Detour to Splitsville? Experts Describe Common Warning Signs of Divorce

A couple stands on either side of a red heart suspended in blue water.


Plus, they’ve got crucial advice on how to figure out if your marriage can be saved.

Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that ups and downs are very common. Issues as simple and relatively lighthearted as a partner’s snoring can cause chasms that take real, careful work to repair. And as much as we like to talk about happily ever after, we all know that half of first marriages end in divorce (not so fun fact: Second and third marriages fail at an even higher rate). So if you and your significant other have been in the trenches for a while, you may be wondering if the end is near. 

To pinpoint the warning signs of divorce, we spoke to divorce attorney Sarah Intelligator. Having practiced family law for nearly 20 years, she knows a thing or two about what makes or breaks a relationship — so much so that she authored the advice book Live, Laugh, Find True Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding a Meaningful Relationship. Plus, we picked the brain of Los Angeles-based couples therapist, Gary Brown, Ph.D, LMFT, who gave us even more insight into what it looks like when a couple might split. Both experts clued us into the signals that your marriage might be coming to an end — and how you can figure out if the relationship is salvageable.

Warning signs of divorce

Everything your partner says or does makes you cringe…or worse 

Do you feel like everything your partner says or does just bugs you? When they speak, do you have to resist picking apart their words or tearing them down? Or have you ended up on the opposite side of this unfortunate dynamic — does your partner seemingly respond to your very existence with harsh words or body language?

Intelligator refers to this frustrating passive aggression as resentment — bitter and simmering indignation — and says it’s poison for partnerships. “Resentment is one of the things that I see destroy relationships most often,” she says.

What causes resentment? Frustratingly, the root of the problem often isn’t so simple. Sometimes, the conflict can emerge over a singular, distinct problem or issue, Dr. Brown says. Other times, the resentment is chronic, he says, and is a build-up of small, unresolved conflicts. Whether you feel wronged by a big event or a ton of little things, resentment can wreak havoc on a relationship, especially when it gets severe.

Contempt is like rust. It’s silent and corrosive.

“I would use the word contempt, which is another form of resentment. Resentment can be mild, but when it becomes contempt, it’s hate.”

And what does “I hate you” look like in practice? “Contempt is: Every time you talk, I’m rolling my eyes, I’m sneering at you. It’s harsh criticism. It’s dismissing your partner. It’s undermining your partner. Heightened defensiveness typically comes with that. Interactions are frequently really toxic.”  

You might be thinking, an eye roll here, a frown there — do these tiny gestures really matter? Dr. Brown points out that they add up: “Contempt is like rust. It’s silent and corrosive.”

Is it possible to come back from contempt? Dr. Brown says it might be — but you’ve got to start sooner than later: “If it’s over a single issue, that’s one thing, but if it’s just part of the general tone of a relationship on a day-to-day basis, efforts at repair are going to be more challenging. Contempt for one’s partner does damage. Some people describe constantly being attacked or dismissed as soul-crushing.”

You or your partner has been hiding debt or transactions

“Financial issues can place stress on your relationship,” Intelligator remarks. If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, however, you’ve probably had an inevitable squabble over money. Dr. Brown clarifies that you don’t have to worry about those little tiffs about someone forgetting to pay a bill. It’s the more serious financial issues that can signify bigger issues and lead to a split. 

If there’s distrust, there’s secrecy.

“If somebody’s hiding financial transactions, that’s a red flag,” he says. “It’s a red flag when one partner makes financial decisions solo. If you have a partner who refuses or delays reviewing bank statements with you, that’s also concerning.”

Sneaking around obviously isn’t a good look — and both experts agree that on some level, hiding or lying about finances isn’t even about the money: “[These issues] undermine the mutual respect that two people need to have for one another,” Intelligator says.  

Dr. Brown agrees: “If you trust your partner, then you’ll have good, open communication about money. If there’s distrust, there’s secrecy.”

If you want to get to the bottom of financial issues like these, Dr. Brown advises stepping back and trying to pinpoint whether these problems are chronic, or if they’re a new development: “I look at whether it’s always been this way. If not, is there something about the timing of this change that can be addressed and fixed?”

You’re neglecting each other — and overcompensating elsewhere

You and your spouse don’t connect one-on-one anymore, but you have a functional family life with plenty of activities and events. Those hectic comings and goings as a unit mean that you and your partner are fine though, right? Not necessarily.

Intelligator says that plenty of couples have ended up in her office who have neglected their partnership — perhaps without realizing that they’re doing so. For instance, if you’re focusing all of your energy on other family members as a means of avoiding your spouse, that should ring some alarm bells.

“If a couple has kids, they might dance around each other and place their attention on the child,” Intelligator remarks. “They lead parallel lives instead of leading their lives together.”

If you’ve been avoiding your partner and lavishing attention on other loved ones or other outlets, it might be time to pay closer attention to that decision. Are you deflecting or overcompensating? It’s OK to have a busy life full of individual interests — some level of this is crucial to a long-lasting relationship — but when those parts of your life thrive in place of connecting with your partner, you might be avoiding something more serious.

Your partner begins acting out of the ordinary

You probably know your partner more intimately than you know anyone — their quirks, their routines, and their body language are knit into your subconscious. So when you notice a sudden shift in their behavior, that may be a warning sign that they’re disengaging from the relationship.

Any affair involves betrayal and broken trust, but emotional cheating is the hardest to come back from.

Not sure what to look for? Dr. Brown broke down some common changes that could signal that your partner is falling out of love: “They begin criticizing you for no apparent reason. They want to start spending more time away from you. Maybe your partner ceases to engage in intimate conversations. Maybe physical touch used to be part of your relationship but recently, they’re not really reaching out.”

We’re not suggesting you go looking for changes or refuse to accept your partner’s growth, but trust that you’ll know if it’s more than average evolution. These are changes that cause “a creepy crawly feeling in the back of your head or your gut that something isn’t right,” says Dr. Brown.

We hate to say it, but sudden behavioral changes can signify infidelity as well. 

“Any affair involves betrayal and broken trust, but emotional cheating is the hardest to come back from,” Intelligator says.

Dr. Brown agrees: “When you’re feeling emotionally betrayed, that’s the most devastating.” If it’s a sexual affair, with no emotional strings attached, that might be easier to overcome, Dr. Brown believes. 

Dr. Brown says that cheating alone isn’t guaranteed to end your marriage: “That’s a common myth. I’ve known people who have had affairs and realize, ‘I really want to get back to my wife’ or ‘It’s clearer to me now I want to be with my husband.’”

One of you is shut down and doesn’t want to put in the work

After all of this doom and gloom, you might be feeling a little discouraged, but we have some good news: According to Intelligator, there are so many resources available to couples who want to make their partnership last. The trouble happens, she says, when one partner isn’t game to save things: “If one person wants to save the marriage and the other doesn’t, it’s probably not going to get saved. If both people want to work at it, that’s the crucial commitment required to succeed in a marriage. Both people have to be willing to do the necessary work.”

“Even the very best of relationships will face challenging times,” Dr. Brown says. According to his experience, a couple has to be honest about whether or not they can work together as a team.

If you see one of these signs in your own partnership, don’t worry — you aren’t necessarily fated to split. But if you’re nodding your head “yes” all the way down the list, it might be time for a truthful, open conversation with your spouse.