At the purely therapeutic level, there are three red flags in a relationship that imply that therapy is contra-indicated, meaning it won’t work.
The first is evidence of a pattern of domestic violence. If one partner is being physically or emotionally abused, therapy is ineffective (and irresponsible). The second is the presence of an ongoing extramarital affair. It’s simply not helpful to work on one relationship without giving up the other. The third is when one partner, or both, just isn't committed to the relationship—or has a stronger commitment to alcohol, gambling, work, porn, or whatever than to their partner. In each of these scenarios, therapy is a waste of time.
But sometimes there aren’t any obvious red flags. Sometimes things are just not perfect. You might ask, is it worth the effort? Is this as good as it’s going to get? It begs the question: How do you know when a relationship is worth fighting for and when you can, in good conscience, walk away. What if they’re just pink flags?
Here are three pink flags to help you discern whether to stay or go:
01. More Me than We
Healthy relationships have a strong sense of “we-ness”. Does yours? Do you have a strong confidence that “we are in this together”? Or is your relationship more focused on how one partner’s needs take precedence over the other’s? Think about the stories you’re telling about the relationship. Is “I” more present than “we”? All relationships have conflict. And compromise is difficult. The unfortunate reality of compromise is that neither partner gets exactly what they want. But it’s important to pay attention to why compromise is difficult. If it’s because you’re focusing on me, not we, you’re likely waving a pink flag.
02. More Chaos than Glory
Let’s go back to the stories you’re telling about your relationship. Dr. John Gottman calls this your “Story of Us.” He says, “Couples that describe their relationship history as chaotic are usually unhappy in the present.” How do you tell your story? Do you focus on the chaos, or can you expose the glory of your struggles? All couples go through hard times, but can you tell the difference between the wound and repair? If you can, are you able to describe how the struggle strengthened your commitment? If you or your partner are incapable of recognizing the deeper meaning of your hardships, this is likely a pink flag.
03. More Disappointment than Satisfaction
It’s a simple question. When you lie in bed at night, thinking about your relationship, are you more disappointed than satisfied? Have your expectations for the relationship been met? Or are you disappointed that it isn’t what it promised to be? Happy couples can rest in knowing that even if it’s not perfect, it’s still worthy. It’s still salvageable. But if your eyes are trained on the disappointment of a promise unfulfilled, that’s all you’ll see. Except, of course, the pink flag.
Alone, none of these flags are necessarily signs that the relationship is over. If you are committed to your partner, these flags are not unfixable. But especially in a dating relationship, before you've made a vow of "till death do us part," the presence of all three flags is serious. It may be time to acknowledge that the relationship is over, grieve the time and energy lost, and move on.
But if you stay, stay. And commit to writing a new "Story of Us." Focus on we. And glory. And satisfaction. If there’s a possibility that your relationship is salvageable, and if you have an inclination toward trust and a conviction about commitment, then stay. I’d encourage you to seek out a good therapist. You might find one through the Gottman Referral Network, or feel free to contact me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll be glad to help.