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Introduction to Relationship Problems

Relationship Problems

This topic center concerns marriage and marriage-like relationship problems. Our goal is to share information about the nature of such problems and to talk about what can be done to solve them when that is possible. We're going to use the term 'marriage' here for the most part, but it should be understood that what we have to say applies to any committed 'romantic' relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Your state, territory or province may define marriage rather narrowly, but we take it as a given that relationship problems do not discriminate.

Most people enter into marriage with the best of intentions, assuming that they will remain in a permanent and happy relationship. Unfortunately, it is not always the case that relationships work out as planned. Many marriages change in quality over time and end up with partners being in conflict with each other. In recent years in many countries around 50% of formal marriages have ended in divorce. This figure does not i...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What makes for a happy marriage?

  • Partners in healthy marriages come to agree upon common agendas regarding the directions their marriage will take, and the way each partner will behave.
  • Areas of agreement that partners will have dealt with will generally include:
  • Friendship - successful partners develop a significant friendship at the core of their relationship. They genuinely like one another, amuse and comfort one another, and prefer to spend time with each other.
  • Role expectations - the partners reach agreement with regard to how household responsibilities are divided and how they will behave towards each other.
  • Emotional intimacy - successful partners learn to trust each other, to be vulnerable with each other, to laugh together, and to support one another in times of need.
  • Sexual expectations - partners come to basic agreements as to how they will be sexual with each other.
  • Vision/Goals - successful partners agree that they want to pursue the same life paths, values and goals and mutually commit to those paths, values and goals.
  • In general, however, the more domains you and your partner are in agreement on, the better are your chances for a healthy marriage.

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How do relationships typically break down?

  • There is no single reason why a relationship begins to break down.
  • However, once a relationship does start to break down, there is a predictable sequence of events that tends to occur.
  • Highly regarded psychologist and researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. suggests that there are four stages to this sequence which he has labeled, "The Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse".
  • The first stage of the breakdown process involves conflict and complaints. All couples have conflicts from time to time, but some couples are able to resolve those conflicts successfully or 'agree to disagree', while others find that they are not.
  • In the second stage of the breakdown process, one or both spouses starts to feel contempt for the other, and each spouse's attitudes about their partner change for the worse.
  • Most people find conflict and contempt to be stressful and react to such conditions by entering the third stage of breakdown, characterized by partner's increasingly defensive behavior.
  • Then partners start avoiding one another so as to minimize their conflicts. Gottman calls this final stage, "Stonewalling" and unfortunately, there is no way to love your partner when you are hiding behind a wall to protect yourself from him or her.
  • Basically compatible partners may demonstrate a whole lot of conflict, but they don't often become contemptuous and angry with their partners, because there are by definition few things that they will disagree upon.
  • In contrast, partners who start out with incompatible goals, values or dreams are far more likely to get into seemingly irresolvable conflicts.
  • Once the process of contempt, defensiveness and avoidance begins, small incompatibilities can become magnified as spouses pursue other interests as an alternative to conflict.

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What is an affair?

  • The common definition of what constitutes an affair seems to be sexual relations outside of marriage.
  • This narrow definition fails to recognize that marriages can be threatened by any relationship, sexual or otherwise, that threatens to break the bonds of intimacy and trust between spouses.
  • In an important sense, any outside relationship that drains one spouse's ability to attend emotionally, sexually and/or intimately with/to his or her spouse is a potentially damaging affair.
  • Affairs can happen at any time, although they are particularly likely to occur during the middle years of marriage.
  • Affairs can also start in the context of healthy marriages as platonic extra-marital friendships that becomes passionate and sexual.
  • In most cases, if married partners understand themselves to be more or less compatible with their original spouse, they will not gain anything by pursuing another and may lose a lot.
  • Affairs don't always signal the end of a marriage, but they surely point to marital disengagement that must be addressed if the marriage is to survive an affair and become healthy again.

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What does marital therapy involve?

  • Marital therapy is probably the best single thing that people in troubled marriages can do to help heal their marriages.
  • A skilled marriage therapist offers support and intervention that can help distrusting disengaged partners to safely address their difficulties and begin the process of problem solving and healing.
  • These supports and interventions can include:
    • Safety - therapists work to provide a trustworthy and safe environment which can contain and manage couples' anger, frustration and contempt. Therapists remain neutral and do not take sides.
    • Normalization and Reality Testing - experienced therapists have "seen it all before" and are able to help couples understand when their desires and expectations (of each other and/or of themselves), indiscretions and reactions are normal and when they are unusual, inappropriate or even abusive.
    • Traffic Control - therapists function as traffic cops to make sure that partners take turns talking and listening to each other, no one is shut down and unable to speak and all have a better chance to feel listened to than would otherwise be possible.
    • Skills Education - therapists teach problem solving, communication and soothing skills which can help couples gain tools to help them better address and manage issues in their relationship. Interpretation - therapists teach listening skills, promote sharing of feelings and desires that may be difficult to express and encourage partners to repeat what their partners have said so as to demonstrate their comprehension.
  • Marital therapy generally takes place outpatient-style in a therapist's office and is offered once per week with each session lasting between 60 and 90 minutes.
  • The number of therapy sessions will vary according to the severity of the presented problems, the therapist's training and technique, and (unfortunately) the couple's ability to pay for services.

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What are communication approaches that can be used in a relationship?

  • Healthy partners communicate trust and affection towards each other via words and gestures in a manner that brings about more positive communication.
  • Therapists teach conflicted couples communication skills designed to help them interrupt their negative communications and replace them with more positive (or at least neutral) ones.
  • "I" statements communicate feelings rather than accusations, elicits a helpful, supportive response rather than a defensive one, and helps to defuse potential fights and arguments.
  • Focal, Not Global Criticism - in troubled relationsihps, criticisms tend to turn from specific complaints (e.g., "you forgot to bring milk") to general (sometimes over-general) conclusions which may be exaggerated (e.g., "you don't care about me at all"). Therapists may encourage clients to stick to the indisputable facts and to not draw conclusions from these facts which might be mistaken.
  • Traffic Control; Active Listening and Repeating - therapists act as traffic cops and teach active listening skills to counter partner's obsessive defensive arguing. The therapist will set up and enforce times when each partner can speak and the other partner is asked to listen.
  • Interpretation - while teaching couples ground rules and procedures for how to communicate effectively, therapists may also help couples to better understand each other by offering the couple their outsider's informed opinion as to why each partner has chosen to act as they have.

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What are soothing techniques that a couple can use during times of conflict?

  • Chronically conflicted couples become easily overwhelmed, agitated and tense while communicating.
  • Therapists often encourage such couples to practice soothing skills and techniques to help them reduce arousal and emotion, enabling them to communicate and problem solve more efficiently.
  • Soothing skills practice help couples to better tolerate stressful provoking situations and to recover faster after they have become overwhelmed.
  • Time-Out. The tried-and-true 'time-out' technique is very useful in helping couples to disengage from a fight. The couple agrees that they will ask their partner for a 'time-out' on their discussion for an agree-upon period of time when they start to feel overwhelmed.
  • Talking and venting feelings about one's situation is very stress relieving for some people. Trusted family members or friends, or an individual therapist can offer support, a shoulder for crying on and a place to discuss feelings and seek counsel.
  • Organizing helps some people to calm down. Cleaning one's house or making lists of errands to be run and then checking them off as they are completed can be soothing activities.
  • Relaxation techniques help relieve muscular tension associated with stress.
  • Soothing environments, either imagined, visualized or experienced, help to calm jangled nerves.
  • Exercise can be a very effective means of calming one's self down.
  • Distraction, or taking one's mind off of disturbing thoughts and feelings can also be a very effective means of coping with tension.

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What are relationship strengthening techniques that a couple can use?

  • Whereas communication and soothing approaches help couples to work through their conflicts, relationship strengthening approaches help couples to strengthen the bonds that hold them together in spite of conflicts.
  • Relationship Inventories. Prompting remembrances of times when things were not so tense can help reawaken in each partner the feelings that first brought them together.
  • Partner Pleasing Exercises. Therapists also sometimes will ask conflicted couples to commit to doing something, one thing, which will please their partner, and to commit to doing this thing for their partner as a gift, without expectation of reciprocation.
  • Forgiveness. Taking a cue from religious practice, some therapists ask conflicted partners to find it within themselves to forgive their partners for their transgressions.
  • Sex. Reasonably frequent sexual relations between committed partners are often an important part of what keeps a relationship healthy.

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