|Common Marital Problems
The most commonly reported relationship problem by far is communication. This may be one of the broadest and most difficult terms to define with regard to relationships. It tends to have many different meanings to each of us. For the purposes of this explanation I define it as "Mis-Understanding".
Literally, this means not understanding the other person's point of view. This is often more a matter of refusing to allow the existence of the other's view as opposed to not understanding it! It is an unwillingness to take the time to genuinely listen and care to understand.
In many relationships the interest seems to lie primarily in getting one's own point of view heard and understood rather than having an interest in hearing and understanding the others’. There is an irony here worth looking at . . . If people cared to listen to the other person with as much interest as he or she wished the other would listen to them, both would end up receiving exactly what they are looking for!
To truly know another, we must be willing to see the world through their eyes, not simply our own. If we listened as well as we spoke, really connecting would take care of itself . . .
• UNRESOLVED BAGGAGE FROM YOUTH
A frequent cause of mis-understanding in relationships is unresolved baggage from youth. Now I know many of you are thinking, "How could events and experiences from years ago have any impact on how and what I communicate to my family in the present?" Trust me . . . it can and it does.
For example, if a person grew up in a loud, violent or abusive environment, that person's response to conflict, arguing, or confrontation, would be significantly different than a person whose home environment was skilled and healthy at conflict resolution. As a rule, in relationships, "like attracts like". So it is common for folks who share poor conflict resolution skills to find and attract someone who has similarly limited skills (often without any awareness that this is what they've done). In these relationships there will be plenty of communication . . . just not the type which leads to any useful resolution!
This is just one simple example of how old baggage can follow us in ways we may not be conscious of. There are many more including your preconceived ideas and experiences regarding sexuality, the proper way to raise children, how you relate to and handle money, and self-esteem issues.
Sometimes when we're in bed with our partner, it can be really crowded with invisible and unwanted visitors.
• UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS
One of the saddest set-ups in relationships is entering into them with all kinds of expectations and then over the years, feeling disappointed again and again that they have not been met. Part of this issue relates to the childhood baggage I mentioned before. We often have preconceived expectations of what marriage and relationships are supposed to be like.
This can be derived from many different sources, not the least of which is the marriage and relationship of our parents. That's the one we lived and breathed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That kind of exposure gets absorbed, some on a conscious level, some on an unconscious one. The biggest problem with expectations in general is that we may know what our expectations are, but it unlikely that our partner does! Even more insidious and frustrating is when we have these expectations and even we can't name them, yet we expect our partner to fulfill them. There is one additional problem . . . contrary to popular opinion, it is not the other person's responsibility to fulfill you expectations. It is your job to learn to fill yourself up and then offer all you can to the relationship.
The majority of couples I've worked with have entered into their relationships with their focus on what the other person had to offer . . . not on what they were bringing to the party. Again, we are often quite unaware that this is our mindset.
We must be willing to look closely and honestly at ourselves to see if these are truths about us. Not everyone is willing to do this. To truly understand what you are seeing in another, you must first hold up a mirror and understand what you are seeing there.
• SEX AND INTIMACY
This topic is so huge and complex an area that I can only give the briefest of introductions in this format. Sex is one of the most common areas of conflict in many relationships, but make no mistake, it does not stand alone. Ruling out any physical or medical causes of difficulty, it is usually in some way a reflection of whatever state the relationship is in. For instance, if communications have become hostile and withholding (for punishment or defense purposes) that hostility manifests itself sexually as well. Often this is one of the natural outcomes of what I talked about in "Unfulfilled Expectations".
Chronic disappointment and dashed expectations can manifest in a serious loss of intimacy in a relationship. Not being able to identify what the expectations are, no less clear them up, makes matters even worse. If there is a lack of intimacy with regard to the basic friendship in the relationship, it is also expressed (or not!) in some manner in the bedroom.
To further complicate matters, as rule sexual interactions mean something different to men than they do to women. Women like to feel emotionally connected before they become physically connected. Men, on the other hand, often use sexual activity to get connected in the first place. (It's a cruel joke of the universe I think). Ever notice how much more he talks and listens after lovemaking? There's no coincidence there, ladies. And guys, ever notice how much more interested she is in sex after you've offered her some "real listening time" about something she really cares about? No coincidence there either.
The main issue here is that it is a mistake to hold your partner responsible for your needs. Rather, you would do better to look at how desirable you've made yourself to your partner with your own behavior and attitudes.
If your sex life is in need of a tune-up, chances are your relationship needs tuning first.
Resentments are the number one killer of all relationships. They are a slow poison, undermining the love, trust and mutual respect you may have once had with each other. It is critical in the treatment of relationships to uncover these often unknown or unspoken resentments. Each person is then responsible for discovering the part they played in the creation of these resentments along with what they can do to improve themselves. The focus is not on how the other person needs to change, but rather on what you can do to change yourself to bring something better to the party. No blaming, just self-responsibility. It's always a dance of two, never just of one.
Resentments crop up quickly as communication dwindles, expectations are not met and old hurts (many of them from the early years) begin to get "triggered" by relationship issues in the present. This is an incredibly common, yet generally unknown source of pain in marriages. Triggers are current experiences that bear a resemblance to ways in which you've been hurt, abandoned or treated stemming from the past. They are often not consciously connected to what's happening in your present relationship, but when they are shown to you, they are clear to be seen.
An example would be when your partner takes a tone with you that is reminiscent of an important adult from your childhood, who was responsible for creating pain for you. Sometimes we have to think long and hard in order to make these connections. A red flag that this is what's occurring is that you are perceived to be overreacting to whatever is happening in the present . . . sound familiar?
Resentments often build as a direct result of a person's inability to communicate their needs and/or take responsibility for them in the first place. Resentments lead directly to loss of respect for the other person. Loss of respect leads to sexual problems, more bad feelings, blame and distancing. Isn't it fascinating how all these issues just blend together in one massive, connected swirl? The truth is, we can never really respect ourselves unless we show the courage and the willingness to take full responsibility for what belongs to us, which the other person did not place there! Once the old hurts are neutralized (in addition to all the new ones we've tacked on over the years) and each person has shown the courage to own their part in the poisoned well, much healing is possible.
If you've ever been forgiven for your "falls from grace" in life, you know how powerful a healing experience it is. Much as resentments are poison to a relationship, ownership and mutual forgiveness are its salvation.
Talk about a killer of trust and commitment . . . here is the number one
offender. My view on this deadly behavior is that this activity occurs as a result of the breakdown of the relationship, rather than being the cause of the breakdown. Do not mistake this as any kind of condoning of this behavior on my part. No way. I simply want to point out that people who are content and fulfilled within the marriage, virtually never look outside of it to fill themselves up. Affairs are often used as a way to lick one's wounds, to escape from the difficulties of the current relationship, to abandon the responsibility we have to work on the troubles in our relationships straight-up, rather than behind closed and secretive doors with someone else. Sorry folks, it doesn't work that way.
If your connection to your partner is missing big pieces, start by looking at what you are bringing to the party. If you're empty and unfulfilled in your relationship, perhaps it's because you are not offering all you could be to it! Looking for comfort elsewhere simply adds more pain and suffering to what was already present. If you are the one who strayed, you have the responsibility for failing to courageously face the part you played in the unsatisfying elements of your relationship. If your own relationship was where you put your energy (rather than with someone else) then your own relationship would have gotten the benefit of your growth, rather than the pain of your broken vows.
Relationships can heal from this most devastating of betrayals, but full responsibility, remorse and true commitment to self-development must be the foundation for the healing. You must be willing to do whatever it takes to rebuild the trust that's been lost. Nothing less will do. Many do not have the courage or character to take this on. If you do, you have the chance to create an even deeper, more meaningful relationship . . . "What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”.
Although these are certainly not all of the relationship troubles which can befall us, they are the most common ones reported to me over the last 20 years. They seem quite universal. Within each one of these issues lies a wealth of fascinating information one can learn about oneself, which can open the doors to a quality of relationship you have not previously known. Make no mistake; it can be a great deal of hard work uncovering the hidden aspects of yourself which cause you to trip and fall. It is also worth every moment of the time and energy you put into it. Like anything else you reap what you sow. Personal growth is no exception. Unfortunately, it seems to be the preference of many to take the easy route and simply blame others for their relationship woes. This, my friend, is a dead end street. Been there, done that, doesn't fly. I encourage all of you who so deeply want that connected, loving and satisfying relationship, to invest yourself in what it takes to have it. You won't regret it.
Susan Brown, LCSW