revised: 9/26/2023

What are common relationship problems? How do they show up?

Common relationship issues that lead to unhappy marriages

Relationship problems are a fact of married life. Trust issues, sexual problems, mental health issues, or a lack of communication happen from time to time and aren’t red flags. 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. The TV remote can be a symbol of power, control, and decision-making in a relationship.

In fact, premier researcher John Gottman believed that these ‘stand-in’ issues were so commonplace. When asked “What do couples fight about?” he responded “Nothing,” meaning that fights are symbolic in many respects.

“Learning how to help couples navigate problems” is the work of couples therapy. This involves helping the couple without harming either individual’s “enduring vulnerabilities.”

First common marital problem: an inability to manage conflict effectively

  • 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 communication skill in intimate relationships. Many individuals in romantic relationships seek out a mental health specialist because their communication has become strained. They are having difficulty resolving their issues without a big fight.

However, what we sometimes find is that their communication is clear, but the message is toxic.

You are heading into trouble if you can’t listen carefully to your partner without:

  • criticizing
  • rejecting
  • minimizing

Science based-couples therapy addresses these sorts of relationship problems by helping couples recognize physiological changes that may indicate flooding. One such 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 problem: starving the marriage emotionally and sexually

  • 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.

Read: Emotional Distance in Marriage to learn about emotional distance.

Families are under a lot of pressure to raise successful children in an increasingly competitive world.

In many couples, this hyper-focusing on their children creates a “kid-centric” household. Gradually, over time, many couples have fewer and fewer things to talk about. Shared moments that help them to enjoy the shared meaning and connection become scarce.

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

People in relationships often find that they don’t have much intimacy in their marriage anymore. Not just physical intimacy, either. Many components make a couple feel connected, such as communication and date nights. This lack of connection is often a sign of deeper issues in the relationship.

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

Third challenge: 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, etc.

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. They also suggest alternatives, such as individual psychotherapy.

Many couples have been caught in a never-ending cycle of insecurity and fighting, leading to emotional abuse. If only they knew how, these couples would be desperate to break out of these destructive patterns.

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 physical reactions.

Research tells us that both men and women bestow emotional abuse that creates relationship problems. You can learn how to change that pattern and manage conflict better, and model that healthy change for your kids too!

Fourth problem: power mismanagement struggles

Is your teamwork problematic?

Common trouble areas:

  • Money management leading to money problems
  • Handling family traditions, holidays, special occasions
  • Disciplining children
  • In-laws and parents
  • Religious practices and beliefs.

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.

However, couples therapy can help couples carefully explore these fundamental differences in a both respectful and vulnerable way.

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. Even sexual intimacy can improve!

In one of John Gottman’s books, he summarizes four ways of interacting, which can quickly erode positive feelings and mutual respect.

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. 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 the same dirt driveway for years, taking the same route each time, you would create ruts. The more you drove on the same route, the deeper the ruts would become over time. Eventually, the ruts would become so deep that it would be difficult to drive any other way.

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 should 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 when couples are unable 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 resolving problematic patterns. More importantly, you learn how to discuss these problems in the future.

It usually takes a couple six years to acknowledge and seek assistance for marital issues. Few of those people actually visit a marriage counselor; and even then, they typically only attend four sessions. Despite the extreme emotional and financial costs of divorce, couples tend to wait a long time before reaching out for help.

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 attending these retreats are relieved to learn that they have a sound marriage. In these cases, what’s needed is 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, upfront, 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. You learn to deal more effectively with your relationship problems step by step.