In Bojack Horseman, there's this poignant scene when Bojack and Wanda break up, and she tells him, "You know, it's funny. When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags." Now, emotional anthropomorphic animals aside, when it comes to assessing relationships, couples therapists wear no color-filtering glasses.
1. "Any kind of display of humiliating the other is never a good sign. That might be an obvious statement, but I mean it in a more subtle sense. If these behaviors are displayed in sessions, it paints a good picture of how they really are at home. For example, a client would always make comments about his wife and her makeup being messed up or her mispronouncing a word. Instead of politely telling her that her mascara was messed up or letting the mispronunciation go, he would make a point to laugh and correct her in a demeaning way. Even though he was smiling and it came across as harmless, his need to point out her flaws in front of others was an act of humiliation and control."
2. "Contempt. When I experience true contempt from one in the relationship, I know it is usually over. Look toward a peaceful ending at that point if possible."
3. "As a clinical psychologist, I focused mainly on behavioral medicine and cognitive assessment but did my fair share of couples work. Refusal or inability to compromise is a ginormous red flag — one that, I believe, is empirically validated. Compromise is a significant predictor of satisfaction in relationships, and it plays an important role in the long-term success of marriages and relationships in general."
4. "A big red flag is how they cycle through arguments. If they always build tension, have a big explosion, and then a honeymoon phase — that's a hard cycle to break out of and sometimes results in physical violence."
5. "Micro-controlling behaviors in a session are red flags — for example, one partner is constantly interrupting or correcting the other partner (e.g. 'You're wrong, what happened really was...')."
6. "Separating without a plan. All that's going to do is teach you how to live without each other. I would ask them, 'Okay, how do you know when the separation works?' Typically, I'd hear, 'I don't know, when I start missing them, I guess.'"
7. "Years ago when I was starting out, I had a female client come in and report anxiety, depression, etc. because her ex-husband was bothering her. I thought that was completely average and normal, so I asked her about it. She recounted many times wherein she and the ex clashed, so I said, 'You know, you don't have to interact with him, and maybe just distancing yourself is the way to go.' She then told me that they still lived together and had no plans of moving."
8. "As long as there is no abuse, and all parties still have feelings of love or regard for the other, just about any relationship can be salvageable by re-establishing — or, in some cases, establishing for the first time — healthy communication patterns. Of course, all parties have to want to put in the work as well."
"I want to clarify one thing: Not wanting to 'put in the work' [in] a relationship does not automatically make someone the villain. It is very possible to decide, from a place of compassion and even love, that you and your partner(s) simply are in separate places in life, have opposing values, or perhaps are just not compatible.
It can be the case that deciding to let go is an act of compassion. My intent is only to say that when both parties are committed to fixing a non-toxic relationship, I've seen a lot of seemingly unreconcilable issues be settled!" — u/Will_TheMagicForest
9. "I'm a therapist who's newer to couples counseling, but one of the flags I've seen is one person digging their heels in and not accepting any feedback or suggestions, then telling me and their partner that they are 'trying.'"
"In one case, I called them out on it and said that they needed to evaluate what they're willing to do and not do. Needless to say, I didn't hear back from them." —u/tiawyn
10. "Don't go to couples counseling if your partner is abusive. It doesn't work. It won't work. You will give the other person the tools and language to make you feel even worse, and there will be heavy retaliations at home if you reveal the truth. Go by yourself if you know or suspect abusive markers in your relationship."
11. "Attributing problems to the partner's character flaws or personality (like saying something's because 'they're lazy') rather than a certain behavior is a red flag. Another red flag is malicious attributions (thinking one partner did something on purpose to hurt the other)."
12. "Sexual boundaries — one litmus test: Does this person ascribe to the following definition of sexual consent? An ongoing, affirmative agreement between two or more people who are sober, cognitively and legally able to provide consent, and under no duress, explicit or implicit. That agreement is to engage in specific actions and is specific to that time and place. If someone wants to do something different or additional, it requires obtaining consent for the change or addition."
"Explicit duress is something like, 'Do this, or I'll kill you,' whereas implicit duress is something like, 'If you don't do what I want, you'll get a bad grade/job review/kicked out of your residence, etc.)." —u/Sungillee33
13. "Being unable or unwilling to compromise or concede points for the betterment of the relationship. For example, at some point in a long-standing argument, in which neither party is willing to concede, a compromise is needed. When the same person in the relationship is always hellbent on being right all the time, that's a red flag. Most couples understand the importance of compromise. So if there is a partner who only thinks about themselves and how important it is for them to be right, that's a major issue. That either means that the person isn't thinking about how this is also an important point for their partner or, even worse, doesn't care."
14. "Withholding affection in order to get their partner to 'see how it feels' when their feelings get hurt."
"I take a very direct approach in therapy, so yes, I do try and get them to work it out by calling it as I see it." —u/umperolike
15. "My favorite exercise in couples counseling is to have them listen to 45 to 60 seconds of instrumental music. Think Loreena McKennit's 'Greensleeves' or something like that — music that people don't usually listen to. I then ask Person A to tell Person B what they imagined while they were listening to the music, and Person B shares the same. Next, we listen to the same music again, but I ask Person A to try and see what Person B imagined (and vice versa) and pay attention to what they think or feel when they do that. Interesting dynamics come up immediately. A big red flag when we do this is, for example, Person J has trouble expressing what they visualized, but Person K has zero trouble. Then, Person J reports they can 100% see what Person K visualized and is very critical of Person J's experience or heavily indulgent."
"Person K will say something like, 'Oh, yeah, I saw it.' When I ask, 'What did you think while visualizing it?' they'll respond with, 'I was doing the exercise correctly.'
Symbiotic relationships, codependency, narcissism, and abuse are things I immediately screen for if this is the result." —u/SilentlyHangry
16. "As a therapist, it's not my place to try to get them to reunify. That takes their power and gives it to me. Instead, I teach them the skills to make their own informed decision. That being said, whenever one-half of the couple comes in and says they're there because their spouse made them come, it's pretty rare that they decide to stay together."
17. "A family that presents everything as alright. That's a red flag. Almost everything is certainly not alright even in the most functional relationships. In fact, it's one of the most commonly misheld [sic] beliefs that there exist perfect relationships."
"I do try to get them to work it out, but that's all dependent on what they think, feel, and want to happen. Sometimes, it's just helping them realize what they want." —u/[deleted]
18. "When a partner responds to every criticism with, 'I do it because I love you!' Examples: I micromanage how you do household chores because I love you and want you to know how to do it right. I mock and belittle you because I love you and want you to see how silly you're being. I'm overbearing and don't let you do things for yourself because I love you and don't trust you to do it right. I cross every boundary you set because I will do literally anything for the people I love. More often than not, 'I'll do anything for love' isn't a badge of honor, proof, or dedication. It's a lack of healthy boundaries."
19. "Abusive partners tend to follow a cycle that includes being a wonderful partner (at times), being rude or mean (or an asshat), having big outbursts, and making promises that aren't kept to behave in a more pro-social manner."
20. "I'd say this: If you fight over small things like where to eat dinner, then chances are, you'll really crash and burn when it comes to, say, buying a house, giving career support, and raising children. Also, if you can't be 100% free to speak your mind about what you think or feel, GTFO. Relationships are partnerships. If you're not supporting each other equally, then you're really just asking for pain and disappointment."
21. "If one person is saying that they want to stop triggering the other person's aggressive behavior, that's a red flag. I work with lots of couples where one person is aggressive and wants to take responsibility and change. However, if the person who is being targeted is taking responsibility for the aggression, and the aggressive partner isn't taking responsibility, I will work with the targeted partner on leaving or setting limits. I won't help them be a more patient target."
22. "If either partner rolls their eyes when the other is talking or sharing. It's quick to notice and shows a lack of respect for the other partner's feelings. It's one of the easiest and most reliable ways to see a relationship won't last. Of course, it is a sign of an unhealthy underlying dynamic — eye-rolling in itself is not dangerous."
23. "Someone with chronic or severe substance abuse, someone who is unwilling to disclose their use habits, and/or someone who consistently uses more than they claim or intend to can be a red flag. This doesn't mean that anyone with a substance use disorder isn't a good person, but any of those indicators may signal a potential for distress and drama that most people don't want in their lives."
24. "I've had a few clients who had kids because it would 'bring them together.' That's definitely a red flag. As far as getting them to work it out, it's complicated. I want what is healthy for my clients, but they have their own autonomy and are (obviously) free to do as they please."
"My personal feelings on the matter shouldn't be a factor when working with a couple, which can make staying objective hard. Sometimes, it's difficult to follow that." —u/theguyfromtheweb7
25. "If a client is in one-on-one therapy and starts doing/feeling better, there is a strong likelihood that their partner will not appreciate the changes and try to get them to either stop therapy or abuse/neg them in order to maintain the previous (unhealthy) status quo. If the partner who's not in therapy isn't willing to accept changes for the better, this is a big red flag, because it means the relationship was based on an unhealthy foundation and likely won't work out."
26. "Triangulation of the kids. Oftentimes, kids will show symptoms because they're subconsciously trying to even out the imbalance between the parents, so I will see a family for therapy and immediately recognize that the issue is not so much with the kids but the way the parents communicate. Helping them structure themselves and get the power back into their hands by getting them on the same page often helps the kids adjust and cope. Imagine getting inconsistent consequences from your parents all the time, so you don't know when you'll get in trouble and when you won't. You'd get hypervigilant, or perhaps you'd just give up and start doing things your way. Either way, you're trying to understand a situation that you can't control, so of course you're going to start acting weird or misbehave."
"Now, imagine if your parents set consistent rules for you and gave you the choice to behave or misbehave and receive a predictable, reasonable consequence. You're going to know where you stand and be less anxious because you feel in control." —u/Mariske