All relationships have problems. And all relationships require work to keep them healthy.
Below, two experts who work with couples share some of the most common concerns that can sabotage relationships, along with successful strategies.
According to clinical psychologist Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, even though technology keeps us connected, it also can keep us apart. “Not only is it siphoning off energy from the relationship, but it’s also an easy exit for people who tend to avoid conflict, tension, or stress in their lives,” she said. Instead of tuning into each other, partners turn to their devices and escape into cyberspace, she said.
Strategies: “Designate technology-free zones in the house and technology-free times,” Irwin said. For instance, you might decide that the dinner table and evening hours are off-limits. It also helps to figure out why you use technology, she said. “If you are stressed or there is tension in your relationship, imagine reaching out to your partner to connect, to work through issues or get support — instead of your device,” she said.
2. Extended family.
Becoming a family with your partner is a big transition, according to clinical psychologist Lisa Blum, PsyD. It shifts your priorities and can produce conflict, Blum said. For instance, your husband might think you spend too much time with your mom. Or your wife might think you’re constantly helping out your parents and neglecting your home.
Strategies: First, you need to identify that this is an issue for your relationship, Blum said. When you’re talking, instead of blaming each other, admit that you’re feeling disconnected or left out, she said.
Focus on what adjustments you can make, she said. Maybe Fridays will become your date night. Maybe your husband will tell his parents that he’ll make one repair per month.
You might need to be assertive with your family in preserving these boundaries, Blum said. While it might be tough at first, remember the cost of not following through.
The changes you negotiate don’t really matter, Blum said. What matters is that you’re being heard and your needs responded to.
Money is a hot-button topic, and many times, couples simply avoid talking about finances. “The emotions tied to money often run so deep that couples are reluctant to broach the topic at all. And in today’s rocky economy and job market, couples are facing the strain of unemployment, debt, and restricted budgets more frequently than ever,” Irwin said.
Strategies: First, create a list of three or four financial goals on your own, Irwin said. Your list might include everything from swiftly paying off student loans to saving for a house. After you’re done, compare notes. “Couples are often surprised at how many of their goals line up, or how willing they are to adopt each other’s goals,” Irwin said. “Then create a list of joint goals.”
Also important is to set and stick to a budge. Living within your means doesn’t only help with your finances; it’s also a great way to build trust, Irwin said. “It sends the message that you can be counted on, and that you’re following through with agreed-upon goals.”
Finally, be honest with each other about your finances, such as any debt, Irwin said.
Work becomes a problem when one partner is “married to their job,” Blum said, “and it seems to be a more common concern today. That’s because work is taking on a larger role in our lives.” Many people find a sense of community with their co-workers. And, given our current economy, many have little choice over working longer hours and having extra responsibilities.
Strategies: It’s important to agree that your relationship is taking a hit because of work, Blum said. This might seem obvious, but the other partner might not see a problem. They may think that the relationship needs to adjust, she said. If you’re not on the same page, naturally, it’s that much harder to find solutions.
When voicing your concerns, instead of blaming or attacking your partner, acknowledge that you miss them and your time together, Blum said. The obvious solution is to work less. For instance, if you work 12 hours, can you work nine or 10 hours instead?
If not, small changes can still make a big difference, Blum said. If you work long days, take a few minutes out of your lunch break to chat over the phone. This gives you “a moment of connection in an otherwise disconnected day,” she said. Create rituals together. For instance, every Saturday morning, eat breakfast together and take a walk.
5. Emotional affairs.
Many people have close friendships with the opposite sex. What distinguishes a close friendship from an emotional affair is that a good friend is also a friend of your romantic relationship, Blum said. Emotional affairs usually have a divide, she noted. There’s some secrecy or withholding of information. For instance, you avoid telling your partner that you regularly have lunch with your friend. You might even commiserate about each other’s relationships.
Strategies: The key is to be honest with yourself, and reflect on the relationship, Blum said. Ask yourself whether this person is truly a friend of your primary relationship. Also, do you withhold information from your partner? Do you dislike your friend and partner being in the same room? Do you feel like you can’t disclose the details of your conversations? Are you telling this person intimate thoughts and feelings? Why can’t you share this with your spouse? Are you more excited to see your friend than your partner? How do you feel when you’re around them?
If it might be an emotional affair, you don’t have to cut all ties, Blum said. But you do need to create boundaries. “You need to start switching where the emotional energy is being invested.” For instance, you might spend less time with this person, eat lunch with others, and avoid intimate talks (which you save for your spouse), she said.
When carefully and thoughtfully done, talking to your partner about the situation can help, Blum said. (But beforehand, consider your goals for the discussion, she said. Is your goal to go to therapy to salvage your relationship? Is it to confess and reconnect? Is it to incite jealousy?)
For instance, you might say that you’re spending more time with this friend and sharing information about your day. You might mention that this has been bothering you, and you’d rather be close to your partner. Then you can discuss solutions, she said.
Learn more about the work of Lisa Blum and Silvina Irwin at their website.