“I Didn’t See the Stop Sign.”

Tom’s explanation was typical of what the policeman had heard from other drivers. He had clearly observed Tom as he drove through the intersection without any effort to obey the stop sign. Now the careless driver was about to get a ticket he would neither welcome nor appreciate. After receiving both the ticket and a brief lecture about road signs and road safety Tom continued on his trip to his destination. He felt embarrassed and angry at himself for not paying attention to a road sign that was visible and readable. He knew that his negligence could have caused an accident with personal injuries and financial losses. Tom resolved within himself to fulfill the promise he had made to the policeman that he would follow the rules of the road. With that resolution he felt a little better about his road sign violation.

Every responsible driver understands the need for road signs that identify and describe various rules of the road. The rules relate to stopping, yielding, passing, speeding, and other important issues. Irresponsible drivers choose to minimize these signs or to ignore them altogether. Their attitude is illustrated by the driver who said, “Oh, I saw the stop sign, but I thought it was just a suggestion.” Road signs are not suggestions we can follow or ignore at our selfish whim or personal discretion. They exist to facilitate traffic and to safeguard travelers. The failure to read and obey road signs often leads to unnecessary accidents that can cause damage and death.

Likewise, human relationships involve specific “rules of the road” which, when followed, allow for a relationship journey that is safe, successful, and satisfying. This set of rules deals with “what to do” and “what not to do” in reference to how the two people interact with each other. These rules must be understood and accepted by both people in order for the relationship to work effectively. Failure to follow the rules invites relationship destruction and death. Throughout the journey various “road signs” are used to communicate to each other that specific rules are currently at issue. In fact, the presence of a road sign indicates that there is a specific rule already in place, at least in the mind of the individual who raised the sign. The other person may or may not understand that the rule is in effect. In regard to rules two actions are vitally important to the growth of a healthy relationship. First, the interactional rules must be established and agreed upon by both individuals. Secondly, the two people need to develop specific road signs that will provide helpful information about specific rules that are in place. The road sign may exist in the form of a verbal cue (a request or a statement) or a behavioral cue (some type of recognizable action). The development and usage of appropriate road signs are vital to the construction of healthy relationships.

The challenge in every relationship is to know the rules and to read the signs. If we value relationships we will accept this challenge and become more knowledgeable about relationship rules and related road signs. As we delve into this important issue let’s use the word “sign” as an acrostic and explore four travel tips suggested by the letters S.I.G.N. Our emphasis in this article is upon the issue of road signs rather than the original set of rules established when the relationship began. The road signs under discussion here deal primarily with those rules that are necessary ingredients to healthy and happy relationship journeys in our friendships, marriages, and family settings.


The letter “S” in the acrostic “S.I.G.N” suggests the need to see the signs that are present in our relationship travels. When seen, relationship road signs are beneficial; when not seen, they provide little if any actual benefit. It is important that each person in the relationship understand that there are rules of the road in place and that both people actively and alertly look for relevant road signs. As they see the signs they will know either what to do or what not to do in order to nurture and safeguard the relationship.  

Some relationship road signs are extremely significant, particularly those that deal with specific warnings related to potential harm or danger. A failure to see these signs is an invitation for serious problems. In my work as a therapist I’ve asked many people about their relationship struggles, and many of these strugglers disclosed “I never saw the warning signs.” I’ve heard this comment frequently in reference to premarital decision-making. My question “What led you to marry someone with these types of problems?” received the response, “Well, I just didn’t see the signs that were there before we got married.” This failure to see the signs is probably more common than you’d think it is. For example, a man gets into a relationship with a woman who has serious issues and problems, but blinded by love he “drives” ahead while ignoring the road signs that clearly shout “Watch out! Danger ahead!” A woman is attracted to a man with an untreated addiction. She does not see the road signs and pursues the relationship, only to pay a heavy price for a marriage marred and scarred by his destructive addiction lifestyle. Many marriages would never take place if individuals could see the road signs that warn of major problems. Many divorces would not occur if the two spouses would see the warning signs months or years prior to the marital collapse. I wonder what would happen if every engaged couple had to take (and pass!) a basic course in “Relationship Road Signs 101” prior to their wedding. (By the way, please let me know if you hear about such a course actually being required in your community.)

Why do we not see the relationship road signs that so clearly point out the dangers? Why can’t we see the signs and thereby prevent a great deal of personal pain and serious suffering? For that matter, why don’t we see the road signs that point out positive experiences or that direct us toward greater growth? We might claim ignorance as an explanation for our failure, and so we confess “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know what to look for.” That excuse does not work with policemen when we fail to see actual road signs, and neither does it work with our relationship road signs. Our failure to see the signs could result from sheer indifference; we just don’t care enough about the relationship to look for signs. Furthermore, we could claim entitlement and ignore the road signs, as if to say “The signs are not for me. I’m above the rules.” Sometimes we fail to see the signs because we’re too busy with something else; we’re too distracted to notice the signs. For example, the workaholic husband is so preoccupied with his job that he fails to see the clear warning signs that his marriage is in deep trouble. The new mother becomes so obsessed with her first child that she does not see the warning signs that her husband is feeling shut out and unloved. A friend experiences a heavy loss and begins to pull away and distance herself because of deepening depression, but you’re too busy to see the sign and thereby you fail to help a friend in need. In a telephone conversation your girlfriend gives you a clear sign to tell her more about your job aspirations, but you miss the relationship signal because you are more focused on the referee’s signal in the football game you’re watching. Your failure to see the sign leads to lost opportunities in relationship construction. We understand that seeing the signs does not obligate us to do anything or guarantee that we will respond in some way, but nothing productive will be done if we fail to even notice the signs. Clearly, our first challenge is to develop and practice the skill of “seeing the signs.”


The letter “I” in the acrostic S.I.G.N. suggests the action of interpreting or “reading” the road signs. A motorist might try to justify his traffic violation by telling the policeman, “Oh, I saw the sign back there; I just didn’t know what it meant.” The policeman might sympathize a bit, but he would still hold the motorist accountable for his violation. Likewise, seeing the relationship road signs is necessary but insufficient; we must also interpret the signs correctly. Incorrect interpretations usually lead to additional stress and conflict. Our difficulty could result from our immaturity about relationships or our lack of personal experience and skill. Sometimes the other person sends unclear, mixed, or conflicting signals. When this happens we tend to feel confused, bewildered, and even lost in regard to the status and direction of our relationship. In order to achieve a mature, healthy relationship we must learn how to interpret (or “read”) the road signs that appear throughout the relationship journey.
Accurate interpretation requires effective communication between the two friends or spouses. For example, a wife cannot expect her husband to “read” her road sign accurately if she is sending mixed or conflicting signals. Any husband would be confused if he hears her say “Give me more help” while she also sends the message, “I want to be independent; let me do it by myself.” The wife needs to be clear and consistent in what she really wants or needs. The husband could respond, “I hear you say you want more help, and I also hear that you want to be more independent. I cannot fulfill both of these wants at the same time. Which do you prefer that I do right now?” Sometimes a husband will say “Stop!” in reference to his spouse’s behavior, but then he will say or do something to encourage the very behavior he asked her to stop doing. If you want to receive an accurate interpretation of your “sign” you must clarify your needs so that they can be recognized and understood. If you think you see a road sign in your relationship but you’re uncertain about its meaning, check it out with the other person. Getting clarification is better than guessing about the meaning or ignoring the sign altogether.

The importance of signal or sign clarification is the subject of a recently-written poem.

                     Relationship Road Signs

               His intention was not to malign
               And his actions were fully benign
                        But he still made a mess
                        When he made a wrong guess
               With no clue what she meant by her sign.

               When relationship signs don’t appear
               We will anxiously travel with fear
                        So the challenge for us
                       Is to talk and discuss
               And make sure that our signals are clear.

                                                        ---- Dr. Bill Baker (2013)


The letter “G” in the acrostic “S.I.G.N.” suggests that we need to “go with” or follow the road sign that is seen. Relationship road signs are not effective if they are not heeded or followed. In our actual highway travels we are expected to obey the road signs, and our failure to follow the signs has negative consequences. Likewise, our relationships suffer negatively when the road signs are not respected and followed.

While many road signs are seen along our streets and highways perhaps the most common sign is the traffic signal with its red, yellow, and green lights. Placed at strategic intersections the traffic signal manages the flow of vehicles and allows everyone to proceed safely. A relationship traffic signal manages the flow of behavior to insure progress toward mutual goals and to safeguard physical and emotional safety. Let’s consider some of the implications of a relationship traffic signal.

Red Lights:  “It’s Time to Stop!”

On many occasions throughout the lifetime of a human relationship a red light appears because some type of behavior is threatening the health of the relationship.  The red light sends the clear message that the behavior must be stopped in order to remove the threat and protect the relationship. In a family setting multiple relationships may be affected adversely by someone’s misbehavior. The negative behavior is identified and someone activates a red “stop light.” The activation may occur in the form of a simple request (“Would you please stop doing that?”) or an assertion (“I want you to stop that behavior immediately!”). The offender must see the stop light and put the brakes on immediately; he must follow the road sign and stop the misbehavior. A failure to stop reflects an attitude of disrespect and unconcern on the part of the offending person. Any type of behavior that harms and hurts another person or one’s relationships could qualify as a “stop light” activator. Many of these negative behaviors fall into one of two groups:  abuses and addictions. In marriages a third group would be an involvement in extramarital affairs. These negative patterns pose significant danger, and the individuals involved should take appropriate steps to resolve the problems, including the usage of helpful external resources such as professional therapy and legal assistance.

Abusive behavior can be expressed in either emotional or physical forms, or it can occur in both forms at the same time. Physical violence fueled by anger represents a huge threat to safety and must be stopped immediately. Such violence, whether threatened or committed, also produces emotional abuse. Verbal language that demeans and devalues another person is another form of emotional abuse. Lies and deceptions are inherently abusive in terms of relationship health. The victim of abuse needs to activate the “stop light” as soon as possible through an assertive insistence that the abusive behavior be discontinued immediately. The offender’s responsibility is to see and follow the road sign. Out of respect for the relationship the offender agrees that “It’s time to stop” the negative behavior.

Addictive behavior presents a major threat to relationship health. The negative pattern is often seen in chemical addictions in the misuse of alcohol and drugs. Sexual addiction and gambling addiction are additional forms of addictive behavior. The addictive pattern of overspending poses a serious threat to a family’s financial stability. Regardless of the specific addiction the “stop light” needs to be activated as soon as the addictive pattern is recognized. The longer the addiction is allowed to continue the worse it becomes. In terms of mate selection the wise individual will instantly disqualify anyone who has a history of unresolved addiction. To marry a person with an active addiction is simply an invitation for a marital journey filled with sorrow and suffering. If the addiction develops during the marriage the negative pattern must be dealt with promptly in a clear and assertive fashion.

In marriages the involvement in extramarital affairs poses a significant threat to the marital relationship and to the family as a whole. The “stop light” needs to be activated and heeded as soon as a spouse feels tempted to pursue an affair. A failure to obey the road sign will lead to a tough marital collision and often results in a total marital collapse. An ongoing affair must be completely stopped before progress can be made toward reconciliation with the other spouse.

The activation of relationship “stop lights” depends upon the presence of underlying “rules of the road” that make certain behaviors wrong and offensive. These rules grow out of one’s basic beliefs and values about human relationships, and they relate to a person’s morality and integrity. The person who has a “no rules” philosophy will not activate stop lights and will not acknowledge any stop lights that relationship partners might activate. For this person there is nothing “wrong” with abuses, addictions, or affairs. Clearly, if we want a healthy relationship we will determine clearly and consider carefully each person’s belief system about the “rules of the road.”

Yellow Lights:  “It’s Time to Be Cautious!”

On a traffic signal a yellow light warns us that there is danger ahead and that we need to be alert and responsive. Likewise, in our relationships there are times when danger is possible or present. At such times the two people need to slow down and to be cautious about potential decisions or possible actions. Impulsiveness does not work well when the stakes are high or when the situation is serious. The wise traveler will slow down and think through the problem before moving ahead.

Many relationship problems occur because decisions are made impulsively or without the use of an effective problem-solving model. Every married couple needs to adopt and use a process of decision-making that will enable them to avoid harm and to move forward effectively. Wise couples use some type of “waiting period” prior to the finalization of a major decision. They purposely wait through an agreed-upon period of time to allow for reconsiderations and reassurances about the decision to be made. The issue of caution is a bit tricky at times. Too much caution can hinder progress; too little caution can hurt people. The challenge is to determine and use “just the right amount” of positive caution.  

Green Lights:  “It’s Time to Go!”

A green traffic signal indicates that the motorist has the right-of-way and should move forward through the intersection. In our relationships a “Go!” sign is a positive indication to start or continue a specific action. The other person wants you to start or continue a certain behavior and is letting you know what direction to take. The “Go!” sign could be a simple request or reminder to “do this” or to “do that.” The signal might be a behavioral cue rather than a verbal cue. The sign could mean “Go—and get a job!” or “Go—and apologize for your violation!” or “Go—and straighten out the mess you made!” Whatever the signs might mean, do you respond promptly and appropriately, or do you remain inactive? Perhaps you’ve been like the motorist who does not move ahead even though the light has turned green. The drivers behind you get impatient and honk their horns to get you going. In relationships we often remain idle when we need to be moving forward. Inactivity is a common culprit in relationship stress and conflict. Most people have expectations related to movement, action, and “getting things done.” When the light turns green we know that it’s time to “get it done.”


Negotiating the Signs . . .    

The fourth letter “N” in the acrostic “S.I.G.N.” suggests the need for negotiating the signs. It may be that a particular road sign or perhaps the underlying rule itself is undesirable or inappropriate. In these situations the person who does not like the sign or the rule must attempt to negotiate with the other person in order to discuss the need for change. Hopefully, the other person will be open to honest discussion and will welcome the opportunity to examine the current concerns and the requests for change. The ultimate goal is to share the relationship road through effective negotiation and mutual accommodation.

In summary, these four “road sign” travel tips represent some of the work that healthy relationship journeys require and deserve. In our literal travels along highways and roadways we’ve seen many different road signs that could have applications for relationship construction and maintenance. In addition to the specific signs referred to in this article there are, for example, “Yield” signs, “Detour” signs, “No Outlet” signs, “Speed” signs, “Passing” signs, and “Direction” signs—just to name a few. Perhaps this material will increase your sense of creativity in using actual road signs to assist you in your day-to-day relationship activities.

Please remember that every road sign you use is actually a manifestation of an underlying rule that exists within your relationship. This discussion of road signs could prompt you to explore and assess the relationship rules you currently have in place, if you have not already done so. Through your assessment you might delete some rules that are unrealistic and unnecessary, and you might add several new rules that are now important to you. The development of rules is an important process because the resulting rules affect the relationship on many levels. Some people choose rules that are identical to or similar to the rules they had in their family of origin. Other people develop rules based upon cultural influences or upon their personal belief system. For many people personal spirituality is an important factor. For example, Christians use the Bible as their authoritative guidebook for relationship rules. I was impressed with a particular Christian man who referred to a Scripture in Jeremiah 31:21 in which God said to the people of Judah, “Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Take note of the highway, the road that you take.” This man really seemed to appreciate Biblical teachings that helped him with the development and usage of his relationship rules and road signs. His example illustrates the fact that for all practicing Christians the Bible is the primary sourcebook for principles and guidelines that promote healthy human relationships.   

Concluding Thoughts . . .

A successful relationship journey involves relevant “rules of the road” and readable road signs that describe how and when the rules are to be applied in everyday living. The absence of road signs hinders relationship growth. The presence of appropriate road signs safeguards the relationship from harm and provides instructions that promote health and maturity. Wise relationship travelers adopt rules that are inherently positive and productive, and they develop and use road signs that keep them heading in the right direction.

The material in this article is shared with the hope that it will generate within you additional thinking about your own personal relationships. To that end I encourage you to ask yourself two important questions. First, “What are my relationship rules of the road?”  Secondly, “What road signs do I need in place in order to increase compliance with those rules?” As you work and struggle with these questions you’ll be exploring issues that are very relevant to the health and happiness of every human relationship that you now have and will have in the future. I wish you well in your relationship work—and in your relationship struggles.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



          Healthy Relationships #121


9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill