Is Your Relationship Sinking?

Serious sparks flew when Mandy met Josh at a club while both were celebrating spring break in Hawaii.

"It was an instant attraction -- my face flushed and my heart started racing," Mandy remembers. With Mandy attending University of Colorado in Boulder, and Josh at Denver University, their spring fling turned into a full-fledged relationship when they returned home.

But six months later, the sparks had definitely lost their flame. "We fight constantly about everything; I don't know how much longer I can take this," Josh states flatly.

All relationships go through the love at first sight bit where both are goo-goo eyed and sickeningly cute in front of their friends. But eventually, reality sets in: relationships take work. How do you know when a relationship is no longer worth the work?

William L. Wallace, Ph.D., a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif, who's been counseling couples for the past 35 years, says, "If you're going to establish an enduring relationship, once the novelty and the infatuation wears off, then you must have a foundation of common value, common understanding, common goals, and common etiquette in a relationship.

Know the Rules Think of relationship etiquette as the ground rules for how you treat each other -- hopefully with dignity, respect and compassion. If you don't have those rules, then you end up with what John M. Gottman, author of The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, calls the four deadly sins in the relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling."

Compatibility is key. If you don't agree on at least 50% of issues like communication, personality, conflict resolution, time management, how you use your free time, financial management, and sexuality, Wallace says, you may be in for a rocky road.

"One of the problems is if you are basically functioning on passion, infatuation, and falling in love, then there's not a lot of rationality going on and it's like you're on a roller coaster ride. As a general rule, the more compatible you are, the more likely you will have a successful relationship. One of the problems with couples is that they are often attracted and intrigued by opposites. Unfortunately, the opposite that was attractive to you from the onset becomes very grating later on in the relationship. 'Opposites attract' is not a good idea -- garbage attracts flies, that's not a good connection."

However, differences don't have to mean death for a relationship. The key is how you deal with those differences. Wallace explains, "If there is a lot of disagreement in a relationship, the solution does not reside in just problem solving skills. It resides in the way the couple does the process. It has to do with the way they regard each other and support each other. What leads to problem resolution is the quality of the relationship, the regarding for each other, the appreciation and admiration."

Take the Test How do you know if your relationship is committing the four deadly sins? Take this quiz to find out:

Your boyfriend invites you to his parents' 25th anniversary party. Your family uses any special occasion to dress to the nines so you wear your skintight Bebe cocktail dress. He picks you up in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. He says:

  1. Wow, you look fantastic! Let's sneak in a quickie before we go.

  2. You look beautiful. I must have forgotten to tell you it's casual. Why don't you wear that sarong thing?

  1. Go change. My parents will think you're auditioning for Brittany Spears' back-up band.

Your girlfriend comes over to your place to study. She's an honor student and you're struggling to get through British Lit in Old English. You ask her for help. She:

  1. Acts out the entire scene -- playing all the characters with costumes and a perfect accent.

  2. Gets out her old notes from the same class and goes over it with you.

  3. Is shocked by the admission that you need help and condescendingly suggests you pick up the Cliff Notes at the bookstore.

You have plans to catch the last showing of Scary Movie 2. He shows up late smelling like a brewery. You confront him:

  1. He starts crying and begs your forgiveness.

  2. He apologizes and promises to make it up to you, explaining that he lost track of time while watching the game with his buddies.

  3. He accuses you of smothering him.

He wants to take a cross-country camping trip with you this summer. You're not sure if the relationship is serious enough yet to warrant the necessary commitment, both financial and emotional, for a vacation together. You:

  1. Tell him you need some time to think about it.

  2. Talk with him about your fears and concerns and then make a decision.

  3. Say you'll go and then pull out at the last minute.

If you answered "3" to any of these questions, your relationship may be ready for the graveyard. If not, there may be hope yet, if both of you are willing to work on the relationship.

Lighten Up! Maintaining a sense of humor is an important tool in problem solving. "In the midst of tension, having a sense of humor means being able to step out of the immediate situation and put it in a larger context, where the stakes aren't so do or die. Some people do that by joking, by making a face, or being playful. These are attempts to not get so caught up in the conflict and tension of the relationship. Humor is, in its essence, getting distance from a topic -- stepping back," says Wallace.

What if you've tried everything and it's still not working, but neither person wants to bail out yet? Wallace suggests sitting down with an objective third party to get some feedback on the relationship. "This party could be a school counselor, a teacher, or a licensed therapist. If one person in the couple is unwilling to do this, then that's a danger sign."

Relationships do take work but it shouldn't feel like you're on a chain gang. The cliché rings true: there are many fish in the sea. And what you learn from the relationships that don't work should help you get closer to knowing exactly what you're looking for in a new partner.