The majority of marital issues are completely solvable and marriage counseling can definitely help. And while every couple is different, there are a few areas of a relationship that are commonly difficult to almost all couples. Chances are your relationship has struggled in one of these six areas, and improvements in any one of these places should dramatically improve the quality of your relationship.
REASON 1: POOR COMMUNICATION
Without question, the most common reason for marital dissatisfaction is communication. And it's not because it’s the most important issue, but because it's the first and most difficult obstacle to overcome in order to resolve issues. No problem in a relationship gets resolved without good communication and conflict-resolution skills. All roads on the marriage map lead back to communication. Because of this, communication is where we start in order to understand why relationships struggle.
REASON 2: UNRESOLVED HURTS
The longer a marriage goes on, the more likely it is that couple incurs some damage and suffers from painful experiences. For some couples that could mean a few serious and significant events that never got fully resolved. For others, it could mean death by a thousand paper cuts. Nothing huge, just a slow cumulation of hurts over time.
The reason why this is a common factor for couples that struggle is that it's hard to articulate the cumulation of the smaller things and why the small things represent bigger and more meaningful things.
"It's not just that you forget to pick up the groceries, it's that you seem to forget things I say and ask a lot. Which leads me to think I don't really matter all that much to you since my words are so forgettable."
Another reason why this is a struggle is that the big events that wound deeply are hard to fully resolve. Imagine your spouse did something years ago that pained you bad. Let's imagine it was a $100,000 hurt. But if you could only quantify $75,000 at the time years ago, that means $25,000 is still hanging out there unresolved. Your spouse doesn't understand this because he/she thought the debt was paid and forgiven. But none the less, the remaining debt is there causing strife in your marriage.
Or maybe your spouse tried to make amends by apologizing for a $30,000 offense and you accepted it at the time thinking that was the best they could do. But over the years that $70,000 that remains festers, building hurt and resentment within you.
Couples that get stuck in unresolved hurts are stuck because they've not done the accounting work to really measure the hurts and because they've not done the forgiveness and reconciliation work needed to be able to move forward in life.
REASON 3: NARRATIVES
Does it seem like the arguments in your marriage just keep happening over and over again? This is perhaps one of the most common experiences in marital dissatisfaction. Marriages end in divorce because these seemingly small but recurring conflicts eventually turn into big and irreconcilable ones. It’s not for lack of trying, either. Couples often feel helpless and even like failures because they can’t seem to figure out how to resolve these recurring conflicts.
The reason why this pattern is so prevalent among couples is that they rarely see beyond the surface of what their conflicts actually reveal to them. Couples can have twenty fights about twenty different things on twenty different days, but all those fights are likely driven by just one or two narratives.
A narrative can be as simple as, “I feel like I’m not important enough for my spouse to listen to me or understand me.” Yet don’t let the simplicity of the statement fool you. A single thought like that can persist throughout a marriage and alter everything a person sees and believes. Like an old tape that plays again and again in the back of your head changing the way you think about yourself and others. And what’s worse is that it doesn't matter if these narratives are true or not. The simple fact that it’s there is all that matters and correcting them isn’t as easy as it might seem. Allowing these narratives to go on unchecked is like allowing an infection to grow within your marriage. You might not ever see it without the help of a professional, but eventually, you’ll experience all the collateral damage that it can inflict on your life.
REASON 4: MATURITY & SELF-CARE
One of the things about marriage that is both wonderful and horrible at the same time is the fact that it will expose how incredibly immature and emotionally underdeveloped you are. Like a mirror, marriage can show you all the things you need to change and address. This can also be horrible, because how many of us like looking into a mirror only to realize how unkempt and out of shape we actually are?
There are a few core skills that are required in order to be able to pull off the things discussed here in this article. If marriage was like exercising, communication would be the form we use to work out. Good form is absolutely necessary in order to achieve results and to avoid hurting yourself. Narratives would be your mental barriers, reminding you of past failures and the belief that certain things will happen or won’t ever change.
The core skills we’re talking about here are all the muscles required to actually exercise. Working out will reveal how weak those muscles are, but a combination of good form (communication), pushing through mental barriers (narratives), and good old-fashioned effort will help to build those muscles up. Over time, couples will find they’re able to not only resolve conflicts well but actually become stronger together as difficulties in life come their way.
The reason why most couples overlook this area of need in their marriage is that it’s easier and more natural to focus on their spouse’s short-comings than their own inadequacies and lack of maturity. Imagine running a three-legged race with your spouse. At first, it’s all fun and games, but imagine having to run a marathon and the stakes become much higher if you fail. When things aren’t going so well and it’s no longer fun, do you think you ponder what you’re doing wrong and where your technique is off? No, you’re probably thinking about why your partner doesn’t understand what to do and how what they’re doing isn’t helping.
But there is much to learn about where we fall short and ways we can grow and develop. Regardless of what our spouse does in running the race of marriage, we are tasked with the need to develop a certain set of skills if we have any chance of making it to the finish line.
REASON 5: POWER IMBALANCES
Typically if a marriage is struggling, that most likely means the power between husband and wife is off. Often times one person is the "under-functioner" or the spouse that acts as though they have less power. It might be that this spouse truly feels powerless, or perhaps even that the other spouse is taking power and control from that under-functioner. A lot of times though, it's because the under-functioner is unknowingly giving away power because it's all they know to do in relationships.
And if there's an under-functioner, that means there's usually an over-functioner. This person feels forced to manage and drive the relationship and the operation of the home. If the over-functioner doesn't act, things fail, fall apart, or just never get done. So the over-functioner feels burnt out and resentful toward their spouse for having to manage everything, while the under-functioner feels controlled and powerless by their spouse because everything they do is wrong.
Power imbalances happen all the time and set into a marriage very subtly over time. At first, this roles might feel loving and each spouse might be okay with the dynamics. But over time they become a point of resentment, building narratives about what each person's character and intentions are about. It's important to catch this dynamic early on before real damage in a marriage sets in and the resetting the power imbalance becomes one problem among many.
REASON 6: MISALIGNED PRIORITIES
Misalignment of values, priorities, and expectations is par for the course with every marriage. No matter how similar and alike a couple is, the more time you have to truly get to know your spouse, the more you realize how different they are from you. Aligning these things is a necessary and important process for every couple. How do we view and spend money? What are our priorities for career, where we live, who we're friends with? How do we educate and raise our kids? These are all just a few examples of potential misalignments.
But while this task and these conversations are normal for every couple, many couples struggle to have these conversations well. The reason why is that they might be more focused on arguing about the decision that has to be made than they are on making sure they're on the same page first. Meaning a lot of couples don't realize they're not aligned with their spouse on fundamental issues and waste their time putting out fires that break out from their differences instead of attacking the source.
Another reason why couples struggle with these alignment conversations is because of reasons 1-5 above. Style of communication, past hurts, narratives, emotional maturity, and power imbalances all affect and distort a couples ability to have these normal and necessary dialogues.
Whatever the reason may be, marital difficulties are perhaps one of the things in life that most people in life have in common regardless of age, religious beliefs, race, or culture. Don't be afraid to reach out for help because you're certainly not alone.
Written by Ly Tran, LPC-Supervisor