeling and portraying the sense that the other person is “lesser” than you. Signs of contempt according to Gottman include “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.”
2. Do you criticize each other regularly?
Criticizing is different from complaining. Complaining is normal and part of relationships, but the more long-term issues arise when complaints turn into criticisms. Complaints address the person’s behavior or actions, while criticisms attack the person’s character. An example of a complaint is, “I was hoping we could spend more time today with the family and I’m sad we weren’t able to do this.” A criticism may be, “You never spend time with us. You don’t care about this family and you only care about yourself and work.”
3. Do either of you get defensive quickly?
When we get defensive, we are saying, “It’s all your fault. I am completely justified in my feelings and actions.” It communicates that we are not willing to admit our role in the conflict and rather shift the blame to the other person. The focus is never on ourselves nor on listening nor showing empathy towards why your significant other even if you really were justified in your actions. This is dangerous because it strips away any grace and compassion towards each other as you increasingly become more protective of your own side.
4. Do either of you stonewall consistently?
This is usually found more in men than women, and it usually happens as the tension escalates. The partner becomes like a stonewall in that they fail to give any verbal or non-verbal response. The stonewaller may do this as a strategy to deescalate the conflict, but it only makes the conflict worse.
5. Starting a fight: Does it start off harshly or softly?
When you have conflict with partner, how does the conversation start? Gottman shares that in 96% of the time, how the conflict starts will predict how it will ends. The start of the conversation may be harsh or critical. This includes statements such as “Why do you always…,” “I can’t believe you did that again,” or “You never listen to me.” These harsh start-up comments will usually end without resolution and if this pattern continues, it can result in severe long-term consequences—divorce or break-up.
On the other hand, when you start the conversation about something that has upset you in a more softened tone, then the other person is more willing to listen and engage in a productive conversation. Of course, this is not easy to do, especially if you are angry, but there are ways you can discipline yourself to reflect on your emotions first, cool down, and then share what upset you with your significant other more gently and with a more neutral tone of voice.
If you recognize some of these red flags in your relationship, it does not necessarily mean that you should get out of your relationship. Rather, it’s an opportunity to work on the relationship together through introspection, prayer, communication, and counseling. If you are in a marriage relationship and have these red flags, there is absolutely hope to work through these issues together. On the other side of the spectrum if you are not married and if enough of these warning signs are present and continually manifest in your relationship then you may need to re-evaluate the health and direction of that relationship.