Written by Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, the Marriage in a Box blog shares insights into common relationship struggles, gives ideas for moving beyond the roadblocks, and helps you find your path to happiness – both individually and within your relationship.
Many couples tend to focus on the problems and conflicts in their marriage, believing that if they can just solve their problems their marriages will be happy. The reality is that no couple will ever solve all of their problems.
There are two types of problems in a marriage.
- Solvable problems are those that are situational, one-time or occasional problems. Solvable problems do not cause pain to a spouse. A solution can usually be found after discussion.
- Perpetual problems are conflicts that happen repeatedly and are rooted in personality traits or cultural beliefs or family upbringing. Perpetual problems cause pain and are usually emotional conflicts. No matter how often the couple discusses the problem, a solution is not found.
The process to arrive at a resolution or way to cope with both types of problems is the same. All people have a basic need to feel that they are understood and accepted. If you understand your spouse and accept who they are, you are able to communicate openly to resolve your issues.
In order for your marriage to remain a loving a safe place to be, we need to be willing to understand our partner.
Often our egos get in the way of trying to understand how our partner is feeling and what they need from us.
In any marital problem or conflict there are two subjective opinions, yours and theirs. No one has the right opinion and no one knows the right way. The problem or conflict is never one partner’s fault. When something happens, you see it one way and your partner sees it another way. It is a matter of perception.
The first step in resolving any problem or conflict is communicating to understand the problem or conflict. That means:
- No judgment
- No blaming
- No accusations
You need to take time to calm down, think about what made you upset, and what should change either resolve the problem or make it easier for you to cope with it.
In order for marriage to improve, we need to feel accepted by our spouse.
True acceptance means that you love your spouse for who they are, warts and all. It is not a conditional acceptance that your partner seeks. If you do this I will accept you, if you make more money I will be happy with you. Not accepting your spouse for who they are is rejection.
You fell in love with your spouse when they were not perfect; so do not require that they change their personality or intrinsic nature in order to be accepted by you.
- Focus on what you admire about your spouse.
- Focus on what makes you grateful for your spouse.
- Focus on the little things your spouse does to make you happy.
Unless your spouse feels accepted by you, it will be difficult to discuss any type of problems you have in the marriage. When people feel criticized, unappreciated, or disliked, they are too busy protecting themselves to have an open communication about issues.
There are no big magic, dramatic solutions to our problems in a marriage. The small everyday efforts we choose to make to understand and accept our spouses as they are will help resolve the problems are make them easier to cope with.
Too often when people have been together for a while, they have a tendency to take each other or granted. We may stop making an effort to be our best selves for our spouse. Before long, we are ignoring our spouses, not seeking their opinion on things, criticizing them for their values or beliefs, or becoming impatient when requesting something of them.
When you stop putting the needs and happiness of your spouse before you own, you have sunk into selfishness. Continue down this road and you will drive your spouse away. The hour has come for you to start being your best self for your spouse by sowing them respect and kindness.
Respect is the foundation of a healthy marriage. Couples enter into marriage voluntarily because they love each other, but they are individuals with differing needs and wants. As such, each partner in the relationship should be willing to:
- listen to their spouse
- be accepting of their differences
- be patient when requesting something or communicating, and
- respect their personal boundaries.
Respect is revealed in the things we say, the tone of voice we use, our expectations of our partner, and how we listen to our partner. There is no room in a marriage for rude or sarcastic remarks, name calling, criticism, anger or yelling. You do not seek to tear down someone you love. You need to treat your partner gently, tenderly, and protectively. Love is fragile and when someone close to you treats you harshly, that love is crushed.
Communication is essential for achieving respect in your marriage. The better you communicate, the better you can restore and maintain marital respect. Begin a conversation with praise and softly lead into the issue you want to discuss. State how you feel about an issue rather than accuse our partner of a behavior. Your aim is to keep the conversation positive and non-defensive so that it does not escalate to anger. Remember that you are talking to someone you love.
Don’t look for a reason to be kind; just be that way. Kindness is shown in a thousand ways, such as texting encouraging words, being a builder, having a shoulder to cry on, always finding the good, smiling, finding ways to serve your spouse, hugging your spouse, and thinking of them before you think of yourself.
It takes effort to be kind. You have to focus on the positive things about our spouse and tune out the negative. Both partners in a marriage are imperfect. Picking apart our partner for their differences does nothing to bring you closer together.
A small kind gesture or word may be just what your partner needs to face a harsh, unforgiving world. Be gentle, patient, forgiving, and positive with your spouse.
- A kiss on the check before work
- Keeping dinner warm in the oven when your spouse has to work late
- Forgiving your spouse when they forgot to take out the trash, or Encouraging our spouse with a “knock ‘em dead” before a big presentation makes a positive difference in their day that they will remember.
Respecting your spouse and treating them with kindness are two things that cost very little but can build a healthy, happy marriage.
Apologizing is something everyone in a committed relationship needs to learn how to do, as it can help end arguments and make your partner feel better when their feelings are hurt. It does not matter who was right and who was wrong. You do not need to solve the issue before you apologize for the damage you caused.
A sincere apology helps both the victim and the person who you are asking for forgiveness. When should you apologize? At the end of a long and painful journey, after a fight where we can't take back the hurtful things we said, after weeks or even months of withdrawing from our partner emotionally. Essentially, anytime you feel you may have hurt your partner, you should apologize.
What is an apology?
An apology is a repair attempt born out of love and friendship, the purpose of which is to remind one another of your bond. An apology is admitting you made a mistake, hurt someone's feelings, did something really stupid, made a bad decision, or something else you know is not right.
How to apologize
When you apologize to your spouse, your apology should be genuine and sincere.
- “ I am sorry.”
Express your regret for what has been done.
- “I was wrong and should not have done that.”
Accept responsibility for your actions and words. You are owning your mistake and displaying that ownership to the person you may have hurt.
- “ I want to make this right and restore your confidence in me?”
State what you are willing to do to make things right again.
- “ I will try my best not to do that again.”
Emphasize your determination to not make the same mistake again.
- “Can you forgive me?”
You need to humble yourself and ask for your partner’s forgiveness. This also lets your partner know that you want to repair the damage and continue your relationship.
What NOT to do in your apology
- Don’t make excuses
- Don’t bring up the issues again
- Don’t place blame on your partner (even if they have some blame)
- Don’t make your apology contingent on your partner apologizing
- Don’t demand forgiveness
- Don’t make promises you won’t keep i.e. “ I will never do that again”
When you make an apology and request to be forgiven, it may be difficult for your spouse to forgive you. To forgive you, they must give up their feelings of hurt, anger, embarrassment, humiliation, rejection or betrayal. They will have to live with the consequences of your behavior. They may need time to process it all, so do not expect immediate forgiveness.
Be patient with your spouse, and yourself, and keep the lines of communication open. Forgiveness takes time.
There is no truly perfect marriage or a perfect partner. We all have flaws, but when those wicked little behaviors start robbing you and your partner of the joys of marriage, it is time to put an end to them.
- Being closed off to new experiences with your partner
Partners can adopt roles or routines that limit us and close us off to new things and experiences. “You know I don’t like that restaurant,” or “We always see a movie on Saturday night.” It hurts the relationship when we stop being free and open to developing new shared interests. It can foster real resentment between partners.
While we genuinely don’t like some things, try to remember what it was like when you were dating and experiencing new things with your partner. New experiences can help keep a marriage vibrant.
- Manipulating your partner
Some partners may engage in manipulative maneuvers to get what they want, such as trying to control a situation by falling apart, crying, blowing up or being intimidating. They may adopt roles that hurt or limit them in their relationship. One person becoming domineering and controlling, while the other acts passive and submissive.
It’s essential to say what we want without trying to dominate or control a situation. Being Direct is the best way to maintain an honest and authentic way of relating that gets us what we want in life.
- Sending mixed messages to your partner
Partners can drive each other crazy when their words and actions fail to match. Unfortunately, deception and duplicity are commonly used in a relationship. There can be mixed messages based on people that say one thing but do something else. Examples:
- Saying, “I really love you,” but then acting like you don’t have any time to spend with your partner.
- Saying, “I need to be close to you,” then continually criticizing your partner when he or she is around.
Actions that contradict your words do not look like love. Say what you mean and behave accordingly.
- Lack of affection and impersonal sex with your partner
Over time in a marriage, the sex can start to feel inadequate and impersonal. Some couples describe their sex lives as mechanical or highly routinized. The routine takes much of the excitement out of their attraction. There are outside circumstances that can affect or change one’s physical relationship. However, there’s often a lot of negative self-talk or “critical inner voices” that discourage us from pursuing our sexuality.
It’s essential to filter out the negative messages and stay in touch with this vital part of our partner and ourselves. Ideally, we should strive to keep in touch with our feelings, and be sensitive to our partner’s feelings. There should be a sharing and a give and take, with real intimate contact being made, which sparks loving feelings.
- Having a distorted image of your partner
We can sometimes see our partners for who we want them to be rather than who they are. We distort them by idealizing or putting them on a pedestal. We pick them apart, denigrating them by projecting negative qualities onto them that may not be there. We may see them as more critical, intrusive, or rejecting than they are because we grew up with people who had these qualities.
No one can feel loved unless they feel like they are seen realistically. When our partner builds us up or tears us down, we feel like we’re on shaky ground, not being loved for who we are.
Marriage is a joyful experience that you and your partner can enjoy fully if you will work on eliminating behaviors that are harmful to your marriage.
Every marriage can benefit from humor and joking. Teasing each other is a show of affection. Sometimes joking and teasing can go too far when it becomes personally belittling. Belittling can be a misguided, insulting joke or teasing that goes too far. “Oh, oh, you’re wearing the “fat dress” again.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum belittling is a form of verbal abuse used to make another person feel small, unimportant or disrespected. It tears at a person’s confidence and sense of self-esteem. Belittling can be used to exert control over someone else.
What is Belittling?
- Yelling or screaming at you to get a reaction.
- Insulting you—calling you fat, ugly or stupid—or criticizing your parenting skills or intelligence.
- Ignoring how you feel, disregarding your opinion or failing to recognize your contributions.
- Humiliating or embarrassing you, especially in front of family or friends.
- Bringing up past failures or mistakes as evidence of your incompetence or lack of intelligence.
- Forcing you to agree with them instead of forming or expressing your own opinion.
- Treating you as their property or as someone who has no value other than as a sex object.
- Denying the belittling, blaming it on you or criticizing you for making too big a deal out of it.
- Blaming you for their abusive behavior, but then turning around and telling you how much they love you.
How do you know if you are being verbally abused?
- By the way it makes you feel less than, and by the lack of a sincere apology when you express how hurtful the comment was.
- By how frequently the belittling comments occur.
- Are you afraid of your partner?
- Are you extra cautious whenever your partner is around not to do something to upset them?
It is hard to believe that someone you love and trust would deliberately try to hurt you in order to control you or make themselves seem powerful. However, no one deserves to be demeaned or insulted. In a health relationship, partners do not hurt each other intentionally. Respectful partners should build each other up, not purposefully put each other down.
How do you deal with belittling behavior?
Don’t underestimate belittling or brush it off. If a comment or action makes you feel bad, it’s your right to express your discomfort directly and to expect a genuine apology.
- Don’t retaliate or insult them back.
- Identify how the comment makes you feel, so that you can express your emotions.
- Tell your partner exactly how they made you feel and that you didn’t like it.
Healthy expression of feelings can strengthen a marriage, but unhealthy expressions of feelings can create distance and tear the marriage apart. If you suspect that your partner’s belittling behavior is more than just an innocent mistake, take time to discuss it with your partner or see a marriage counselor.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. One weakness you do not want in a marriage relationship is a tendency to be dishonest. Even in the smallest things, dishonesty will ruin your marriage.
There are several reasons your spouse may be dishonest with you.
- They may have disappointed you once before, and they are afraid of how you will react.
- They may have promised to change, and they didn’t
- They may have promised to do something but didn’t, even though they meant to.
People often lie not to deceive, but to protect themselves. They are ashamed of what they’re trying to cover up, afraid of the consequences, and they don’t want to have to see your disappointment in them. The reasons do not justify the act, though
Dishonesty will eventually break down and ruin your marriage.
Lying is a selfish act. People try to argue they were doing it to protect someone or something. Lying is usually to cover up something. To keep it secret. To avoid getting in trouble. To avoid hurting another person, so the relationship does not change. Lying only benefits you.
One lie leads to another. If you don’t tell the truth on something seemingly harmless, you’ll be very uncomfortable the first time. The second time you do it, it will be easier. Pretty soon, you’ll lie about things of more significant consequence. You’ll have to invent another lie to cover your tracks on the original lie. It’s just not worth it.
Dishonesty destroys your spouse’s trust. When your spouse learns that you’ve been dishonest with him or her, they’ll have a harder time taking you at your word. Even if they forgive dishonesty, it will be more difficult for them to trust you with the things they value.
Dishonesty hurts your spouse. The hurt’s depth depends on the type of lying, what the lie was about, the length of time the lie has been covered up, and whether or not the lie deals with a sensitive subject. Hurt takes time to heal. When you trust someone, you are vulnerable to them. Dishonesty crushes you. It feels like you can’t trust your partner anymore. It also feels like you had the deepest parts of you abused.
Dishonesty in your marriage can be overcome. You can live a happy life together, full of trust and honesty if you are both willing to confront the issue.
- Let the dishonest spouse know that you are aware that they have been dishonest. Gently explain that you feel very betrayed, and this is painful for you.
- Ask your spouse, “Why didn’t you think I’d listen to the truth?” Hear them out.
- Tell them you feel deeply hurt and betrayed because they lied to you.
- Reassure your spouse that you want to have a relationship with them that isn’t painful and doesn’t include deception.
Learn to be honest in your marriage. Honesty provides safety and trust in relationships.
Have you ever had that feeling that your spouse seemed to be pulling away from the marriage relationship? It isn’t anything they say but more likely something you notice through their actions or reactions or lack thereof.
Pulling away from the relationship can be a temporary thing. Sometimes a partner may seem to be not as affectionate or present in the relationship because they under pressure at work, they are preoccupied with family matters, or they have a medical issue. However, pulling away from the marriage relationship can also be a sign that your marriage is in trouble.
Here are four signs that your partner might be slowly checking out of the marriage and what you can do about it.
- The phone, the computer, or the TV has replaced conversation between you and your spouse.
Couples who still have a connection want to hear about their partner’s day, and are truly interested in the things their partner has to say. This is not to say you are still as fascinated by every single word which comes out of his or her mouth as you were in the early days of your relationship, but you are still invested in your conversations and your life together. You shouldn’t have to compete with the phone, computer, or TV to get your spouse’s attention. This is a warning signal.
Red Flag: When there is never any time set aside for the two of you to talk as partners, friends and lovers, the bond between the two of you is broken.
What to do?
Don’t ignore this behavior. Your partner is tuning you out. Ask your partner to set aside 25 minutes without interruption for you both to talk bout what is happening and what can be done to change the behavior.
- The only communication between you and your spouse seem to be arguments.
There’s nothing wrong with having an argument from time to time to clear the air, so long as you fight fair by not aiming any particularly low blows at your partner. Communication—not arguing—is the backbone of any healthy relationship, and when your daily communication is lacking, one or both partners may begin to resent the other frequent arguments are a serious warning sign.
Red Flag: While arguing may not be very fun, couples that argue still care enough about their relationship to want to change it and make it better. When the words “never” and “always” are thrown into the arguments, the partner using those words may be emotionally giving up on the relationship. This is particularly true when your arguments are the same, time and time again, without any resolution to the issues.
What to do?
Schedule a time to sit down and discuss issues calmly. Address the issues with “ I feel” statements, such as “I feel like you are not listening to me when I have expressed concern about being able to pay our bills and then finding out that you charged this item to our credit card without discussing it with me.” Attack the issue, not the person. Then ask for their input for a solution. “ I am scared about being in too much debt. Do you have a solution on how we can handle this going forward?”
- Your Spouse prioritizes time with friends over time with you.
In the first throes of love, most couples can hardly stand to be apart from one another. Even after years go by, however, you should still enjoy spending time with one another, laughing with one another, and engaging in lighthearted, playful behavior, at least once in a while. If you start noticing a trend where your partner frequently puts time with their friends ahead of time with you, which is a warning sign.
Red Flag: When your spouse’s plans virtually never involve you or vice-versa, there is a lack of connection in your relationship.
- You and your spouse rarely have intimate contact.
When you and your spouse don’t have intimate contact- even to hold hands, your bond of intimacy is broken. While it is natural for interest in sexual intimacy to taper off after years of marriage, couples that are still in love will still usually offer a squeeze of the hand, a pat or a hug. Almost no contact is a warning sign
Red flag: When your partner shows a total lack of physical intimacy, (in the bedroom or otherwise) then the connection you once had may be gone.
What to do?
Start slow and small. Give your spouse a hug in the morning with a smile and a hello. Keep building upon that to kind acts of affection and small intimate touches or kisses. Start to rekindle that flame.
Feeling your partner pull away from the relationship can be hurtful, but don’t jump to conclusions. If you notice your spouse is just not putting much effort into the relationship, it is important to reach out and connect. It might be time to talk about it and discuss what to improve your relationship so you can get back on track and explore what’s going on.
When one partner cheats on another in a marriage, it is an intimate betrayal of their marriage vows. A sacred trust is broken and that results in a lot of anger, hurt, and self doubt. Infidelity is a deep wound that will take a lot of time to heal. Repairing the broken trust in a marriage after an affair takes a lot of work. However, couples that have rebuilt their marriage and recovered from an affair claim that their marriage is now stronger than it was before the affair.
Statistically, it is difficult to know how many couples stay together after infidelity has occurred. A lot depends upon how strong the commitment to one another is. If a couple has been married for a while, have children, and own a house together, they have a big incentive to go through the work of rebuilding their marriage.
The cheating or affair must end.
Whether it was a one-time thing that did not mean anything or a long-term affair where there were feelings involved, the spouse that cheated cannot continue to see those other people or any new people. They need to end those relationships forever. You cannot repair broken trust in you marriage if you are still breaking that trust.
Clear the air.
The spouse who was cheated on deserves the truth. The person who cheated needs to take full responsibility for cheating. You need to allow a period of time where he or she should be able to ask as many questions as they want to about the affair and share how it has made them feel. In turn, if you are the one that cheated, you need to commit to being completely honest with your partner about what happened. Some people need to hear the details. Others may not want to know so much about the details. In order for forgiveness to begin, you and your partner need to clear the air about what happened in the affair and why.
Address the issues.
Spouses cheat for many different reasons, but it almost always leads back to some type of issue in the marriage relationship.
- Lack of communication
- Infrequent sex
- Not spending time together
- Feeling taken for granted
Having problems in the marriage relationship is not an excuse for cheating. However, if a couple can start talking about issues that exist in their marriage outside of the cheating, and start taking steps to address those issues, it can help each spouse feel more comfortable that cheating in the future will be less likely to occur.
Take time to recreate your relationship
Whoever did the cheating in the relationship, needs to understand that healing from their actions will require patience. They will need to work at rebuilding trust in the relationship. Both partners will have to understand that their relationship will not ever go back to the way it was, but a new and happy relationship can be built if they are willing to work at it. The couple will need to eliminate the things in their relationship that were not working and replace them with new, healthier habits.
Couples that realize that they still love each other and are willing to work at it, can recreate a relationship built on honesty and trust can grow stronger, gain a better insight into each other, and define what they want from their marriage.