Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
All marriages have problems: He gives you the silent treatment instead of talking when he's upset; you pay more attention to the kids' school art projects than to the details of his day; neither of you can agree on the fate of Peggy after leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on Mad Men. This, you tell yourself, is just what happens after so many years together, right? Or...not right? Because, sure, you're not fighting, and nobody's having an affair. But at the same time, what if dangerous issues are brewing? How can you are you supposed to know?
William Doherty, PhD, the Director of the University of Minnesota's Couples On the Brink project helps more than 60 exceptionally troubled couples a year. In his 35 years of doing this kind of work, he's noticed a handful of almost imperceptible signs when two people are just beginning to splinter apart. He tells us what to look for—when it comes in your own thoughts and actions—that may signal a crisis to come.
1) You're Doing a Lot of Cost-Benefit Analyses
Perhaps this is you. While walking home from work, you have a little conversation with yourself: "I make dinner every night, plus, I said sorry when he freaked about organic toothpaste—even though I love organic toothpaste and it's not too expensive. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm usually the first to apologize...and the first to stay home with the kids at night. I work so hard. And what am I getting in return? A hug before bed? The occasional bunch of flowers?"
What you're doing here is a cost-benefit analysis. Corporations do this all the time. A company that makes, say, skinny jeans, compares the energy, money and time all of its departments put into producing them with the energy, money and time it gets out of selling them, to figure out if it should keep manufacturing pants—in a style that horrifies short, round women all over the world—or just stop.
People also use this technique to make decisions. "At the beginning of the relationship," says Doherty, "this kind of accounting is natural and appropriate [for couples] deciding whether or not to commit." But if you've already joined your life with someone else, you may not realize that by engaging in this kind of emotional inventory, you're already seeing yourself as separate from your spouse. Your time, energy and resources are not his time, energy and resources. You're one business, and he's another, instead of the two of you being united for the profit of all.
2. You're Conducting an Imaginary Marriage
Just to clarify, an imaginary marriage is not an imaginary affair, complete with dreams of secret rendezvous in obscure motels. It's a more subtle and, at times, harder-to-recognize fantasy, says Doherty. What to look for? You sitting at your desk, watching Jeremy from production post yet another blissful photo of his wife and himself on Facebook—this time of their trip to Napa for her birthday. A thought crosses your mind: "Jeremy is so much more considerate than my husband."
Pretty soon, you make the leap to thinking things like: "If I were married to Jeremy, I'd never spend another holiday at home watching parades on TV." In your reveries, you tell yourself you'd go to Paris with him. You'd come home at night to him in the kitchen making veal cordon bleu. The two of you would never argue about the cost of non-generic toilet paper or give each other lectures on how many squares you're allowed to use. Because, in this relationship, you don't have to deal with all those pesky details that challenge real-life marriage and that probably also caused you to invent Jeremy, the ideal hubby, with whom no man, not even your good, adorable, non-cordon-bleu-making husband can compare. You've lost interest in your husband taking you to Paris or posting photos of you on Facebook. You're not ready to leave him in reality, but in the vast and unchecked world of your mind, you're looking for Mr. Anybody Else.
Next: What your activities tell you about the state of your marriage