21 Couples Therapists Share The Red Flags They Instantly See In Relationships That Are Breaking Down

When you’re in a relationship that’s falling down around you, it can be pretty hard to see things clearly. Not all struggling relationships are doomed, however. Many people try to get some outside perspective, usually by visiting a couples therapist. So, does the therapist know before the couple does if things will work out? The answer seems to be: sometimes.

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Redditor u/Gnerdy asked, “Couples therapists…what are some relationships that instantly set off red flags, and do you try and get them to work out?”

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The replies are all about the ways people approach therapy itself and how the therapist can generally tell if someone is open to actually doing the work or not. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but you might be able to pick up some stuff below and figure out if you might need a therapist for your relationship, too.


When one person is entirely dependent on the other, especially at a relatively young age. I mean financially and emotionally.

These are typically young women (sometimes young men as well) who do not work, do not have children, stay home all day and have no friends or hobbies outside of hanging out with their spouse. Very unhealthy, and a huge red flag. Always ends in a painful and messy breakup.—milksteaknjellybean


One partner says they’re seeking your services to help them determine if they want to stay together; the other partner says they’re seeking your services to make it so they stay together.

Then it’s about highlighting the points and allowing the person who is on the fence decide what they want, since the other person knows. —ChickenSoup4theRoll

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Child & Family therapist here, not exactly couples therapy, but there are key family dynamics that set off red flags for interpersonal relationships within a family, whether it is between parents, parents and kids, or simply kids.

The most important piece comes from invalidation. This comes in many forms, from gaslighting to just simple denial of another’s opinion. Most of the time one or both parties are simply trying to be heard on an emotional level with an event or topic that was brought up, but the other party takes this as a personal attack on their ideals.

We’ve all heard of or know people who will literally disagree with anything you say simply because you said it. That’s the invalidation I’m referring to. —Shozo_Nishi


I saw a couple that was doing “retaliatory” cheating (and telling each other about it). When they got through their anger, they decided to call a truce and made peace. With their level of emotional maturity, I doubt it lasted.

Other clients realize what they really want is “divorce counselling”. What’s the best way to behave civilly and minimize damage to the kids while we go our separate ways? —lightspeeed


Contempt. When I experience true contempt from one in the relationship I know it is usually over. Look towards a peaceful ending at that point if possible. —threerottenbranches

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Relationship therapist here.

One of the biggest red flags I see when working with a new couple is when they’ve totally forgotten the good. Part of relationship therapy is reconnecting a couple with what they like about each other, what initially attracted them to each other, and what the positives are between them.

When people come in and they’ve been so unhappy for so long that they actually can’t remember what it was like to be in love, or to even like each other, they’re just about hopeless.

You don’t have to be happy for therapy to work—but if you can’t even reminisce about the good times, then the good times are probably over. —TiredMold


Couples in a tit for tat arrangement. For example: I cheated so you can have one night to cheat with whomever. Or I violated your trust and did drugs, you can go out and do whatever for one night. It erodes trust and compounds the hurt.

An affair that won’t end. I’ve never seen a relationship bounce back where a partner is still in contact with their gf/bf (I don’t mean an ex gf/bf, I mean the person x is having the affair with), or is lying about it.

Control to an excessive amount. I most commonly see partners having to send pictures holding up a certain number of fingers or proving that it’s a live picture. This is abuse.

Overbearing parents and in laws. I understand there’s a ton of cultural nuance here, and I work with couples who have arranged marriages, as well as the south Asian community. However, when a spouse is more allied with their parents and calls them on speakerphone for fights, or often speaks ill of their partner to their parents, I usually see these couples stay very unhappily married for years. It’s sad.

If it’s not abuse and a partner is willing to end an affair and genuinely work on it, I’ll help support. I think couples therapy is sometimes helping couples have the courage to voice what they really want, and that may be separation. —crode080


I’m an MFT (marriage and family therapist) and for me, an unofficial litmus test is when I ask at some point in the first few sessions how the couple met. If there is absolutely no positive affect from either person, no one even cracks a smile, or they just give me a single sentence answer (“we met at a party.”), that’s usually a signal they’ve been so unhappy so long, or the conflict is so overwhelming that they can’t access those good warm fuzzy feelings from the beginning.

I remember learning in grad school that most couples who come for therapy have lived unhappily for an average of 7 years before trying to get help. They come for that first sssion and if they aren’t “cured” after that, most think that therapy doesn’t work and don’t come back.

To anyone who may be considering individual or couples therapy as a result of this thread, go for it, and be prepared for it to take some time and energy from you and your therapist. —future_ex_ms_malcolm

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It’s very easy to work out when one person knowingly prioritises their own wants and needs over their partners. Relationships like this are often doomed because the person simply doesn’t care enough to make any meaningful change. —ocelot_piss


Constant, needless escalation.

When “I dont think we need this expensive thing” is escalated to “you don’t really love me” – major problem.

It shows up quickly in therapy if you’re watching for it.

Mostly because the one using this to avoid accountability is almost guaranteed to play this card in relation to therapy itself, either “I had to drag them here” or “they’re just trying to break up with me”

What they’re doing is avoiding conversation about the issue by blowing it up into a bigger problem then it is, so they can make the other person respond to their feelings rather than dealing with their concerns. —PsychoPhilosopher