Relationship problems are a fact of married life. Here's one interesting science-based finding: a relationship issue for one couple that is a "perpetual" or enduring problem, would be solvable for another. The difference is in the extent to which either or both couples get deeply upset or reactive to the relationship problem. In other words, relationship struggles are not equally problematic for all couples.

Often this is connected to other, more toxic issues for them. A seemingly trivial issue, like who holds the TV remote, becomes a fill-in for how power, control, or decision-making is made in the relationship.

In fact, premier researcher John Gottman believed that these 'stand in' issues were so commonplace, when asked "What do couples fight about?" his response was "Nothing," meaning that the fights, for the most part, are symbolic in many respects.

Learning how to help couples navigate problems that are enduring, without harming each of the individuals' "enduring vulnerabilities," is the work of couples therapy.

First common relationship problem:  An inability to manage conflict effectively

Blaming (criticism) that leads to defensiveness. It is only one of the patterns that cause marital unhappiness.
  • Allowing conflict to escalate (no ability to regulate and slow it down)
  • Minimizing or rejecting your partner's feelings as valid or worthy of attention
  • Inability or unwillingness to compromise

Managing conflict is an overarching, "must have" core skill in intimate relationships. One of the most common reasons why couples come to us for help with their relationship struggles is that they report that their communication has broken down.

However, what we sometimes find is that their communication is clear, but the message is toxic. If you can't listen carefully to your partner as if they were someone you loved without criticizing, rejecting or minimizing, you're heading into trouble.

Science based-couples therapy addresses these sorts of relationship problems by helping couples to recognize physiological changes that may indicate flooding.  One such physiological change is an elevated heart rate. Another fix is to learn the science-behind time-outs, self-soothing, and curbing rumination. 

Read Fights About Nothing for more information on ineffective fighting styles.

Second common relationship problem: Starving the marriage emotionally

Withholding attention or focusing it elsewhere starves a marriage.

Is your marriage being "starved?"

Where is the focus put?  Are you:

  • Maintaining an exclusive focus on work, children, religious life, hobbies, etc.
  • Withholding affection and sexual connection
  • Refusal to engage in serious discussions
  • Few day-to-day interactions that are satisfying or meaningful
  • Placing personal priorities above or in opposition to relationship priorities.

Emotional Distance in Marriage to learn about emotional distance.

It's hard to raise a family these days. Pressure to raise successful children in an increasingly competitive world heightens parental pre-occupations.

Many couples, this hyper-focusing on their children creating a "kid-centric" household.  Gradually, overtime, many couples have fewer and fewer things to talk about. Shared moments that help them to enjoy shared meaning and connection become scarce.

When these couples face an impending empty nest, they often take stock of their lives, and are alarmed by how far they have drifted apart.

Science-based couples therapy helps couples to process resentments, disappointments, and other relationship problems, and allow the couple to reconnect to one another in an open and authentic manner.

Third common relationship problem:  Power struggles

Are the two of you mired in power struggles?

  • Valuing gender stereotypes above roles that fit each individual
  • Using your bond to manipulate and control
  • Using money to manipulate and control
  • Badgering the other in an effort to restrict their movements or activities
  • Rejecting  your partner's personality or labeling them "defective"
  • Acting superior and insulting a partner's differences, extended family, vulnerabilities, etc.

I want to be honest. Extremely manipulative and controlling spouses are so toxic, that there is little even science-based couples therapy can do.  Many couples therapists will discover these disturbing and severe relationship problems and patterns in session. Using scientific assessment instruments such as those found in the Big Big Book can help identify these destructive patterns and suggest alternatives, such as individual psychotherapy to screen them.

Read about impossible types of abuse including:
Cobras and Pit bulls.

However many couples who have struggled for so long have fallen into emotionally abusive patterns that they would love to get out of... if they just knew how.

Science-based couples therapy can go deeply and granularly into exactly how you speak with each other. We may use fingertip devices called pulse oximeters to track your physiological changes. Research tells us that both men and women bestow emotional abuse that create relationship problems. You can learn how to change that pattern and manage conflict better, and model that healthy change for your kids too!

Fourth common relationship problem: Power mismanagement struggles

Fighting in front of the children in relationship problems

Is your teamwork problematic?

Fighting in front of the children is toxic to their nervous systems

Common trouble areas:

  • Money Management
  • Handling family traditions, holidays, special occasions
  • Disciplining children
  • In-laws and parents
  • Religious practices.

Gottman's research tells us that 69% of couple problems are fundamentally unsolvable. Couples may have personality traits, cultural values, or deeply held beliefs that may set up inevitable and unavoidable cycles of conflict.

Science-based couples therapy can help couples to carefully explore these fundamental differences in a way that is both deeply respectful and vulnerable. Couples don't solve most relationship problems that stem from conflicting values, they learn to manage them. When couples build skill in giving up power struggles, they learn to be curious instead of furious. Discussions, even debates, are calmer. You talk to your partner as if they were someone you loved, and they have learned to do likewise as well.

In John Gottman's, book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (1994), he summarizes four ways of interacting, which can quickly erode positive feelings and mutual respect. Watch this video to learn more:

The Four Horsemen

1.  Criticism vs. Complaining

  • Attacking one's character and personality with blame
  • Making global accusations rather than specific complaints
  • Talking about your partner's faults instead of what you want them to do for you.

2.  Contempt vs. a Talking from your Own Perspective

  • Intent to insult and abuse your partner psychologically
  • Name-calling, hostile humor, mockery
  • Body language including sneers and eye rolls.

3.  Defensiveness vs. Accepting Influence

  • Denying responsibility for your actions
  • Making excuses, whining, cross-complaining or yes-butting
  • Negative body language (arms folded across chest, hands touching neck)

4.  Stonewalling vs Self-Soothing

  • Not reacting to your partner's distress
  • Walking out during an argument
  • Responding by sarcastically saying: "Whatever!" or "Of course, you're right..." as a way to get the other person off your back.

Watch this video to learn more:

When to seek professional help.

If you drove up a dirt driveway the exact same way for years you'd get ruts. The longer you kept driving in those ruts, the deeper they'd become.

It would get harder to turn the wheel left or right, and harder to decide to drive up a different way. And the more expensive it would become to repair that road.

This is similar to a troubled marriage. Couples who seek help when they (1) begin to notice trouble, (2) they start to feel distant from each other, or (3) when resentments hang on, are able to stop that pattern before it becomes entrenched.

It's better to get help for relationship problems as early as you can.

However, for all marital problems, couples therapy helps you learn new ways of relating, and resolve problematic patterns. More importantly, you learn how to discuss these problems in the future.

Once troubles begin, the average couple waits six long years before seeking help. Only fraction of those who file for divorce have ever seen a marital counselor. Those who do, only go 4 times. This is true despite the high emotional and economic consequences of divorce.

If your relationship is suffering, ­don't make the mistake of waiting to get professional help only as a last resort. Problematic patterns become entrenched if they are ignored.

There may be good news...

I've noticed, also, when stress taxes an overall strong marriage, it is hard to see how healthy the relationship really is. Couples are relieved to learn that they have a sound marriage. In these cases, what's needed are adopting particular skills, not a complete overhaul.

The Gottman Method is helpful for most couples because it focuses on pragmatic, skill-building techniques that anyone can learn. The thorough assessment lets you know up front, the specific types of skill-building you'll be focusing on. Ongoing treatment helps to walk you through a new way of relating to each other, dealing more effectively with your relationship problems step by step.

Awkward silences are an indication of emotional distance in relationships.

Getting help is a lot easier than you imagined.