We all have marital issues. Some seem to come out of nowhere; an emotional affair, financial infidelity, or discovering that your partner has a sexual compulsivity problem or a substance abuse problem are but a few examples.
I’ve talked a lot in previous posts about these sudden, traumatic revelations in the course of a marriage. Some marital issues are solvable, but some are perpetual, and will never be solved. But these marital issues can be managed skillfully with good couples therapy.
Research is now uncovering a different set of behaviors that chip away at trust and confidence in gradual and subtle ways. These behaviors slowly become looming marital issues.
Here are 11 toxic behaviors that will probably become significant marital issues:
This is an issue that typically plagues husbands more than wives. Some men bristle at the first sign of frustration or irritation from their partners. Consequently, their wives feel that only pleasant and positive emotions are welcome.
Women are fundamentally different from men in that they have a higher tolerance for complicated, negative feelings. They still feel that emotional connection is possible through talking these feelings through.
Men see negative emotions as “problems,” which are a direct comment on their competence and capacities as partners. They often minimize, marginalize, deflect, or devalue their spouse’s emotions.
This typically results in the escalation of an attack-defend pattern, which ultimately results in the “walk-away wife.”
Some spouses are incredibly competitive. They are so insecure or anxious that they are perpetually correcting their partners over trivial matters of facts or data. I see this trait in highly intelligent couples often.
I once worked with a couple who slid into nasty arguments.
I once saw them fight about what kind of bugs were on their windshield during their last vacation.
After watching them argue for a few minutes, I asked: “so which one of you is an entomologist?”
Neither of them. He ran a political non-profit, and she was a VP of marketing.
This is a subtle toxic behavior that can slowly make conversation more of an effort. It’s one of the most preventable marital issues, and science-based couples therapy can help you break this bad habit.
This is often found with needing to be “chronically right.” It’s another expression of the inclination to be toxically competitive. In this pattern, the normal “give and take” is subordinated into a fear of being exploited.
When your partner is keeping too close a score on “who does what,” it slowly erodes the capacity for mutual trust, goodwill, and gratitude.
Another toxic competitive behavior is being a conversational overachiever.
When we get physiologically aroused, we aren’t listening; we’re waiting to talk at our partner. This usually happens because they’re talking at us as well.
Communication is a fundamental skill in any intimate relationship. We learn about communication in our family of origin. Any skills or deficits we may have, we first acquired them as a witness to our caregivers’ pattern of interaction.
The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting. Fran Lebowitz.
Poor communication can lead to marital issues over time. There’s a considerable difference between assertively asking for you want instead, and subjecting our partner to an endless barrage of criticism that will slowly kill any mutual desire for communication.
At CTI, we deal with very successful couples. They consistently complain that time management is a constant struggle. Powerful couples are pulled in multiple directions. They eventually become pretty good at being their individually successful selves, but they suck at being a couple.
These couples can increase their effectiveness by holding regular Generative Conversations. In science-based couples therapy, we help our clients assess what they are doing and why. We teach them to share what matters to each of them.
This helps assure the quality of their bond by teaching them being more selfish about protecting their relationship from trivial outside pressures.
Marital issues can be processed, managed, or resolved through the habit of regular Generative Conversations.
Gottman’s research tells us that 69% of all marital issues are fundamentally unsolvable.
They must be managed or accepted. If you keep aggressively trying to change your partner, over time, resentment will grow, and so will the marital problems between you.
You are different people.
Differentiation is a concept in couples therapy that reminds us that we are each unique individuals. You will not see eye to eye on everything. Failure to accept what can be a pathway to inconsolability, which is one of the most toxic marital issues.
A great marriage is not when the perfect couple comes together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences. Dave Meurer.
If you can’t forgive, explore your capacity to accept. Inconsolability is a massive roadblock to marital happiness. Whether the offenses are petty or profound… if you’re going to stay together, get some help in couples therapy putting it behind you. Inconsolability is one of the most toxic marital issues. It is both emotionally overwhelming and inherently disrespectful.
Acceptance is a key element of marital respect.
If you’re unwilling to forgive your spouse or accept them for who they are, or for the mistakes they’ve made, marital happiness and contentment will continue to elude you. Dr. Gottman considers inconsolability as a significant obstacle to having a “good-enough” relationship.
Your partner is unpredictable, quirky, insensitive, selfish, nervous…fill in the blank.
You have a story about them because their behavior requires an explanation.
Dr. K works with couples struggling to deal with Asperger’s, and CTI team member Jennifer Elkins helps couples to cope better with Adult ADD. What if your partner isn’t an insensitive narcissist or a lazy good for nothing who can’t finish anything? What if you are a Neuro-Typical/Neuro-Atypical couple?
What if you just need some skills to manage these cognitive differences effectively?
Science-based couples therapy can help you both deal with these exasperating brain-based differences. It can help you communicate more effectively before you run out of patience and goodwill.
One of the most subtle, corrosive marital issues is the inability to maintain firm, healthy boundaries. Couples need to keep kids, co-workers, friends, and family out of their business.
There are often family-of-origin and sometimes cultural challenges in keeping healthy boundaries. Science-based couples therapy can help with this most pernicious of marriage problems.
Boundaries are a wall of trust with you and your spouse on one side, and everyone else (yes, including the kids) on the other.
Believe me when I tell you that your careers, kids, co-workers, friends, and extended family will put a strain on a healthy marriage if you let them. The most resilient married couples carve out time for themselves and can say “no” with love in their hearts and a smile on their faces.
No one will care about how much fun the two of you are having except…the two of you.
Say NO! more often to creeping demands and gnarly encroachments on your time.
If your kids are the emotional center of your family, that may feel comfortable now, but when your nest is empty, you might find yourself married to a stranger.
Our consumer-culture makes a virtue of putting the needs of the kids first. They have so many wants, needs, and desires. You barely have time to address them all.
Be selfish about your need for “couple time” and physical intimacy. And learn to say no sometimes.
The best gift you can give your kids long-term is to model a healthy intimacy, and frankly, you’re going to need to be a bit selfish sometimes to make that happen.
Don’t let your kids be the sole center of gravity in your family. Show them what “we-ness” looks like. Your grandkids will thank you.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.