Marriages are hard work, and some types of problems are more prevalent than others. Fortunately, there are certain things that you can do to keep these issues from dragging down your relationship. Here are some of the most common marriage problems, and advice on how to avoid them, according to relationship experts.
“This is where a lot of damage gets done, especially with one or both partners saying mean, hurtful things,” according to Chicago-based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Anita A. Chlipala, author of “First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love”.
Pay attention to your cues when you start to get heated or shut down. Focus on your thoughts (“Here we go again”), your feelings, and where you feel them in your body (such as anxiety in the pit of your stomach or anger pressed against your chest), and your behaviors (pacing, clenching your fists, and/or gritting your teeth) as you start to escalate or shut down. As you notice these areas during a conflict discussion, take a break with a distraction.
“This is why a lot of couples’ fights happen,” Chlipala says. “Because one partner is vulnerable and shares their feelings/experience and the other minimizes or dismisses them.” Trying to fix your partner’s problem when they haven’t asked for your help also falls in this category.
Instead, learn to understand and empathize with your partner’s experience to have a happy marriage. You don’t even have to agree! Ask questions: What is most important for me to know? What do you need? What are you concerned about? Is there anything more? If you’re struggling to understand your partner, ask open-ended questions, and use the phrase “Help me understand….” This common problem is something that most married couples face. Have open communication with your spouse and make sure that you’re speaking to them with empathy and kindness to avoid marriage trouble.
Time and time again, couples end up in conflict because one of them perceived something that the other said as criticism. “I witness it in my office all the time,” says Crystal Bradshaw, a licensed professional counselor specializing in marriage counseling in Marietta, Georgia. “One partner will be complaining, and the other will interpret it as a criticism and will respond with defensiveness. Thus, the dance begins, and the couple is stuck because they have no idea what’s going on or how they got there.”
Criticism is a personal attack against one’s character meant to inflict emotional pain, while a complaint is an indirect request for a behavior change. Bradshaw teaches couples during her marriage counseling sessions to listen for the hidden, unspoken request, and to also be direct with their needs and ask for what they want. “As I frequently tell my clients, the request is best,” Chlipala says. “State what you positively need from your partner.”
In conflict discussions, one partner may call a time-out because they’re getting overwhelmed with emotion and need to take a break. The other person may not honor this and pursue the partner, which will lead to fight-or-flight. This may be due to anxiety or thinking the conflict will never get addressed again if they don’t do it at this moment. “Have a rule with your partner that the person who called a time-out calls a time-in within 24 hours,” Chlipala says. “If you need more than 24 hours before you have the discussion again, do a check-in to let your spouse know that you’re still available to them, but you’re just not ready to talk quite yet,” she adds.
“How a couple handles outside stressors is critical to the health of a marriage,” Chlipala notes. Have a daily gripe fest where you each spend 10 to 15 minutes sharing about what stressors you’re facing. Make it during a time that works for you: If the last thing you want to talk about is work when you come home after a long day, talk with your spouse in the morning about what stressor you’re facing that day.
Resentment happens for several reasons, from not speaking up for what you need and want, to sacrificing too much, to your partner not following through on their promises, according to Chlipala. Built-up resentment can be a massive marital problem that can lead to divorce. “Resentment leads to disconnection and can make people fall out of love with their partner. People who avoid conflict and/or are self-proclaimed people-pleasers commonly struggle with resentment.” If this is you, make sure to speak up, but be gentle about it and learn how to say no. Setting boundaries is healthy.
“Fighting to be right makes your relationship lose every time,” Chlipala says. Consider that in most cases, both of you are right—you each have your subjective realities. The goal is to understand, not to agree. If you can both understand each other, compromise is so much easier.
“There is so much that can be discovered in good couples therapy, which is why I highly recommend it,” Bradshaw says. She suggests that couples see a therapist who is trained in couples' work to help them identify current communication differences that could prove challenging as the years pass and as stress naturally occurs.
There are many skills that couples can benefit from, Bradshaw notes, including: knowing each other’s love and apology languages; learning how to self-regulate, as well as co-regulate, intense emotions so that you can navigate conflict with skill; understanding your partner's triggers so that you do not unnecessarily trigger your partner into emotional dysregulation; exploring family of origin and past experiences that inform you in the present; learning about the different listening styles and how to recognize them; learning how to ask for what you need in a way that your partner can hear; and understanding the sexual-desire and -response system.
As a married couple, it is up to the two of you to work through any marital problem you may face together. By working through these problems, you'll be able to achieve a strong marriage for years to come.