Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
Is your marriage in trouble? It might be. Research shows that couples in unhappy marriages wait an average of six years before seeking professional help. By then, problems often have become deeply entrenched, making it more challenging to break free from hurtful ways of interacting.
No matter how long you’ve been married, it makes much more sense to nip relationship problems in the bud before problems get out of hand.
But how can you tell early on when your marriage is headed for trouble? Here are four warning signs that it’s time to be proactive about a less-than-satisfying relationship…
Although most people know that constant fighting is a marital risk factor, the opposite also is true—the absence of fighting doesn’t bode well for relationships.
The worrisome pattern goes like this: One spouse—let’s say the wife—has serious misgivings about something her husband does. In the early years of marriage, she tells him about it, but he becomes defensive. They fight about their differences often. Over time, he fails to change his actions or be responsive to her needs.
Eventually, she stops complaining and temporarily resigns herself to the situation. Based on her silence, he assumes that she has finally accepted his idiosyncrasies and that she is no longer unhappy. But unfortunately, he’s dead wrong. She is more unhappy than ever and is secretly planning her escape.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, when your spouse is complaining, it often is a sign of caring and emotional involvement. “Nagging” or “criticizing” might feel off-putting, but the absence of these behaviors, coupled with emotional distance, might be indicative of an emotional shutdown that is hard to overcome.
To avoid creating insurmountable emotional obstacles, it’s important to express feelings openly and honestly when something truly bothers you. Although it’s not advisable to focus on every little relationship annoyance, pushing aside important feelings to avert immediate conflict will only create bigger problems.
Conversely, if your spouse sounds “like a broken record,” it means that you’re not listening to something important that is being said. You need to heed your partner’s comments so that feelings of resentment don’t fester. Showing that you care and that you are willing to change, even if it’s not your first choice, is what good marriages are all about.
Exception: If you’re in a marriage where you both have very easygoing, laid-back personalities and can happily give up on your individual preferences in many areas of your life—and therefore never fight—no worries. That can work, too.
Although the need to be physically close varies from person to person, touch is a tie that binds. Typically, couples can think back to times early in their relationships when just the sight of each other gave them butterflies in their stomachs. They have fond memories of walking hand-in-hand, exchanging back rubs, kissing passionately and engaging in extended foreplay and lovemaking, all of which felt incredibly good and defined the relationship as different from all others.
But then something happened. Touch seemed to disappear. They stopped sitting next to each other on the couch. No more hand-holding. Never a reassuring arm around a shoulder. The passionate kisses turned into occasional perfunctory pecks on the cheek. Physical affection, passion and eroticism vanished.
If you and your partner used to be physically affectionate and felt good about your sexual relationship but this is no longer the case, it’s time to talk about it with each other. Although there may be extenuating circumstances—such as a medical condition or busy travel schedules—going for a long time physically disconnected is a red flag for a marriage. It can be a symptom of unexpressed unhappiness…and can be a powerful factor leading to infidelity or divorce.
When you have this important conversation with your spouse, describe in loving, positive and actionable terms what you’ve been missing and what you would like to do about it.
Example: “It seems to me that we haven’t been physically affectionate lately. I miss cuddling in bed and giving foot rubs, massages and hugs. I also would like to make love more often. Once a month isn’t enough for me. It would be great if we could have sex at least once or twice a week. Plus, I want to feel that you’re into it. I’d love it if you would initiate sex more often and if you’d be willing to try new things.”
Perhaps the two of you have been so busy that you simply have overlooked the importance of connecting sexually. You have inadvertently been neglecting this aspect of your marriage. If so, consider scheduling times to have sex. Then, once you’ve placed sex on your calendar, allow your creativity to make sex special.
Healthy relationships consist of three parts—you, me and us. Yes, it’s important to feel good about yourself and your life separate from your spouse. You must have interests and activities that feed your soul. But balance between individual pursuits and togetherness is essential if a relationship is to thrive.
One of the common reasons for a relationship breakdown is that the two partners have developed independent lives that rarely intersect. They have separate responsibilities. They don’t have hobbies in common. They don’t take pleasure in each other’s accomplishments, interests, hopes and dreams. They become little more than roommates. Although some people resign themselves to this separate lifestyle, they often are married to spouses who eventually tire of the loneliness and decide to strike out on their own to find new, more loving relationships.
If you and your partner have become increasingly independent and no longer share your lives in a meaningful way, it’s time to make a change. Ask yourselves, What enjoyable activities did we do together in the past that we can re-create now? Maybe you used to cook meals together or go for evening walks or take exercise classes. Or what about new hobbies? You could take up birding or take a wine-tasting course or start a couples’ book group.
For that matter, what about something as simple as going to the grocery store together? Time together, no matter what you choose to do, is the healing factor.
Most parents agree that having children is one of life’s greatest gifts. In our quest to give them the best in life, we often put more energy into their well-being than into the health of our marriages. We chauffeur them to after-school lessons and weekend sports. We overspend on their electronic gadgets and clothes. We forgo date nights so that they can have friends sleep over. And an uninterrupted adult conversation? What’s that?
Here’s the warning: If you’ve neglected your marriage because your kids are your top priority, you are playing with fire. When kids leave home, you won’t have a real marital relationship. Many divorces occur after the youngest child leaves home.
To prevent that, no matter how busy you are raising your children, have a scheduled date night once every week or two. If your kids are young enough to need a babysitter, get one—and then leave the house. What you do together is less important than the fact that you’re making time for each other. Additionally, you should try to spend 10 to 15 minutes every night “checking in,” asking about your spouse’s day. Unless the children are very young, see to it that they occupy themselves during this check-in time to give the two of you a chance to reconnect without interruption.
If you worry that prioritizing your marriage is “selfish,” keep in mind that outwardly valuing your spouse is a gift for your kids. Children learn about intimate adult relationships by watching their parents interact. When kids observe their parents modeling loving relationships—being physically affectionate, calmly resolving conflict, demonstrating respect, appreciation and kindness, and being good friends—it paves the way for them to create healthy adult relationships in the future.