It's the rare couple that doesn't run into a few bumps in the road. If you recognize ahead of time, though, what those relationship problems might be, you'll have a much better chance of getting past them.
Even though every relationship has its ups and downs, successful couples have learned how to manage the bumps and keep their love life going, says marriage and family therapist Mitch Temple, author of The Marriage Turnaround. They hang in there, tackle problems, and learn how to work through the complex issues of everyday life. Many do this by reading self-help books and articles, attending seminars, going to counseling, observing other successful couples, or simply using trial and error.
Relationship Problem: Communication
All relationship problems stem from poor communication, according to Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of Blending Families. "You can't communicate while you're checking your BlackBerry, watching TV, or flipping through the sports section," she says.
- Make an actual appointment with each other, Shimberg says. If you live together, put the cell phones on vibrate, put the kids to bed, and let voicemail pick up your calls.
- If you can't "communicate" without raising your voices, go to a public spot like the library, park, or restaurant where you'd be embarrassed if anyone saw you screaming.
- Set up some rules. Try not to interrupt until your partner is through speaking, or ban phrases such as "You always ..." or "You never ...."
- Use body language to show you're listening. Don’t doodle, look at your watch, or pick at your nails. Nod so the other person knows you're getting the message, and rephrase if you need to. For instance, say, "What I hear you saying is that you feel as though you have more chores at home, even though we're both working." If you're right, the other can confirm. If what the other person really meant was, "Hey, you're a slob and you create more work for me by having to pick up after you," they can say so, but in a nicer way.
Relationship Problem: Sex
Even partners who love each other can be a mismatch, sexually. Mary Jo Fay, author of Please Dear, Not Tonight, says a lack of sexual self-awareness and education worsens these problems. But having sex is one of the last things you should give up, Fay says. "Sex," she says, "brings us closer together, releases hormones that help our bodies both physically and mentally, and keeps the chemistry of a healthy couple healthy."
- Plan, plan, plan. Fay suggests making an appointment, but not necessarily at night when everyone is tired. Maybe during the baby's Saturday afternoon nap or a "before-work quickie." Ask friends or family to take the kids every other Friday night for a sleepover. "When sex is on the calendar, it increases your anticipation," Fay says. Changing things up a bit can make sex more fun, too, she says. Why not have sex in the kitchen? Or by the fire? Or standing up in the hallway?
- Learn what truly turns you and your partner on by each of you coming up with a personal "Sexy List," suggests California psychotherapist Allison Cohen. Swap the lists and use them to create more scenarios that turn you both on.
- If your sexual relationship problems can't be resolved on your own, Fay recommends consulting a qualified sex therapist to help you both address and resolve your issues.
Relationship Problem: Money
Money problems can start even before the wedding vows are exchanged. They can stem, for example, from the expenses of courtship or from the high cost of a wedding. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) recommends that couples who have money woes take a deep breath and have a serious conversation about finances.
- Be honest about your current financial situation. If things have gone south, continuing the same lifestyle is unrealistic.
- Don't approach the subject in the heat of battle. Instead, set aside a time that is convenient and non-threatening for both of you.
- Acknowledge that one partner may be a saver and one a spender, understand there are benefits to both, and agree to learn from each other's tendencies.
- Don't hide income or debt. Bring financial documents, including a recent credit report, pay stubs, bank statements, insurance policies, debts, and investments to the table.
- Don't blame.
- Construct a joint budget that includes savings.
- Decide which person will be responsible for paying the monthly bills.
- Allow each person to have independence by setting aside money to be spent at their discretion.
- Decide upon short-term and long-term goals. It's OK to have individual goals, but you should have family goals, too.
- Talk about caring for your parents as they age and how to appropriately plan for their financial needs if needed.
Relationship Problem: Struggles Over Home Chores
Most partners work outside the home and often at more than one job. So it's important to fairly divide the labor at home, says Paulette Kouffman-Sherman, author of Dating From the Inside Out.
- Be organized and clear about your respective jobs in the home, Kouffman-Sherman says. "Write all the jobs down and agree on who does what." Be fair so no resentment builds.
- Be open to other solutions, she says. If you both hate housework, maybe you can spring for a cleaning service. If one of you likes housework, the other partner can do the laundry and the yard. You can be creative and take preferences into account -- as long as it feels fair to both of you.
Relationship Problem: Not Making Your Relationship a Priority
If you want to keep your love life going, making your relationship a focal point should not end when you say "I do." "Relationships lose their luster. So make yours a priority," says Karen Sherman, author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make It Last.
- Do the things you used to do when you were first dating: Show appreciation, compliment each other, contact each other through the day, and show interest in each other.
- Plan date nights. Schedule time together on the calendar just as you would any other important event in your life.
- Respect one another. Say "thank you," and "I appreciate..." It lets your partner know that they matter.
Relationship Problem: Conflict
Occasional conflict is a part of life, according to New York-based psychologist Susan Silverman. But if you and your partner feel like you're starring in your own nightmare version of the movie Groundhog Day -- i.e. the same lousy situations keep repeating day after day -- it's time to break free of this toxic routine. When you make the effort, you can lessen the anger and take a calm look at underlying issues.
You and your partner can learn to argue in a more civil, helpful manner, Silverman says. Make these strategies part of who you are in this relationship.
- Realize you are not a victim. It is your choice whether you react and how you react.
- Be honest with yourself. When you're in the midst of an argument, are your comments geared toward resolving the conflict, or are you looking for payback? If your comments are blaming and hurtful, it's best to take a deep breath and change your strategy.
- Change it up. If you continue to respond in the way that's brought you pain and unhappiness in the past, you can't expect a different result this time. Just one little shift can make a big difference. If you usually jump right in to defend yourself before your partner is finished speaking, hold off for a few moments. You'll be surprised at how such a small shift in tempo can change the whole tone of an argument.
- Give a little; get a lot. Apologize when you're wrong. Sure it's tough, but just try it and watch something wonderful happen.
"You can't control anyone else's behavior," Silverman says. "The only one in your charge is you."
Relationship Problem: Trust
Trust is a key part of a relationship. Do you see certain things that cause you not to trust your partner? Or do you have unresolved issues that prevent you from trusting others?
You and your partner can develop trust in each other by following these tips, Fay says.
- Be consistent.
- Be on time.
- Do what you say you will do.
- Don't lie -- not even little white lies to your partner or to others.
- Be fair, even in an argument.
- Be sensitive to the other's feelings. You can still disagree, but don't discount how your partner is feeling.
- Call when you say you will.
- Call to say you'll be home late.
- Carry your fair share of the workload.
- Don't overreact when things go wrong.
- Never say things you can't take back.
- Don't dig up old wounds.
- Respect your partner's boundaries.
- Don’t be jealous.
- Be a good listener.
Even though there are always going to be problems in a relationship, Sherman says you both can do things to minimize marriage problems, if not avoid them altogether.
First, be realistic. Thinking your mate will meet all your needs -- and will be able to figure them out without your asking -- is a Hollywood fantasy. "Ask for what you need directly," she says.
Next, use humor -- learn to let things go and enjoy one another more.
Finally, be willing to work on your relationship and to truly look at what needs to be done. Don't think that things would be better with someone else. Unless you address problems, the same lack of skills that get in the way now will still be there and still cause problems no matter what relationship you're in.