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Relationship problems

Arguments and disagreements occur within all close relationships, and are a normal part of dealing with differences in ideas, beliefs, and perspectives.1

However, chronic relationship conflict and stress is a serious issue. It has been linked to poorer mental and physical health1 and can affect other areas of life such as relationships with family and friends, and work colleagues2. Children also suffer when exposed to high levels of conflict at home, and are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, behavioural problems, and poorer health.1

Learning effective and respectful ways to communicate differences is an important step in building a healthy, fulfilling relationship, and which can benefit our overall wellbeing and those around us.3

What causes relationship problems?

There is no one, single cause for relationship problems, but a number of factors can play a part.

Past experiences

A person’s family and upbringing can play an important role in his or her future relationships. People whose parents divorced are more likely to experience relationship breakdowns than those whose parents remained togetherand seeing high levels of conflict during childhood and adolescence or experiencing abuse in the early years has been linked to relationship problems later in life.5,6

Life transitions and stress

Life transitions, such as moving from living together to being married, having a baby, children leaving home, and moving into retirement can put strain on a relationship, and the couple can start feeling less ‘connected’ to one another.7-10

Personal stress can also place strain on the relationship. When people are stressed, they find it more difficult to be positive or to be forgiving with their partner, which can increase their sense of dissatisfaction in the relationship.11 Work problems or financial difficulties, difficulties with in-laws or extended family, or balancing the needs of aging parents with the needs of caring for one’s own children can spill over into the relationship and increase stress between couples.12-14

How people think

The way people think about themselves, their partner and their relationship is an important factor in relationship outcomes. Couples experiencing problems can start to blame each other and see each other as the cause of arguments and difficulties, viewing their partner’s behaviour as selfish and intentional.15 Seeing the relationship or the other person through a negative ‘lens’ can lead to placing more weight on negative events than on the positives, when they occur.16.17 This pattern can lead to more conflict or withdrawal.18

Behavioural factors

Particular patterns of behaviour can be important signs that a relationship is at risk. Interactions that include disrespect, defensiveness, criticism, or ‘stonewalling’ (putting up a barrier to communication) are signs that a relationship is in crisis.17 A ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction has been suggested as a good indicator that a relationship is functioning well.19

Habits of healthy relationships

Couples that successfully navigate life transitions are those who take time to talk about how they can manage changes together.8 Consistent positive emotions and behaviours can protect against the regular ups and downs of life.20,21

Couples who express positive feelings and see each other in a positive light are more likely to experience success in their relationship,19 while positive views of the bond can help promote relationship stability22 and protect against negative feelings, even during arguments.23 Forgiveness,24 as well as feeling and expressing gratitude,25 both have positive effects on the relationship.

Whilst stressful events can have a negative impact on a relationship, they can also help to develop strong coping skills within the couple. Successfully coping with small stressors early on in the relationship can lead to increased knowledge and confidence in managing future difficulties.26

The ability to listen to and understand the other person’s point of view and emotional experience, share one’s ownthoughts and experience with one’s partner, and engage in problem-solving together are also characteristics of rewarding and successful relationships. These qualities help couples not only to overcome life stress together but also to strengthen their relationship through good times and bad.27

Treatment

Relationship problems are a common reason that people seek help from mental health professionals.2 Emotion-focused couple therapy (EFT) and behavioural couple therapy (BCT) are two of the most widely studied and supported forms of treatment for relationship problems.3, 28 Research has shown that these psychological interventions are helpful in improving relationship satisfaction and the quality of interactions for many couples.29-31

Both these therapies focus on a range of strategies to improve communication and increase understanding of one another.

Changing the view of the relationship

Rather than blaming each other, it is helpful for both partners to accept that their attitudes and behaviours influence the relationship. Each partner might think about the causes and consequences of their behaviour, and develop a better understanding of how their actions affect their partner, positively and negatively.32

Expressing emotion

Couples who are experiencing difficulties in their relationship often avoid expressing their emotions or vulnerabilities, or they may criticise or blame each other. Sharing private thoughts and emotions, and encouraging caring, understanding, and acceptance from a partner, can be helpful in building closeness within a relationship.32

Using affection and humour

The use of playfulness, affection and positive humour (rather than humour that includes criticism or put-downs), particularly during arguments, also promotes relationship satisfaction and closeness.33, 34

Improving communication

Learning effective communication and problem-solving skills can be an important part of improving interactions within a relationship. For example, if there are high levels of criticism or blame, each partner might learn new ways of openly but respectfully expressing his or her concerns. Or, for couples who avoid communication, learning to safely share their worries and increase positive expression of emotions may be helpful.32

Problem-solving within a relationship might include steps such as agreeing on a clear definition of the problem, brainstorming solutions and the likely outcomes for each partner, agreeing on a solution and trying it out, and making a plan to re-evaluate whether it solved the problem or needs further work.35

Promoting strengths

Focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship and of your partner can increase levels of enjoyment and satisfaction, and encourages positive behaviour.32 For example, couples might like to think about what attracted them to their partner in the first place,36 or to think about things they can do that their partner would appreciate, and deliberately do those things more frequently.35

Seeking help

All relationships face difficulties, and most are resolved over time. However when problems become a pattern, and seem unable to be solved, it is important to seek professional help from someone experienced in working with relationship issues.

Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in providing effective interventions for a range ofconcerns, including relationship problems. A psychologist can help you to identify and address factors that might be contributing to your relationship issues and the most effective ways to address these using techniques based on best available research. Other mental health concerns or substance use issues might also be evaluated and addressed, assisting both the person experiencing these difficulties, as well as the relationship.

Ideally, both partners would agree to seek assistance so that together, they can work out issues in their relationship. However, if your partner is reluctant or unwilling to seek help, then even seeking help on your own behalf can start the process of change within the relationship.

If you are referred to a psychologist by your GP, you might be eligible for a Medicare rebate. Ask your psychologist or GP for details.

There are number of ways to access a psychologist. You can:

  • use the Australia-wide Find A PsychologistTM directory or call 1800 333 497
  • ask your GP or another health professional to refer you.

An individual who is experiencing domestic violence (including threats to physical, psychological, or economic safety) should seek help immediately.

The Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria provides a list of support services that can provide assistance.

10 ways to improve your relationship

  1. Work on lowering stress in your life, which might be putting strain on your relationship.
  2. Take time to talk with your partner about life stresses and how to manage these together. Seek to support each other in times of difficulty.
  3. Focus on making the positive interactions in your relationship outweigh the negative, by five to one. Remember to show appreciation, gratitude, and care.
  4. Be open to sharing your views, ideas and emotions - this builds closeness and understanding. Work on expressing frustration, disappointment and anger openly and constructively.
  5. Be open to your partner’s point of view and, rather than jumping to conclusions, seek to understand how your partner thinks and feels, or why he or she might be acting in a certain way.
  6. Establish that you do indeed share the same values, expectations and standards for your relationship, and work to live by the values important to you.
  7. When there is conflict make sure to remain respectful of each other. Take time to calm yourselves if needed and return to the discussion later. Make sure you both work to repair any hurt caused.
  8. Develop a sense of shared meaning in your relationship, by appreciating each other’s roles in the relationship, the goals that link you, and the ways each of you contribute to and influence each other and your shared life.
  9. Encourage your partner in his or her work, friendships, and activities. Celebrate successes.
  10. Keep your sense of playfulness, affection and positive humour alive in your relationship.

References

  1. Gurman, A. S. (2008). A framework for the comparative study of couple therapy. In Alan S Gurman (Ed.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (4th ed., pp. 1-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. Whisman, M. A., & Uebelacker, L. A. (2006). Impairment and distress associated with relationship discord in a national sample of married or cohabiting adults. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(3), 369.
  3. Byrne, M., Carr, A., & Clark, M. (2004). The efficacy of behavioral couples therapy and emotionally focused therapy for couple distress. Contemporary Family Therapy, 26(4), 361-387.
  4. Amato, P. R., & DeBoer, D. D. (2001). The transmission of marital instability across generations: Relationship skills or commitment to marriage? Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1038-1051.
  5. Whitton, S. W., Waldinger, R. J., Schulz, M. S., Allen, J. P., Crowell, J. A., & Hauser, S. T. (2008). Prospective associations from family-of-origin interactions to adult marital interactions and relationship adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(2), 274-286.
  6. Nelson, B. S., & Wampler, K. S. (2000). Systemic effects of trauma in clinic couples: An exploratory study of secondary trauma resulting from childhood abuse. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26(2), 171-184.
  7. Lavee, Y. (2013). Stress processes in families and couples. In G. W. Peterson & K. R. Bush (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family (3 ed., pp. 159-176). New York, NY: Springer.
  8. Rose-Greenland, F., & Smock, P. J. (2013). Living together unmarried: What do we know about cohabiting families? In G. W. Peterson & K. R. Bush (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family (3 ed., pp. 255-273). New York, NY: Springer.
  9. O'Brien, M., & Peyton, V. (2002). Parenting attitudes and marital intimacy: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(2), 118.
  10. Boss, P. G. (1980). Normative family stress: Family boundary changes across the life-span. [Article]. Family Relations, 29(4), 445-450.
  11. Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2009). Stress and reactivity to daily relationship experiences: How stress hinders adaptive processes in marriage. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(3), 435.
  12. Ward, R. A., & Spitze, G. (1998). Sandwiched marriages: The implications of child and parent relations for marital quality in midlife. Social Forces, 77(2), 647-666.
  13. Bryant, C. M., Conger, R. D., & Meehan, J. M. (2001). The influence of in-laws on change in marital success. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(3), 614-626.
  14. Randall, A. K., & Bodenmann, G. (2009). The role of stress on close relationships and marital satisfaction. Clinical psychology review, 29(2), 105-115.
  15. Fincham, F. D., Harold, G. T., & Gano-Phillips, S. (2000). The longitudinal association between attributions and marital satisfaction: Direction of effects and role of efficacy expectations. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(2), 267-285.
  16. Lebow, J. (2014). Couple and family therapy: An integrative map of the territory: American Psychological Association.
  17. Gottman, J. M., Ryan, K. D., Carrère, S., & Erley, A. M. (2002). Toward a scientifically based marital therapy. In H.A. Liddle, D.A. Santisteban, R.F. Levant & J.H. Bray (Eds.), Family psychology: Science-based interventions (pp. 147–174). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  18. Durtschi, J. A., Fincham, F. D., Cui, M., Lorenz, F. O., & Conger, R. D. (2011). Dyadic processes in early marriage: Attributions, behavior, and marital quality. Family Relations, 60(4), 421-434.
  19. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.
  20. Stabb, S. D. (2005). What the research tells us. In M. Harway (Ed.), Handbook of couples therapy (pp. 431-456). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  21. Johnson, M. D., Cohan, C. L., Davila, J., Lawrence, E., Rogge, R. D., Karney, B. R., . . . Bradbury, T. N. (2005). Problem-solving skills and affective expressions as predictors of change in marital satisfaction. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(1), 15-27.
  22. Carrere, S., Buehlman, K. T., Gottman, J. M., Coan, J. A., & Ruckstuhl, L. (2000). Predicting marital stability and divorce in newlywed couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 42-58.
  23. Flora, J., & Segrin, C. (2000). Affect and behavioral involvement in spousal complaints and compliments. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(4), 641-657.
  24. Paleari, F. G., Regalia, C., & Fincham, F. (2005). Marital quality, forgiveness, empathy, and rumination: A longitudinal analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(3), 368-378.
  25. Gordon, C. L., Arnette, R. A., & Smith, R. E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today? Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(3), 339-343.
  26. Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Cn practice make perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1050-1067.
  27. Bodenmann, G., & Randall, A. K. (2012). Common factors in the enhancement of dyadic coping. Behavior Therapy, 43(1), 88-98. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22304881
  28. Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2012). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 145-168.
  29. Mead, D. E. (2002). Marital distress, co-occurring depression, and marital therapy: A review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28(3), 299-314.
  30. Johnson, S., & Lebow, J. (2000). The “coming of age” of couple therapy: A decade review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26(1), 23-38.
  31. Shadish, W. R., & Baldwin, S. A. (2003). Meta-analysis of MFT interventions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(4), 547-570.
  32. Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common principles of couple therapy. Behavior Therapy, 43(1), 25-35.
  33. Haas, S. M., & Stafford, L. (2005). Maintenance behaviors in same-sex and marital relationships: A matched sample comparison. The Journal of Family Communication, 5(1), 43-60.
  34. Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Process, 43(3), 301-314.
  35. Baucom, D. H., Epstein, N. B., LaTaillade, J. J., & Kirby, J. S. (2008). Cognitive-behavioral couple therapy. In Alan S Gurman (Ed.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (4th ed., pp. 31–72). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  36. Christensen, A., Wheeler, J. G., & Jacobson, N. S. (2008). Couple distress. In D. H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual (4th ed., pp. 662-689). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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