Keeping a marriage intact while working a full-time job and raising kids is no easy task. And we’re all guilty of, whether because it’s nor worth starting an argument or, man, we’re exhausted, of letting things slide. But there are certain things that should never go unsaid. Marriage is a long game. While some of the challenges that come with raising children and maintaining a happy marriage can seem small-time — like occasionally resorting to name-calling during a fight or turning to your phone instead of your partner after a long day — such things can, over time, add up. The weight of that can be unbearable. Here, Emily Klear, the Director of Couple Services and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University offers eight small, seemingly insignificant problems couples need to address before they become major issues.
Not Talking About Sex
While sex might be easy to come by and enjoy in the beginning of a relationship, as couples settle into their relationship and start to become more of companions instead of hormone-crazed lovers, issues with sex — frequency, quality, desire — tend to arise. This, per Klear, is natural. Sex changes with a relationship. It can happen as a result of long-term coupling or it can coincide with the birth of a first child. “[Issues with sex] correspond, biologically, with the shift in what kind of neurological transmitters we have going on in our brains, when we’ve been coupled longer term,” she says. “Our brains begin transmitting more oxytocin, which is an attachment hormone. It’s a natural transition, but I think one that frequently catches couples off guard.”
When these changes occur, it’s essential that couples don’t ignore the issue. Sex is a deeply important part of any happy marriage, and talking about it is important. “The earlier in your relationship that you can establish an open line of communication, the better,” says Klear. “That can look like fantasy talk, arousal talk, protection talk, those kinds of things.” This foundation, per Klear, will help when any roadblocks arise.
Imbalances in Household Management
Klear finds that in dual-income households or even when the woman in the relationship is the primary earner, small issues about household management evolve into large problems down the road. Because psssst fights that start about, say, taking the trash out aren’t actually about the trash itself. It’s about a workload imbalance. Or a lack of respect. Or emotional labor. When conversations about equitable household management arise and turn sour, Klear says that couples need to slow down and ask themselves what’s really going on and avoid what she calls “pattern of reactivity.” A conversation, which should be about who cleans the kitchen on Sunday, instead devolves. “It becomes about their reactions to each other versus the actual thing they are talking about.”
Not Talking About Finances Enough
If finances are left undiscussed — especially before marriage — what can start as small assumptions or inherent differences in spending habits or, say, approaches to paying off debt can become ammunition in major fights.
“I encourage couples, if they start becoming serious, to do things like run their credit score together, so they have an understanding of what the other person’s credit history looks like,” says Klear. “If you are going to get married, you’re going to legally be sharing all of that. Surprisingly, in a lot of premarital work, I have a lot of couples who get blindsided by information they didn’t know.” Klear also suggests that couples spend 20 to 30 minutes a week sitting down and discussing a weekly budget including upcoming bills and expenses. That way, the rest of the week can be dedicated to emotionally intimate, connected experiences — not balancing a checkbook. Failing to deal with these things, she says, can lead to debt, dishonesty, or worse.
Oftentimes, one person in a relationship will drop a tiny comment or a snide remark (“You never take out the trash,” for example) that might not be a big deal to them, but a huge deal to their partner. Although these are small moments and can be ignored, when left unexamined, they can lead to huge cracks in a relationship’s foundation.
“It compounds on itself. The person who felt injured by the tiny comment starts to feel really unheard. They felt like their partner may have dismissed something that their partner classified as small, but for them, it was really meaningful,” says Klear.
In order to avoid letting these small dismissive moments become big, blow-out issues, Klear says that couples need to get direct with one another, and keep trying to connect.
“I think a lot of times when we feel unheard, the message we’re intending to send, for whatever reason, isn’t the one that is getting received,” says Klear. “The person feeling unheard needs to say: ‘It’s not that I don’t think you’re trying to listen; it’s that I don’t think you’re hearing what I’m trying to say.’ They need to offer to say it differently, to take a step back and think, ‘What is it that I’m trying to communicate that my partner is having a hard time receiving?’ That’s an opportunity for the person who is receiving that information to say, ‘I’m not getting it. Can you try to help me understand? I don’t want you to have the experience of feeling unheard.’”
Different Approaches to Parenting
When couples who have similar value systems decide to have children, they can often forego real and serious conversations about parenting styles, approaches to discipline, and general rules about how they want to raise their kids. Instead, says Klear, they tend to focus on setting up the nursery and choosing baby names. That can lead to big trouble down the line. Parents need to have real talks about discipline and their values, says Klear.
“[Parents need to at least be] on a similar page — it’s hard to get on the exact same page. But if you are on completely different pages, the messages that the kids get are really mixed and inconsistent, so then the kids don’t know what’s going on. That kind of erodes family leadership. The other major, major risk is that a kid can get pulled in and triangulated into the marriage,” says Klear. “That happens all the time. Dad’s favorite kid gets a different response than another kid and then mom and dad get upset with each other and the kid will feel responsible for that. That puts a lot of power and pressure on the kids.”
Not Making Enough Time for One Another
It’s simple math: kids require x amount of time; work requires y amount. This means there’s little time leftover for couples to take care of the health of their marriage. But it’s imperative that couples find time to, well, just be a couple. Klear suggests that if date nights seem implausible, making 20 or 30 minutes of free time here or there to connect over something will make a huge difference in emotional and physical intimacy in a marriage.
Klear understands that its daunting for a lot of couples to spend an extra $100 on a babysitter and $100 on dinner. She often recommends that couples find a way to have, at the very least, 20 to 30 minutes of connection time at home, preferably when the kids are asleep.
“It doesn’t have to be something big. They could just enjoy a cocktail together. I often recommend they find a mutual show that neither of them have watched before. Or read the same book,” she says. It’s all about making time for each other in small ways, and being intentional about building that time in. Otherwise, couples can grow distant.
Otherwise known as the act of choosing a phone over someone else, phubbing is distinctly modern problem — and quite toxic. Yes, the phone is shiny and is an escape from the stresses of the real world. But emotional intimacy, per Klear, is a huge driver of physical intimacy and relationship health. “Put the phones away. Be intentional. Sit next to each other. Make time for intimacy that isn’t necessarily sexual. People nowadays go to bed with their phone, not their partner,” Klear says. “[Phone use] does send the message that if the kids go to bed and each partner goes to a separate screen, whether it’s a computer, phone, or TV, it sends the message of ‘I’m not available. I don’t want to connect.’”
Acting Childish During Arguments
Klear works with a lot of couples who, during a fight, refer to their partner as lazy, stupid, dumb, or worse. While she says these are are often only small occurrences — and usually, people i the relationship apologize for resorting to that — resorting to childish tactics and name-calling can have lasting and damaging effects on marriages.
“It’s devaluing. It makes people wonder: ‘Do you actually love me? If you’re going to continually call me these things, do you actually love me? How could you love someone that you think is dumb? Stupid? A bitch?’”
When it comes to the name-calling issue, Klear says it’s a two-sided coin. Usually, the name-caller is feeling unheard, so they are attempting to make the other person in the relationship stop and listen, or feel the same amount of pain that they feel. “It’s almost a power play, and it’s very childlike,” says Klear. Name-calling needs to stop as soon as it begins, and if someone thinks they will resort to this hurtful tactic, they need to take a breather before they continue to engage in the conversation at hand.