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Keep alert for the signs of a fraying relationship

Marriages and other close relationships don't fail overnight. Watching for early warning signs of trouble may keep you from becoming a breakup statistic.

A student was talking to Rabbi Shmuel Boteach _ the "relationship rabbi," author of Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy _ and mentioned that he'd had a sexual liaison with a fellow student the night before.

Seeking to make a point, the rabbi asked, "Was the woman's room messy?"

The student didn't understand the question, so the rabbi repeated it: "Was the woman's room messy?"

The student stammered that he didn't know. He hadn't gone to her apartment to do a white-glove test.

And that, precisely, is the point, the rabbi said. If you're overcome with passion and curiosity, you don't focus on a person's faults, like housekeeping habits.

It's food for thought, as we watch with skepticism some famous marriages teeter and some fall. Confining our attention strictly to the New York Senate race, there's an entire oozing petri dish of interestingly troubled unions. The Bill and Hillary mystery (why does she stay with him?). The Rudy Giuliani-Donna Hanover debacle (did he really announce at a news conference that he was heading for a legal separation before he discussed this with his wife?).

The famous are different from you and me. At least, their marriages are. For the rest of us, the signposts of a faltering relationship are usually obvious long before the sheriff comes walking up the steps. We don't need a news conference to tell us the shark isn't swimming, but counselors say most of us wait far too long to do something about it.

As the rabbi said: "If you detect you have cancer, like Rudy, you drop everything. You may even be prepared to drop a Senate seat to take care of your health. With our relationships, though, the first sign of trouble is overlooked, then the next sign, then the next."

Margaret Paul, co-author of Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved By You and Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by God?, said her clients are always concerned about the timing of leaving a troubled relationship.

"I work with couples daily in my practice and in my workshops and I am often asked this question," Paul said. "What I tell them is this: Work on yourself until you are taking full responsibility for your own feelings and not blaming your partner for any of your unhappiness."

She said relationships are good places to learn about love and about ourselves.

"To leave before we have learned these lessons is a waste of time," Paul said.

John H. Wiedenheft, a marital and family counselor with 35 years' experience, said that, in general, many men don't realize a woman is unhappy until she withdraws sexually. In fact, the original break usually occurs far earlier.

Boteach said the fissure starts with contempt. "It's when you begin rolling your eyes at each other: "How could you say something so stupid'," he said. "Contempt is even worse than shouting and screaming. Shouting and screaming means there's a bad connection, too much passion. The warmth has been converted to heat, but there is a connection. It's just a bad one."

Another sign that a relationship needs work is lack of curiosity.

"Here's the proof," Boteach said. "I have very little in common with my children. They are younger than I, they are interested in Pokemon and I'm not. We can't have a conversation on the same level, but because I love them, I am drawn to them. I create compatibility. I get down on the floor. I want to be in communication with them. Attraction and love create compatibility."

Still, it's the bedroom that sends most couples to counseling.

"He's just as sensitive to her withdrawing from him physically as she is to him withdrawing from her emotionally," said Wiedenheft. "That is what really blows it sky-high. They don't know what to do. . . . By the time a woman has withdrawn emotionally and sexually, she has withdrawn to protect herself."

In those situations, the fame/notoriety is an entity separate from the family members, said Wiedenheft.

"I have worked with people who have stayed in a relationship even though basically _ and usually it is the man who has been having affairs _ they have chosen to stay partly because they're protecting that man's image in the community," he said. "Sometimes these guys have very high-profile positions, especially through volunteer work they do, or the job.

"But it's amazing to me what women will do, how they will sacrifice sometimes to protect that man's image in the community. What they're primarily doing it for is the kids, not themselves. They know when the you-know-what hits the fan, it's going to hit for the kids in school, not him."

Those same women often will stay in the marriage until their husband's career or time in the limelight is over.

"And then," Wiedenheft said, "it's "Screw you, baby, I'm outta here'."

Whether a marriage, famous or ordinary, can be saved depends on how far the couple has withdrawn from each other, Wiedenheft said.

"There is a point of no return for some people," he said. "Once they get beyond that point, it's virtually impossible to bring them back. What I always suggest to the couple is that they try starting to date again, and bring back, you know, the courting ritual."

It's the bedroom that sends most couples to counseling.