Couples all too often, when reflecting on an argument, say “It was about nothing,” or it’s over “just the little things.” It’s certainly true that many relationship conflicts don’t revolve around the bigger issues such as financial disagreements, parenting differences, or sexuality issues. While some arguments appear to be about nothing, are they truly not about anything? (As you can probably guess, the answer is “no” since I otherwise would have practically no reason to write this article!)
Recently, while browsing in an online professional forum, I came across an explanation of what is at the root of most relationship conflicts (including the aforementioned “bigger issues”). It was proposed that pretty much any conflict can be boiled down to occur for three reasons, or a varying combination of them.
Discord in all relationships is really about one or more of the following issues, which we usually are not aware of in the moment:
1. The need to feel significant and important.
3. The need for a sense of control.
The need to feel significant and important is common, and everyone experiences it from time to time. This need is frequently at the root of relationship conflict. For example, if one partner insists that their opinion or way of doing things is always right (how to spend money or discipline the kids), there can be some issues with self-esteem underlying why someone stubbornly believes that their way or decision is best. He or she needs to feel important or significant. Another example that comes up for couples is the desire for attention, or the amount of quality time together that one partner may need, which the other may not share. This desire can be looked at as a need to feel significant, or important to their partner.
On the other hand, a partner who never or rarely voices an opinion or disagrees with his or her mate regarding financial decisions, sexual preferences, or division of household chores, may have an underlying fear of abandonment. They may worry that if they rock the boat, their partner won’t accept them, and will ultimately abandon them. Suspicion and jealousy expressed in an intimate relationship are other examples of emotional reactions often covering the underlying fear of abandonment. This happens frequently, of course, if one partner has experienced trust issues in their current (or in a past) relationship.
The need for having a sense of control may in fact account for the most relationship conflicts. Underlying incompatibility issues with tidiness and cleanliness is often one partner’s need for having a sense of control over their environment. Another example is one partner insisting there is a “right” way to load the dishwasher. As you can see, many “little arguments” can often be about one partner’s need to maintain a sense of control.
As a couples counselor, while this notion of three basic root causes of conflict is important and helpful to consider, the biggest challenge is helping couples identify and express the underlying reason for their conflict. Once the core issue is uncovered, then the next challenge is a willingness to address it. Counselors can help a couple discuss underlying fears and needs, but it’s often difficult for clients to express them. A big challenge is for couples to be vulnerable enough to express their underlying fears and needs to their partner. Helping couples communicate their vulnerabilities is a challenging, but extremely important step in couples counseling.
Think back on your last conflict with your partner and see if you can identify the core reason(s) for your disagreement. Do any of the above-listed needs or fears help explain what contributed to your conflict?
If the same root fear or need recurs frequently in your relationship, it probably makes sense to seek (couples or individual) counseling. Taking time to figure out the source of your conflicts is well worth the time and energy and can help ensure your future happiness together.
Imagine yourself at Starbucks, and someone passing by knocks over your double latte. The offender then flippantly responds with “Sorry, didn’t mean to do it”—and keeps on walking out of the store.
While the above scene is certainly infuriating for the person with coffee in their lap, a slight from a stranger will likely pass within the day. However, getting that type of indifferent reaction from someone we know and care about, specifically our significant other, usually affects us a lot longer and hurts us much more.
Whether that hurt is caused accidentally or intentionally, it can be damaging to an intimate relationship if not properly repaired. After lashing out in anger, a “that’s not what I meant,” or even a quick “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to” statement given later by the offending partner, is not an adequate fix because the key issue is not about the intentionality of the offender. Similar to the Starbucks example above, where the offender never meant to douse you with your overpriced beverage, the damage has nothing to do with the person’s intentions. It is how the hurtful words or action impacted you that truly matters. The impact is what needs to be addressed.
As specifically pointed out in the Everyday Feminism article “Intent versus Impact: Why your Intentions Don’t Really Matter,” when you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t matter whether you intended to do so or not. It’s how you rectify the situation that counts.
The healthiest couples don’t simply focus on intent (which may be sufficient if the offense is only of a mild or moderate degree); they address the impact of their words and actions. Missing an occasional appointment or engagement because “I thought it was on Friday, not Thursday” happens to the best of us. However, serious disregard for a partner’s expectations (such as forgetting your anniversary or “date night”) cannot be as easily overlooked. The damage must be repaired to keep the relationship connection strong.
When repairing the connection, it’s the way you make amends that truly matters if you’ve seriously offended or emotionally wounded your partner. You must address the hurt, and how it affects him or her. Even if you’re let off the hook, if you don’t take time to discuss the issue, you’re missing not only the opportunity to understand how your partner really feels, but the opportunity to connect on a deeper level as well.
A sincere and thorough apology needs to include much more than “I’m sorry.” Someone seeking to make amends must understand the damage done, and how to prevent it from happening again.
The following is a list of steps necessary to repair relationship damage:
1. Sincerely apologize.
2. Bear witness to the other person’s pain or hurt. Ask for specifics, such as “Tell me how it affected you when I didn’t remember our important day.”
3. Engage in reflective listening to make sure your partner knows you got it: “You felt (frustrated/sad/angry/disappointed) when I didn’t show up.”
4. Address the future in terms of how you’ll ensure you won’t repeat or cause the same damage again: “I’ll put all future appointments on two online calendars. “
Remember, the whole issue isn’t about who you are as a person. “I’m not racist, sexist, or a bad person” statements miss the point. The steps mentioned above are about addressing how your actions or words affected someone else, which is an essential step to achieve, if you want to maintain a deep connection in relationships.
So whether you accidentally knocked over someone’s drink at Starbucks, missed your wedding anniversary, or lost your temper and said words you now regret, it’s how you repair the damage that matters in the end. By extending a heartfelt apology, trying to understand how the other person was impacted, and doing our best to act more accountably in the future, we can improve relationships of every kind.
Here’s some good news for a change! There is now scientific research actually supporting the notion that long, happy marriages are possible – and occurring.
Humans are born to love, but because of the escalating divorce rate in our society, we have become cynical. The assumption has been that long-term love, while desirable, is unrealistic and hence next to impossible to obtain, not to mention lasting for decades. The news media and entertainment industries don’t focus on good, high-quality relationships, but love can and does last. We are wired to do this, to be monogamous.
Published research in the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal found that specific brainwave activity in couples who had been married an average of 21 years was similar to people who had recently fallen in love. Proven with brain MRIs, both groups revealed high activity in the reward and motivation centers of the brain, suggesting that not only can we love for long periods of time, but we can stay in love with our long-time partners.
Sustained romantic love has cognitive rewards, including “the reduction of anxiety and stress, feelings of security, a state of calmness, and a union with another,” stated Adoree Durayappah, psychological researcher, in Psychology Today. There’s no surprise then that our lifespan is longer if we’re in a (loving) relationship!
Another study conducted by the University of Geneva came to the interesting conclusion that only one personality trait predicted long-term romantic passion: “love blindness.” At first, it’s easy to worship the ground your lover walks on. But, as we become familiar with their habits and other traits, holding the same high opinion can be difficult. Being able to maintain positive illusions about your partner, despite knowing all their negative attributes, helps couples remain happy with each other over time.
Other research has shown that if a potential partner has every single desired quality you’d want in a mate, with the exception of being in love, we are not inclined to marry them (91% of women and 86% of men would not marry if not in love).
In summary, some good points to remember include:
1. It is advisable to maintain a sense of awe about your partner, and focus on the positive traits, instead of the little things that bother you.
2. Keep your relationship fresh and interesting by trying new things together, and by going to new places. Self-expanding activities will make life more enjoyable for both of you over the long term.
3. Maintain some individual independence in order to avoid suffocating or stifling each other. There is no neediness or caretaking in desire. Watching your partner do something he or she excels at can definitely add to the spark and mystery. Encouraging and sharing in each other’s success (and failures) increases intimacy and keeps you connected.
4. Having a passion for life in general will carry over into your relationships, and can help sustain them in the long run.
5. Try to think of your marriage as a life journey together, and use this intimate partnership as your vehicle for self-fulfillment.
Our generation actually has a better chance of finding, and keeping, long-term love than couples in the past. Research today also supports this theory, finding today’s long-term marriages to be stronger and happier, compared to those years ago.
Perhaps the social mores of past generations, as well as gender role expectations, kept relationships intact, but today’s marriages are about more than meeting basic needs for survival. We want them to be satisfying and contribute to our personal sense of well-being and fulfillment. However, maintaining a long-term passionate relationship still requires a sufficient time and energy commitment by both partners to live happily ever after.
Let’s face it. In some circles, couples counseling has had a bad rap. Some believe that it is not worthwhile and rarely leads to a positive outcome. Others may have heard of someone who didn’t have a good experience. Couples counseling skeptics, who end up giving it a shot anyway, will unfortunately face the cruel irony that they are unlikely to have a successful outcome in couples counseling. The worst part is that they mostly have themselves to blame. Attitude affects everything, including therapeutic outcomes.
In their book The Heart & Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy, Mark A. Hubble, Barry L. Duncan, and Scott D. Miller examined what factors matter the most in determining therapeutic success or failure. They concluded that there are four factors which determine therapeutic success. Of these four, their research concluded that “client factors,” impact therapeutic outcome the most! So what are “client factors”? Client factors can be thought of as what the client brings with them into the therapy office. This includes their attitudes (about themselves, their partner, their therapist, etc.), beliefs (about couples counseling), and even the amount of social support that they have in their lives.
Interestingly, at the bottom of the list of most impactful factors is the specific therapeutic technique, or approach, a therapist uses in therapy. The second most influential factor is the relationship between therapist and client, which illustrates the importance of finding a good match in counseling.
The bottom line, however, is that while your marriage counselor plays an invaluable role with his or her guidance, observations and suggestions, how hard you work with, and implement the tools and suggestions offered in couples counseling, is far more influential than the actual tools or techniques presented to you.
This research is in fact very consistent with my experience in working with couples: Those who are motivated, have at least some hope, and work hard on improving their relationship, do in fact have the most successful outcomes! One other very important factor (not part of the above research) influencing the success of couples counseling is how long a couple has endured an unsatisfying relationship before seeking help. The longer a couple waits to come in for couples counseling (research suggest the average duration is six years), the more likely at least one partner is short on hope or motivation in working on the relationship.
If a client isn’t persistent in working with their partner or therapist in marriage counseling, it may be telling of their attitude toward the relationship in general.
Unfortunately, couples are too often looking for (or even expecting) a quick fix. When that magical fix inevitably isn’t realized, sometimes one partner will give up and stop coming to the counseling sessions, saying it didn’t work. Another pitfall that leads to a less-than-successful outcome is when one or both partners experience a mild improvement in their relationship, and end couples counseling prematurely, before some of the deeper issues are explored and worked through. For the vast majority of couples, attending couples counseling for less than 8 to 10 sessions is not going lead to lasting positive change in their relationship.
Here are five recommendations to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome:
1. Realistic expectations are needed. Five years of resentment won’t disappear in a few sessions. The longer issues have been festering, the more time it will take to resolve them.
2. Look inward. Start by first focusing on yourself, instead of automatically blaming your partner. Follow the Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world [or in your relationship!].”
3. Be persistent and continue to hold out hope. There really is no substitute for persistence and hard work.
4. Don’t wait — as soon as you recognize things could be improved between you and your partner, get the help your relationship deserves!
5. There is no magic wand. Working hard, both inside and outside of the therapy office, is what makes a big difference in a successful outcome.
So, clearly getting the most out of couples counseling depends largely on what each partner brings into the therapy sessions. It’s the therapist’s responsibility to point out unrealistic expectations, but ultimately, they can only provide the tools and the roadmap for success. It’s up to the couple themselves to use them, work hard and follow the necessary steps to improve their relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, researcher and cofounder of the Gottman Institute, has found through his research that most couples are unhappy for years before addressing their relationship issues. This long delay is not only harmful to the relationship, in many cases it can seriously jeopardize its survival as well. Longstanding problems, mixed with years of resentment, is a recipe that unfortunately spells doom to many relationships. When couples seek assistance from a couples counselor as a last resort, it often occurs too late to repair the damage.
Most couples can benefit from couples counseling. This is true even when issues are minor. However, longstanding, entrenched conflicts may require more intense work, as often at least one partner’s motivation may be compromised. Identifying problems and seeking therapeutic support early on can make a huge difference. By learning to recognize potential red flags, you can stay ahead of the game, and keep major relationship difficulties from developing.
Early Warning Signs of Relationship Trouble
- You’re feeling more like roommates than soul mates. Couples can feel disconnected for many reasons. It’s important to figure out why, and realize it might be a sign that there could be deeper issues lurking below the surface.
- Lack of passion or interest in sex; loss of libido. While it’s possible some couples might be happy with an inactive sex life, there are usually other relationship issues contributing to the situation. If your sex life isn’t a priority, reasons should be investigated.
- You’ve drifted apart, living parallel lives and have few shared activities. Why is there a lack of effort put into finding activities you’d both enjoy?
- Frequent conflict over little things. Or you keep having the same argument over and over again without being able to communicate and resolve the issue. Often in this scenario, there’s a power struggle or underlying resentment going on. Or, the real problem may just be too scary to deal with and thus it stays buried, negatively manifesting in other ways.
- Anger. If one partner is angry in general or seems easily frustrated, it can reflect problems in the relationship. These emotional outbursts might also be reflective of an individual problem, but couples counseling could still be beneficial.
- Men who frequently text their intimate partner (connected to hurting their partner in the process) may indicate a relationship problem. According to recent research, there is a negative association between men texting their intimate partners and their relationship satisfaction. The study, conducted by Brigham Young University, has found that the more men text within the relationship, the more unhappy they are.
- If major decisions are avoided and never made (perhaps about getting married, having children or moving), couples counseling could help resolve the impasse.
- Financial disagreement is a huge issue among couples, and deserves its own category. A couples counselor can help you work through this difficult conflict area.
- If one partner is controlling and refuses to compromise in order to resolve conflict, bigger problems are likely ahead.
- Major life transitions such as a death in the family, birth of a new baby, dealing with a long-distance relationship, or having your mother-in-law move in, will require major adjustments. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page. Plan ahead and work out a strategy to manage the transition with a couples therapist.
- If you and your significant other have stopped reaching out to one another, or quit making repair attempts (What’s a repair attempt? Look here) after a disagreement or conflict, this is another red flag that indicates your relationship needs attention.
- Infidelity or trust issues usually require supportive couples counseling. Most couples can’t navigate these serious problems on their own. If one partner is even contemplating an affair, counseling can help. One warning sign to watch for is the inclination to seek emotional support outside the relationship with the opposite sex (or with the same sex in homosexual relationships).
Even if you don’t identify with any of the above 12 warning signs, it’s a good idea to have a “tune up” counseling session from time to time, to make sure you and your partner are maximizing the quality of your relationship. If these warning signs uncover areas in your relationship that need to be addressed, don’t wait. Take action now to make your future together as fulfilling as possible!