Boredom. Emotional Distance. Lack of Compromise. These are the hurdles therapists say couples are facing, and the advice they have for getting over them.
What are the big relationship problems plaguing couples right now? This might not something you want to find out, a lamp you don’t want to rub. But it can be helpful for your marriage to have at least some idea.
For one thing, knowing the pain points of other couples can help you and your partner understand that you’re not the only ones dealing with a problem, which in turn can make issues easier to discuss. For another, it allows you to consider what might be problems in the future (Do we need to make more time to talk about your relationship? Should we think about scheduling sex? Should we see a therapist to work on our communication skills?) and take measures to prevent them from sprouting up.
To get a sense of some issues marriages are facing right now, we turned to those whose job it is to listen to problems: couple’s therapists. We asked them to discuss the relationship problems their clients have been grappling with lately, and what they’ve been suggesting to make things easier. Surprise, surprise, communication is key.
The Problem: Emotional Distance
What Couples Are Saying: With the push and pull of everyday life sending couples off in a variety of directions, it can be very easy to get lost and have one’s focus shift. Before too long, couples feel as though they’re on completely different wavelengths without any way to reach each other. “This can set the partners on opposite sides,” says Michele Goldman, Psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation Media Advisor, “and can easily lead to folks becoming defensive about their position and feeling unheard by your partner.”
The Advice: Bring it up. It’s important to work together to find the reason for the emotional disconnect and to problem solve together about what would work to resolve this for both of you. “If you’ve fallen into a rut and feel stagnant in your patterns,” says Goldman, “ talk together about how to change it up.”
The Problem: Boredom. Serious Boredom.
What Couples Are Saying: Couples are now together more often than they aren’t, and a sense of routine and mundaneness can creep into the relationship, and things can start to feel hollow. “Hours spent next to each other on the couch scrolling their phones, watching another round of The Office, or checking emails on their laptops doesn’t truly fulfill their intimacy needs,” says Elizabeth Earnshaw a licensed marriage and family therapist, founder of A Better Life Therapy, and author of I Want This to Work.
The Advice: There’s no easy way to get around the fact that you’re going to be together more often than not lately. The key is to make the most of your time by adding spontaneity and rituals to your day. “Healthy couples have both daily rituals and more long term rituals,” says Earnshaw. “A daily ritual might be something quick, like having a cup of coffee together, sharing joint attention. This means you do the same thing at the same time — watch the same show without cell phone distractions, cook something together, fold the laundry, or even brief and intentional moments of affection.”
The Problem: We’re Speaking Different Languages
What Couples Are Saying: “Couples often discuss how their partners do not hear them accurately,” says Goldman. “When we feel unheard or feel like our words are being manipulated, we can easily become defensive. Sometimes it feels like we have to nag our partner for anything to change; sometimes we feel like we’re being nagged.”
The Advice: Get in the habit of reflecting back to your partner what it is they’re saying. Let them know that you heard them and give them a chance to let you know if you heard it or processed it correctly. “For example,” says Goldman. “if one partner says ‘I’m up against a deadline, I have no idea what time I’m going to be home tonight, eat dinner without me,’ the other partner can say, ‘So it sounds like you aren’t sure what time you’re going to be home because of work, I should eat without you and you’ll worry about your own dinner. Is that right?’” While it may feel strange, this allows the first person to know that you heard them and restate it if anything got lost in translation.
The Problem: A Sexual Misalignment
What Couples Are Saying: Some folks explain they are ‘too tired to have sex’ or ‘don’t feel good,’” says Goldman. At other times she hears that sex has become something that is only engaged in on special occasions. The issue of feeling like they have fallen into patterns and routines with sex is common, with couples saying that nothing spicy happens because that takes too much time and effort.
The Advice: It’s important to note, per Goldman, that intimacy and sex are two different things. Intimacy is about connection and closeness with your partner. In order to jump start your sex lives, you have to get back to intimacy first. “Think about what you love about your partner; think about your first few dates, reminisce together, spend quality time together,” she says. “Communication is key when it comes to intimacy. If something feels unfulfilled, discuss it together.”
The Problem: Increased Alcohol Use
What Couples Are Saying: Working from home, and being at home in general, has led to a number of bad habits creeping into people’s lives. One of those, therapists report, is an uptick in problematic drinking. “When inquiring about the development and course of heated arguments,” says Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor, “clients often report that alcohol contributes to the intensity of fighting.”
The Advice: Don’t wait until your partner’s drinking has spiraled out of control to address it. If you sense there’s a problem, speak up and try to head it off early. If it is too much of a challenge to address on your own, consider getting a therapist involved. “Not only can a qualified therapist help you address the issues that arise in your relationship due to drinking, but they can also help you develop skills to manage underlying stress and improve overall well-being,” says Phillips,
The Problem: Stress Leads to Constant Complaining
What Couples Are Saying: The problems start when one partner’s stress overwhelms the relationship, leading to constant complaining and irritation. “It’s never been fun to listen to a partner complain when they have a bad day at the office, hit traffic, or are tired of their sibling’s drama — and it’s always been important,” says Earnshaw. “However, we know that when couples struggle to respond well to each other’s stress they tend to see their relationship deteriorate over time.”
The Advice: When one partner feels like they’re just a receptacle for their partner’s stress, it can become almost impossible for them to feel empathy or any kind of understanding. The solution, says Earnshaw, is co-regulation. “This happens when one person shares their stress and in response the other person actually soothes their own body in order to stay calm in the presence of their partner,” she says. “You can do so much for your loved one when you learn how to tend to those physical symptoms within yourself. The amazing thing about partnership is that when you keep your body calm it can actually help your partner to keep their body calm, too.”
The Problem: A Lack of Compromise
What Couples Are Saying: Therapists are reporting that many couples are coming to them saying that they don’t agree on how to navigate their lives in the current climate. Do they go out and risk getting sick, or stay at home and remain isolated? Do they send the kids to school or daycare, or keep them home as well? “While disagreeing about how to live life is nothing new in the world of couples conflict, it is heightened,” says Earnshaw. “I also find that more and more people are struggling to take perspective and compromise.”
The Advice: Many times when couples disagree, it becomes a game of one-upmanship, with neither partner wanting to give any ground. Everyone just wants to “win.” However, compromise is far more important than simply forcing your partner into submission. Do your best to listen to your partner and understand and empathize with them, and their needs and fears. “In these cases the best solutions are creative — they don’t usually look like either person’s initial ideas — and they include aspects that meet both people’s needs,” Earnshaw says. “You don’t want to create win/lose solutions, because ultimately the biggest loser will be your relationship.”
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