Mental Help Net
Relationship Problems
Basic Information

Relationship Problems

This topic center concerns marriage and marriage-like relationship problems. Our goal is to share information about the nature of such problems and to talk about what can be done to solve them when that is possible. We're going to use the term 'marriage' here for the most part, but it should be understood that what we have to say applies to any committed 'romantic' relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Your state, territory or province may define marriage rather narrowly, but we take it as a given that relationship problems do not discriminate.

Most people enter into marriage with the best of intentions, assuming that they will remain in a permanent and happy relationship. Unfortunately, it is not always the case that relationships work out as planned. Many marriages change in quality over time and end up with partners being in conflict with each other. In recent years in many countries around 50% of formal marriages have ended in divorce. This figure does not i...


Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What makes for a happy marriage?

  • Partners in healthy marriages come to agree upon common agendas regarding the directions their marriage will take, and the way each partner will behave.
  • Areas of agreement that partners will have dealt with will generally include:
  • Friendship - successful partners develop a significant friendship at the core of their relationship. They genuinely like one another, amuse and comfort one another, and prefer to spend time with each other.
  • Role expectations - the partners reach agreement with regard to how household responsibilities are divided and how they will behave towards each other.
  • Emotional intimacy - successful partners learn to trust each other, to be vulnerable with each other, to laugh together, and to support one another in times of need.
  • Sexual expectations - partners come to basic agreements as to how they will be sexual with each other.
  • Vision/Goals - successful partners agree that they want to pursue the same life paths, values and goals and mutually commit to those paths, values and goals.
  • In general, however, the more domains you and your partner are in agreement on, the better are your chances for a healthy marriage.

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How do relationships typically break down?

  • There is no single reason why a relationship begins to break down.
  • However, once a relationship does start to break down, there is a predictable sequence of events that tends to occur.
  • Highly regarded psychologist and researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. suggests that there are four stages to this sequence which he has labeled, "The Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse".
  • The first stage of the breakdown process involves conflict and complaints. All couples have conflicts from time to time, but some couples are able to resolve those conflicts successfully or 'agree to disagree', while others find that they are not.
  • In the second stage of the breakdown process, one or both spouses starts to feel contempt for the other, and each spouse's attitudes about their partner change for the worse.
  • Most people find conflict and contempt to be stressful and react to such conditions by entering the third stage of breakdown, characterized by partner's increasingly defensive behavior.
  • Then partners start avoiding one another so as to minimize their conflicts. Gottman calls this final stage, "Stonewalling" and unfortunately, there is no way to love your partner when you are hiding behind a wall to protect yourself from him or her.
  • Basically compatible partners may demonstrate a whole lot of conflict, but they don't often become contemptuous and angry with their partners, because there are by definition few things that they will disagree upon.
  • In contrast, partners who start out with incompatible goals, values or dreams are far more likely to get into seemingly irresolvable conflicts.
  • Once the process of contempt, defensiveness and avoidance begins, small incompatibilities can become magnified as spouses pursue other interests as an alternative to conflict.

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What is an affair?

  • The common definition of what constitutes an affair seems to be sexual relations outside of marriage.
  • This narrow definition fails to recognize that marriages can be threatened by any relationship, sexual or otherwise, that threatens to break the bonds of intimacy and trust between spouses.
  • In an important sense, any outside relationship that drains one spouse's ability to attend emotionally, sexually and/or intimately with/to his or her spouse is a potentially damaging affair.
  • Affairs can happen at any time, although they are particularly likely to occur during the middle years of marriage.
  • Affairs can also start in the context of healthy marriages as platonic extra-marital friendships that becomes passionate and sexual.
  • In most cases, if married partners understand themselves to be more or less compatible with their original spouse, they will not gain anything by pursuing another and may lose a lot.
  • Affairs don't always signal the end of a marriage, but they surely point to marital disengagement that must be addressed if the marriage is to survive an affair and become healthy again.

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What does marital therapy involve?

  • Marital therapy is probably the best single thing that people in troubled marriages can do to help heal their marriages.
  • A skilled marriage therapist offers support and intervention that can help distrusting disengaged partners to safely address their difficulties and begin the process of problem solving and healing.
  • These supports and interventions can include:
    • Safety - therapists work to provide a trustworthy and safe environment which can contain and manage couples' anger, frustration and contempt. Therapists remain neutral and do not take sides.
    • Normalization and Reality Testing - experienced therapists have "seen it all before" and are able to help couples understand when their desires and expectations (of each other and/or of themselves), indiscretions and reactions are normal and when they are unusual, inappropriate or even abusive.
    • Traffic Control - therapists function as traffic cops to make sure that partners take turns talking and listening to each other, no one is shut down and unable to speak and all have a better chance to feel listened to than would otherwise be possible.
    • Skills Education - therapists teach problem solving, communication and soothing skills which can help couples gain tools to help them better address and manage issues in their relationship. Interpretation - therapists teach listening skills, promote sharing of feelings and desires that may be difficult to express and encourage partners to repeat what their partners have said so as to demonstrate their comprehension.
  • Marital therapy generally takes place outpatient-style in a therapist's office and is offered once per week with each session lasting between 60 and 90 minutes.
  • The number of therapy sessions will vary according to the severity of the presented problems, the therapist's training and technique, and (unfortunately) the couple's ability to pay for services.

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What are communication approaches that can be used in a relationship?

  • Healthy partners communicate trust and affection towards each other via words and gestures in a manner that brings about more positive communication.
  • Therapists teach conflicted couples communication skills designed to help them interrupt their negative communications and replace them with more positive (or at least neutral) ones.
  • "I" statements communicate feelings rather than accusations, elicits a helpful, supportive response rather than a defensive one, and helps to defuse potential fights and arguments.
  • Focal, Not Global Criticism - in troubled relationsihps, criticisms tend to turn from specific complaints (e.g., "you forgot to bring milk") to general (sometimes over-general) conclusions which may be exaggerated (e.g., "you don't care about me at all"). Therapists may encourage clients to stick to the indisputable facts and to not draw conclusions from these facts which might be mistaken.
  • Traffic Control; Active Listening and Repeating - therapists act as traffic cops and teach active listening skills to counter partner's obsessive defensive arguing. The therapist will set up and enforce times when each partner can speak and the other partner is asked to listen.
  • Interpretation - while teaching couples ground rules and procedures for how to communicate effectively, therapists may also help couples to better understand each other by offering the couple their outsider's informed opinion as to why each partner has chosen to act as they have.

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What are soothing techniques that a couple can use during times of conflict?

  • Chronically conflicted couples become easily overwhelmed, agitated and tense while communicating.
  • Therapists often encourage such couples to practice soothing skills and techniques to help them reduce arousal and emotion, enabling them to communicate and problem solve more efficiently.
  • Soothing skills practice help couples to better tolerate stressful provoking situations and to recover faster after they have become overwhelmed.
  • Time-Out. The tried-and-true 'time-out' technique is very useful in helping couples to disengage from a fight. The couple agrees that they will ask their partner for a 'time-out' on their discussion for an agree-upon period of time when they start to feel overwhelmed.
  • Talking and venting feelings about one's situation is very stress relieving for some people. Trusted family members or friends, or an individual therapist can offer support, a shoulder for crying on and a place to discuss feelings and seek counsel.
  • Organizing helps some people to calm down. Cleaning one's house or making lists of errands to be run and then checking them off as they are completed can be soothing activities.
  • Relaxation techniques help relieve muscular tension associated with stress.
  • Soothing environments, either imagined, visualized or experienced, help to calm jangled nerves.
  • Exercise can be a very effective means of calming one's self down.
  • Distraction, or taking one's mind off of disturbing thoughts and feelings can also be a very effective means of coping with tension.

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What are relationship strengthening techniques that a couple can use?

  • Whereas communication and soothing approaches help couples to work through their conflicts, relationship strengthening approaches help couples to strengthen the bonds that hold them together in spite of conflicts.
  • Relationship Inventories. Prompting remembrances of times when things were not so tense can help reawaken in each partner the feelings that first brought them together.
  • Partner Pleasing Exercises. Therapists also sometimes will ask conflicted couples to commit to doing something, one thing, which will please their partner, and to commit to doing this thing for their partner as a gift, without expectation of reciprocation.
  • Forgiveness. Taking a cue from religious practice, some therapists ask conflicted partners to find it within themselves to forgive their partners for their transgressions.
  • Sex. Reasonably frequent sexual relations between committed partners are often an important part of what keeps a relationship healthy.

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Is Your Marriage & Family Dysfunctional?
Repairing Damage to Relationships While Having Conflict
Married People Now in the Minority?
6 Keys of Assertive Communication
Running Away from Conflict
On Being Married and Loved to Death
Discover Ways to Stay Calm and Remain In Difficult Discussions
The Importance of Couples Counseling
Prescription Drug Abuse, Why So Few Responses?
Avoiding the Seduction of a Fight
The Brain Lock of Obsessional Thinking
Is Your Heart Committed? Is His?
Resolving Guilt Once and For All, Time After Time
A New Cause of Depression
Are We as Sick as Our Secrets?
Sticks and Stones will Break My Bones: Name-calling in Intimate Relationships
On the Brink of Divorce, How They Recovered
Are Men Really Childish Boys?
The Language Couple-ship
A Forgotten Valentine - Why Our Partners Have Grown Lazy
A Story of Healing from Infidelity
The Many Meanings of Smiling
"That's Not Fair,...."
Twisted Upside-Down Communication
Can You Feel the Love Tonight: A Perspective on Valentine's Day
Survival Tips for Singles During the Valentine’s Season
Playing Hard to Get
How to Protect Your Marriage in a Step Family
The Dance of Intimacy
Stepfamily, Blended Family, Remarried Family or Married with Baggage Family?
Of Apololgies, Forgiveness and Forgetting
A Marriage Counseling Story
How Can Metaphors Lead to Mental Health?
A Marriage Counseling Success Story
Rituals Enhance Relationships
Splitting: Bringing in That Third Party
An Interview with Sandra Ceren, Ph.D., on Premarital Counseling
Wired for Empathy and Connection
One Key Factor to Predicting if Your Relationship will Last
This Holiday Season Practice "Doggy Medicine" for a Happy Relationship
How Can I Forgive You?: First Steps When Your Relationship is On the Rocks
Does the Modern World Promote Schizoid Personality Disorder?
Speaking Male, Speaking Female—Communicating into Another's Listening
Troubled Marriages and the Holidays
Sudden End to a Marriage
Setting Healthy Limits—It Can Be an All-Win!
Men, Their Needs, and What It Has to Do With Affairs
The Most Difficult Emotion: Shame, Disconnection, Courage and Love
A Vacation is Good For the Soul...and for the Relationship
Moving Beyond Deadlock: Breaking Out of Old Marital Conflicts
Some Questions About Helping Others?
Affair Prevention
The Most Important Tool For Restoring Emotional Intimacy to Your Marriage
8 Strategies for Maintaining Resilience in Your Couple Relationship When Cancer Joins The Family
Insult, Revenge and Captain Ahab
Why Do We Fight?
Coping With People Who Are "Difficult"
"My Mother is Ruining my Life"
Warning: Facebook May Be Hazardous to Your Relationship
When Relationship Partners Act Like Parents or Children Towards One Another
Transference vs. Encounter in Psychotherapy
Treatment for Problematic Internet Pornography Viewing
The Life Cycle of Relationships
Whose Fault is It? How Blame Sabotages Relationships
An Interview with Sharon Rivkin, M.A., M.F.T., on Resolving Arguments
Four Strategies to Invest Trust Wisely
Do Opposites Attract?
Nothing To Prove and Nothing To Explain
Much Ado About Something
Intolerance and Discrimination
Psychological Jujitsu/Aikido/Alchemy — "Conversation Stoppers"
Empathy vs. Blame
DNA Dating: The Future of Matchmaking?
ACCEPTANCE—Even LESS than Meets the I!
Facebook: Research Shows Your Privacy at Risk
Matthews, Obama and Racism: What it Means for Us
Eco-Friction: What It's Really About
What Everyone Should Know About the Dangers Facebook Poses to Your Relationships
Family Ties: Knowing Why and How They Must Remain Snug & Tied!
How to Gain Control of Your Mind, Instead of Your Mind Controlling You
7 Steps to Forgiving Your Partner
Key Questions to Consider in Significant Relationships
Relationships as a Spiritual Path
Are You Codependent?
Growing Through Divorce
3 Reasons You May Want Group Therapy
Women Who Love Too Much, Are You One of Them?
An Interview with Kristin Celello, Ph.D, on the History of Marriage in 20th Century America
I Blush, Therefore I...
Some Thoughts about Perception, Communication and Disagreement:
On Socializing, Making Friends and Meeting People: Strategies
Recognizing an Alcohol Problem in Yourself
Making Friends, A Matter of Where You Live?
Rejection, Why Does It Hurt So Much?
Gossip: A Form of Workplace Warfare
"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." Ralph Waldo Emerson
Married 40 Years....And We Never had ONE Fight
Relationships: Stop Watering the Seeds of Suffering
Unhappy Wife = Unhealthy Life?
On the Family As A System and the Problem of Triangulation
Past Loves and Facebook: To Connect or Not to Connect
Arguing and Marriage: Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage
Relationship problems? Consider this...
Help your brain help you live the good life: Neuroplasticity and your strengths
How this new economy can threaten your family without you even knowing it
Turn 2009 into the year for you! A tip from Albert Einstein and Quantum Physics on relationships and well-being
The Eyes Are The Windows To The Soul
Are you listening to me? A key skill in this coming New Year
On Loneliness, Warmth and Making Friends
What Makes Therapy Work?
The new Technological Brain: Plusses and Minuses
Alcohol and Personality Changes
Gossip: Of Politics, People and Relationships
Infidelity, Why do people cheat?
On the Issue of Sexual and Other Feelings Towards the Therapist
Why so much fuss over Eliot Spitzer's affair?
What did you mean by that? Words, Meanings and Context
Marriage Today, the Latest
An Interview with William Glasser, MD and Carleen Glasser on Happier Marriages
Re-Invigorating Your Marriage
Couples and Quarrelling
Are We Too Sensitive Today?
Marriage, Family and Adult ADHD
Is This the Right Person for Me?
"But You Can Choose Your Friends"
Can Men and Women Be Friends?
Dealing With Difference and the New Year
"Why Didn't I?"
Stuffing It: The Culture of Not Speaking
Attending pre-marital counseling classes really does pay off
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