No matter how much we love our partner and how much history we share, it’s normal to face a few hurdles in a relationship. We’ve outlined some of the most common relationship problems couples experience, and some advice on how to navigate them.
Our partners can offer up some fabulous things: compassion, companionship, good sex, serious culinary skills and a great sense of humour. Yet we’re all different people, with different views, goals and quirks. At times, these may grate. Our partner’s habits and opinions — that once didn’t seem so bad in the early days of our relationship — can start to get under our skin the longer we’ve been together.
Conversations may become difficult, our fuses get shorter, communication fails and things can start to feel a little hostile. This may result in conflict and anger, the sense that you’re drifting apart, or just general feelings of unhappiness.
Although these may be upsetting and cause for concern, relationship problems aren’t necessarily a sign that all is doomed.
If you run into relationship difficulties, it’s possible to turn things around, as long as you and your partner are willing to identify issues and take action. Sometimes all we need to set things right is open communication, understanding and a few healthy changes.
What can create relationship difficulties?
Although every relationship is different, almost all couples run into problems. One of the first steps in resolving relationship difficulties is knowing where they come from.
Everyone has their own history, beliefs and personality. In certain situations, they may have us at odds with our partner. These are our ‘core differences’ and while we may accept them early in a relationship, they can be heightened by the following external stressors:
- Stress and pressure caused by anything from health and work, to parents and money
- Busy schedules that make you feel like you’re not spending time together
- A loss of trust – for example, if we’ve caught our partner in a lie
- Financial insecurity or difficulties
- Fertility issues
- Illness or disability
- Serious life-changing events, such as the loss of a family member
However, even if none of the above scenarios are at play, your relationship may still not be immune from experiencing the occasional hiccup. Below we’ve listed some of the most common relationship difficulties people experience, along with some advice on how to recognise and address them with your partner.
Common relationship problem: communication issues
As with all things in life, when it comes to overcoming relationship problems, communication is key. Difficulties arise when we stop being open and honest, and instead become mean, unforgiving, or start to play the ‘blame game’.
The Gottman Institute use the metaphor of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ to describe the four communication missteps that, if left unaddressed, can signal the end of a relationship:
Criticism: Criticism is damaging when we’re calling into question someone’s personality – the essence of who they are – and it can make constructive dialogue almost impossible. Rather than complaining about or critiquing our partner’s behaviour, we attack them as a person, pointing out their perceived flaws and laying blame at their feet. In heated moments, we may not even be aware we’re criticising someone, but it can be far more hurtful and demeaning than we realise.
Contempt: Akin to hatred, contempt brings out our nasty side and sees us disregard or mock our partner. We find ways to make them feel small, worthless and unloved, often because we’ve cast ourselves as being morally superior.
Defensiveness: Defensiveness can happen when we feel we’re being criticised and we want the perceived attack to stop. We may do it to try and get a point across, to prove our partner wrong, because we feel that words are failing us, or simply because we’re embarrassed by our behaviour and are trying to backtrack. However, by minimising or dismissing our partner’s feedback, we risk making our them feel that their worries and frustrations aren’t valid. This in turn can lead them to get defensive, and the toxic ‘blame game’ cycle continues.
Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when we stop engaging entirely, physically or mentally removing ourselves from a situation. We may keep quiet or use body language that cuts our partner out. Stonewalling is not something we’re always in control of, especially if it’s happening because we feel beaten down, unloved or misunderstood. It often occurs when contempt, criticism and defensiveness have been brewing for some time, and stonewalling feels like the only way we can cope. Stonewalling, if left unaddressed, can become a serious issue in relationships, and is seen by experts as a key predictor of divorce and relationship breakdown.
How to address communication issues
To counterbalance criticism, let your partner know how you feel about what’s happened – or what needs to happen next. Use the word “I” as much as possible. Rather than focusing on your partner’s character, you’re trying to convey how their actions impact you.
Counter contempt with honesty. Tell your partner what you’re feeling. Shining a light on your emotions and how actions impact you will help someone caught in a spiral of contempt remember who they’re really talking to – a partner they love. You can also counteract contempt by making a point to regularly praise the good qualities in your partner, instead of taking them for granted. Then when you do call out any negative behaviour, you’ve already built up a ‘positive shield’. Your partner will have enough evidence to know that although you’re frustrated in that moment, you still love and respect them.
If you find yourself getting defensive, let your partner know that you understand how they feel. Or, if you’ve done something that needs to be addressed, take responsibility. No one likes admitting they’re wrong, but by accepting your role in a conflict – or the fact your actions may have negatively affected your partner – you’re letting them know that their concerns were heard and you didn’t act out of malice.
Finally, if you find yourself stonewalling, the best course of action is to pause the conversation and ask for a break. Even stepping away for half an hour can refresh you, let the adrenaline subside, and help you both see the situation a little clearer. Note that if you find yourself repeatedly on the receiving end of stonewalling from your partner, this could be an early sign of emotional abuse, and it might be wise to seek professional counselling.
Common relationship problem: issues with sex
As our relationship evolves, so does our sex life. While our sexual relationships are bound to change over time, waning desire can be an indicator that there are communication issues or things going awry in other parts of the relationship.
Common issues that arise around sex include:
- Differences in levels of sexual desire
- Loss of sexual desire
- Inability to achieve orgasm
- Erection difficulties or sexual functioning that has been affected by chronic illness, surgery or disability
- Impact of childhood sexual abuse on your sexual intimacy
- Expectations created by the availability of pornography or social media
- Issues around gender and sexuality
Even with no external contributing factors, sexual issues are much more common than you may think, but we don’t often hear about them.
How to address issues with sex
It can be helpful to remember that sex is only one part of intimacy. The closer you are as a couple in ways other than sex, the more rewarding your sex life often becomes. When you can share common experiences with each other, as well as being able to openly discuss feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, happiness and excitement, this can have a beneficial effect on the sexual aspects of your relationship.
However, even after addressing other issues in the relationship, sex may still leave you or your partner feeling overwhelmed, unsatisfied or disinterested. If this is the case, or if sex has stopped altogether, it may be time to talk about these issues – ideally with the support of a relationship counsellor.
Remember, the sooner you act on issues, the easier they are to resolve. The good news is, things can still be satisfying and exciting in long-term sexual relationships. It’s often a case of finding new ways to keep the early passion alive.
Common relationship problem: anger
Anger can be frightening – both when it’s directed at us, and when we feel it bubbling away within ourselves. Anger suggests that there’s a sense of injustice – that we’re not being heard, respected or understood, and we feel that rage is the only tool we have left to communicate.
We all experience anger sometimes, but relationships can actually become stronger if partners can talk about differences and stress as a normal part of their relationship.
How to address anger
If you feel anger brewing, acknowledge it rather than pretending everything’s fine. This will give you a chance to address a problem before adrenaline and annoyance take hold. Taking time away from a problem may help you feel calmer and find new ways to express yourself.
Be aware that there may be something behind the anger, such as sadness, hurt, disappointment, or a sense of being let down or taken for granted. The underlying feeling will usually help show which relationship problems you need work through.
However, there may be a serious issue if you can’t get past this sense of anger, or if it keeps reoccurring and disrupting your life. If this is the case, be prepared to seek help in addressing it. If anger grows, resentment can follow, and solving a relationship’s core issues will start to feel impossible. Additionally, things should never escalate to physical expressions of anger, and this kind of behaviour can constitute abuse.
Getting help with your relationship problems
If you’re dealing with a number of overlapping relationship problems, feel like your relationship has broken down, or are looking for ways to make healthy changes, seeking professional support – be that with a series of counselling sessions or a group workshop – can be a huge help.
Sharing your hopes and concerns with neutral parties and exploring techniques you didn’t know existed can help your relationship overcome challenges and last the distance.
Relationships Australia has a range of counselling services as well as a Couples Communication course, to help couples work through problems and difficulties in their relationship.