Blame it on Hollywood and the myth of “Happily Ever After”, but many couples can find themselves dissatisifed with their relationship after a long period together.
Sure, we’d like to stay in that romantic ideal where we grin like Cheshire Cats all day long, but truth be told, a marriage takes a lot of work and no couple can stay in a state of perpetual domestic bliss day after day.
Most marital problems are typical. Perhaps, lately, you’re feeling like your love has turned to resentment, or that you have nothing left to say to each other. Perhaps you’re avoiding sex, or even thinking about having an affair with someone more attentive (and buff)? These are all common scenarios, but the fact is, there is no real way to guage whether the problems in your marriage are insurmountable without seeking help from a relationship counsellor.
And just as it takes two to tango, it also takes two to save a marriage, so if you’re feeling like you’re headed down a slippery slope towards Splitsville, you need to be aware that the success of a long-term marriage – no matter how damaged it is – depends on the effort both parties are willing to put in to saving it.
The real question is: are you willing to try?
When Jane and Daniel* tied the knot in 2009, they thought they’d be together forever. He fell in love with her sharp intellect and she adored his wit and sweet disposition.
“We clicked so well,” says Jane. It was the first relationship she’d had where she could be herself and she loved that. Besides, neither of them believed in divorce.
Three years later, Jane had stopped sleeping. She would lie awake at night running over their problems in her head, while Daniel slept beside her. She grew hostile towards her husband, blaming him for what she saw as his refusal to work on their relationship.
“The emotions built up over time, to the point where I couldn’t see anything else,” says Jane. Eventually, she began to put the wheels in motion to leave.
Tolstoy famously declared that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way and the same can be said of unhappy marriages. For Jane and Daniel, the problem was sex – or a distinct lack thereof – but for other couples the trigger might be money, cheating, clashes with family members, addiction, abuse, or simply drifting apart.
While the reasons for marital dissatisfaction vary, the way that dissatisfaction manifests itself is remarkably consistent, says sex and relationships therapist Tanya Koens (sydneytherapist.com). They simply stop communicating with one another.
“A lot of the couples I see have gotten into communication patterns that make it really difficult for either of them to be heard,” says Ms Koens.
“Instead of talking to each other, they’ll have the conversations in their head.”
And keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself has a habit of magnifying them – and distorting your view of your partner.
Counsellor and psychotherapist Susie Tuckwell has observed the effects of this cycle in her own clients.
“We all want love and respect in our marriages,” says Ms Tuckwell.
“When they go, the feelings go, too.
“People often personalise their feelings of negativity. It’s not always someone’s fault, but when we get negative, we look around for someone to blame.”
It’s a pattern that Jane can relate to.
“I grew so angry that I lost my ability to empathise,” she says.
The four horsemen
How do you tell the difference between garden-variety bickering and problems that are potentially marriage-ending? Psychology Professor John Gottman, the author of The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, claims he can predict with 94 per cent accuracy whether a relationship will survive the long haul just by examining the couple’s behaviour during an argument.
The signs that Professor Gottman watches for are so destructive that he has named them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling or withdrawing.
The good news is while these patterns can become entrenched over the years, identifying them doesn’t doom you.
“Gottman didn’t just identify the Four Horsemen, he worked out some fantastic and simple ways to break those patterns,” Tanya Koens says.
“Changing the dynamic can be as simple as giving each other a six-second kiss before you say goodbye in the mornings, or making an effort to say one nice thing to each other each day.”
Is there hope for you?
It wasn’t until Jane was preparing to leave that her marriage began to repair itself. For Daniel, it was a wake-up call that if he didn’t make an effort to connect to his wife physically, he risked losing her. For Jane’s part, the fact that Daniel was willing to let her go, even though it would devastate him, made her see him in a new, less selfish light.
“It helped me to put a lot of the anger I was feeling aside,” says Jane.
“And with the anger subsiding, it was clear that we had a lot together.”
She started to see her own faults as well.
“I’d also given up because it was just so hard and that made him just want to avoid trying to fix things because he was so afraid of the potential conflict.”
Remembering the reasons you fell in love can be challenging when you’re caught in a cycle of relationship despair, but if you want to climb out of that pit, it’s exactly what you need to be able to do, says Susie Tuckwell.
“If unhappiness comes from a lack of love and respect, then hope comes from seeing glimmers of that same love and respect,” she says.
“Do you still see positives in each other? Do you still look back fondly on the past, or proudly on the problems you overcame together? Are you still friends – even sometimes? Are you ever a good team? These are all signs that your relationship may be worth salvaging.”
Road to repair
The first step to salvaging a fragile marriage is to let go of any blame and defensiveness you might feel.
“Marriage problems are rarely caused by one party alone,” says Ms Tuckwell.
“Give up on the notion that you can change your spouse. Focus on changing your own behaviour. Let your spouse work out their own responses and see if it makes them any more likeable.”
Another tip – relationship problems are easier to solve if you get help early.
“If you’re finding it hard, get someone to help you,” says Tanya Koens.
“You wouldn’t try to fix your car without a mechanic, so what’s the shame in seeing a therapist?”
Jane and Daniel have found therapy immeasurably helpful.
“Counselling has been a safe place to talk about some hurtful issues,” says Jane.
“We can leave the intensity of those difficult feelings behind in the room once we’ve dealt with them. It’s also helped me to look at my own approach and see my own weaknesses in how I have dealt with our issues.”
Not every relationship can – or should – be saved. Among these is any relationship that is abusive: not only domestic violence, but any relationship where you feel threatened, controlled or emotionally manipulated.
Another bad sign is when only one partner is committed to change.
“If you find yourself doing most of the work, such as phoning counsellors or researching information on the internet, then you need to ask yourself, who wants the change here?” says Susie Tuckwell.
In other situations, it’s because a once-good relationship reaches the end of the road.
“One of the few constants in life is change,” says Tanya Koens.
“Sometimes relationships can weather that, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes people separate and it’s nobody’s fault. Things have changed and they can’t go on like they had been. It’s sad, but it’s also a fact of life.”
*Names have been changed.
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