How to Avoid Common Marriage Traps
As strange as it might sound, one of the clearest signs of marital trouble is a simple and common facial expression: eye-rolling. The same researchers at the University of Washington found that even when it's accompanied by a laugh or a smile, eye-rolling is harmful because of what it indicates: contempt, a sign that you no longer value your partner.
"This kind of sarcastic nonverbal gesture doesn't clearly state the person's disagreement—making it difficult for the recipient to respond," says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. She also notes that signs of contempt are a powerful indication that your relationship may need outside help. "While the first step is, of course, to stop the behavior, it's also important to explore the reasons behind it," she says.
The Balance of Power
During my marriage, I often deferred to my husband when it came to deciding where we went on vacation and how we spent our weekends. It wasn't until we were divorced that I realized that our social lives rarely involved my favorite activities.
"When the social activities are controlled by one person, that is a risk factor for a relationship," says Howard Markman, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Denver. Markman says it's not enough to do something nice for your partner; you have to do "nice things in a way that's meaningful to your partner." That means asking for his honest opinion about how he prefers to spend his time, and then making plans—whether it's a romantic dinner or just watching Netflix at home—that accommodate both of your interests.
Staying in Sync
If you asked my husband why we split up, he would tell you that we just weren't compatible—despite the fact that we were both journalists, loved to travel, came from similar family backgrounds, and had dozens of friends in common. But Ted Huston, PhD, a professor in the department of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that the simple fact of questioning whether you're still compatible with a partner appears to be an indicator of marital unhappiness.
In many marriages, "a lack of compatibility" is really a catchall phrase couples use to express general discontent about the relationship, Huston says. In fact, in his study of 168 Pennsylvania couples, those who eventually split up were no less compatible in their leisure interests and their ideas about marriage than those who stayed together.
Tara Parker-Pope is the wellness blogger for The New York Times and the author of For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Dutton)