Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s split has dominated the news cycle for the last two days, shocking fans and close friends alike (sorry, George Clooney). While this celeb breakup may seem surprising and awfully sudden, chances are, trouble’s been brewing for a while. Most divorces—celebrity and mere mortal alike—don’t just happen out of the blue, says Chicago-based relationship psychotherapist Michael McNulty, PhD. “Relationships tend to end more by ice than by fire,” he says. In other words, there are generally some major warning signs that a relationship is on the rocks.
And believe it or not, frequent fighting isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s totally normal: “Sixty-nine percent of the conflicts that come up between partners are always going to be ongoing issues,” says McNulty, who has been treating couples for over 25 years and is trained in the Gottman Method of Relationship Therapy, a research-focused approach to relationship counseling. “Only 31% of problems are actually very straightforward and solvable.”
The true tell is how you and your partner interact during these conflicts. Here, McNulty clues us in on signs to look out for, plus strategies to work on repairing a broken relationship.
The first sign of relationship rockiness is a boost in negative interactions, says McNulty. That could mean more nagging, criticism, or not-so-funny sarcasm. This negativity may be subtler than you realize. “It’s only 1.2 negative interactions to one positive interaction that predicts divorce,” says McNulty, while the happiest couples have five positive interactions for every one negative. Just that slight change can be a major sign it’s time to rein in the bad, and amp up the good.
Your body freaks out during disagreements
Fights are overwhelming, but if you notice that tiffs with your partner take over your body a la The Exorcist, it’s a big sign something’s wrong. The psychology term for this is “flooding,” or the physical response that occurs when talking about a problem with a partner, which can involve everything from an accelerated heart rate to sweating to a nervous stomach. “In this state, we can’t take in new information, we can’t think creatively, and we lose our senses of humor, all of which makes it difficult to have discussions around areas of differences,” says McNulty.
If you notice this happening, he advises taking a break and revisiting the conversation once you’ve cooled down. “Do some deep breathing or watch a stupid TV show or take a walk—whatever it is that helps you relax,” McNulty suggests. Just don’t just leave the issue unresolved once you’ve reached a state of calm.
You constantly point out flaws
When you spend an excess amount of time with someone, even (if not especially) a person you love, you’ll likely get irritated with his or her actions from time to time. Seeing a romantic partner’s annoying habits as deeply rooted character flaws, on the other hand, is when things get problematic, says McNulty. Something seemingly trivial like forgetting household chores, for example, could be skewed as “You don’t care about our home since you never remember to take out the trash.”
The easy fix for this lowest form of nagging is re-framing your frustrations into “I” statements, says McNulty. So if you were talking about the trash issue, you’d say something like, “When you forget to take out the trash, it makes me feel upset because I’m trying to keep our home nice.” This opens up the conversation for a more collaborative solution, rather than simply trying to bring your partner down.
You’re always playing defense
If you’re feeling attacked by a partner, your knee-jerk response might be to clap back at all the criticism. So if your S.O. brought up that trash issue, a natural reaction might be to counterattack with something like: “You’re crazy! I always take out the trash, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” In the Gottman Method, this is referred to simply as “defensiveness.” It’s yet another factor that makes it impossible to have a productive conversation about the issue at hand.
But how do you recalibrate this natural reaction? “The antidote is taking responsibility, even for a small piece of it,” says McNulty. Going back to the trash scenario, a better reply would be: “You’re right, I could remember to take the trash out more often, I’m going to write a reminder on my phone so I don’t forget.” This approach shows you’re willing to work as a team to solve the problem, McNulty explains.
There’s a lot of eye rolling
The biggest predictor of divorce is none other than contempt, says McNulty. “It’s like pouring acid on love,” he explains. “And when you pour too much acid on love, at some point there’s not going to be any love left.” You can see contempt appear in the form of a nasty comment, eye rolling, or a subconsciously raised upper lip in a look of disgust.
While contempt between partners is one of the most telling signs a relationship is doomed, all hope isn’t quite lost if you notice this variety of interactions. Instead, focus on talking about personal needs, be diligent about using “I” statements, and start to scan for the positive. McNulty encourages his patients to get in the habit of pointing out two or three good things about their partner every week. “The hope is to move from contempt to creating a culture of appreciation.”
You can’t break down the wall
“Umm hi, are you even listening to me?” If that question sounds familiar, you’ve likely experienced (or engaged in) “stonewalling”—disengaging from a conversation, both through body language (looking down or away) and verbally shutting down. “When this happens, it seems like the person doesn’t care,” McNulty says. “But what we’ve found is often they’re overwhelmed by the discussion and don’t quite know what to do.”
When it comes to stonewalling, McNulty suggests a simple fix: Realize one of you is feeling overwhelmed and figure out how to tackle the conversation in a way that’s more approachable for both parties.
You start feeling like you’re actually single
Remember McNulty’s comment that “relationships end more by ice than by fire”? That’s because over time, all of these factors start to add up, making discussing ongoing problems totally unworkable. “People tend to get tired of dealing with each other and their differences, which leads to them living more like roommates, living parallel lives, and ultimately dissolving their relationship.”
Before you let that info crank up your post-Brangelina depression and give up on love forever, know that there’s a silver lining: It’s never too late to salvage a waning relationship. In fact, studies from the Gottman Institute show that 80% of couples who tested out these remedies reported improvements in their relationship.
“When people realize that a certain percentage of the time, you’re going to be in conflict with your partner, they’re much better able to compromise and work together,” says McNulty. So really, as long as you manage conflicts with positivity, you’re set up for success.