What makes fixing marital problems difficult is that problems are usually inter-related, and one problem is linked to or the cause of another problem. A couple may have sexual issues because a wife feels she isn’t respected, which inhibits her sexual desire. Additionally, an apparently simple problem can actually be the result of a much larger issue. Take, for example, the case of a husband who doesn’t take out the trash when asked. Such a problem should be easy to solve. Just take out the trash and the problem is gone.
However, it’s usually not that simple. That’s because emotions, usually intense ones, are often at the heart of marital problems, even those that appear to have no emotional underpinnings. In the above example, there may be emotional reasons why he doesn’t take out the trash. Maybe he thinks his wife treats him like a child or she’s too controlling, and not taking out the trash is his passive-aggressive way of getting revenge. While he might eventually get around to it, his resentment will likely emerge in other interactions with his wife. A wife might hold onto anger because she continually has to ask him to throw out the trash, and that makes her think that he just doesn’t listen to her.
Acknowledging the role of emotions is an important first step to improving many relationships. Solving any problem requires that we deal with the emotions behind the problem. Unfortunately, just because we can see the emotional underside doesn’t easily lead us to a solution. Problems can be so pervasive or overwhelming that it’s difficult to know where and how to proceed. Furthermore, many of our problems are ingrained and have become habits. We develop styles of interacting with our partner early in the relationship, often before the marriage takes place. As habits, it can be difficult to recognize them as potential problems and can be hard to fix. Keep in mind that problems can start out small but become worse over time if not handled effectively. Minor annoyances can turn into major sources of resentment and anger. They can then cloud how partners regard each other and infect other parts of the relationship.
When marriages reach that stage, not knowing how to make them better can be frustrating if not downright depressing. But still most couples will persevere. In fact, couples who end up divorced believed early on that would be the eventual outcome, but still they hold out for 10 or more years before calling it quits. Throughout that time they keep searching for evidence that the good outweighs the bad so they can justify staying together.
Before moving toward divorce, many couples will seek outside help. Sadly, though, professional intervention has not always been found helpful. Many couples who go through counseling find their problems returning later on. In fact, the relapse rates are so high that some researchers argue that marriage counseling just doesn’t work at all.
However, we believe that’s an unfair criticism. The truth is it’s really not surprising that the success rates are low. Typically, only when a relationship is on its last legs will a couple try a marriage counselor. But by then it’s often too late — one or both partners may already have at least one foot out the door. Counseling is more of a formality; a process to follow that alleviates guilt and permits both partners to believe they tried.
With such patients, marriage counselors don’t stand much of a chance — but neither would physicians treating various kinds of physical illnesses. We would not, for example, regard cancer specialists as ineffective if they only treated patients who were in the final stages of the disease. Instead, to avoid high failure rates, the medical profession has dedicated a lot of time and money telling us about the early symptoms of illnesses, and recommends that we see our doctor at the first sign of these symptoms. Identifying the early symptoms has saved a lot of lives, not to mention making the medical profession look pretty good.
Reading the early warning signs is just as critical for a marriage. Take a careful look at all aspects of your relationship and focus on the things that make you uncomfortable, annoyed, or resentful. If you find something, even if it’s minor, and you and your partner can’t come up with a solution on your own, consider outside help. Marriage counseling has a much better chance of working if you don’t wait until your relationship is on the ropes. You will also find it best not to let small problems fester, because as we said, small problems often become bigger problems later on and can affect your overall perspective of your partner. If how you think about your partner in general turns negative that can have a profound effect on your relationship into the future.
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