Everybody knows that relationships take a lot of hard work. When we think of serious, long-term relationships, words like commitment, patience, empathy, forgiveness, compromise and communication come to mind.
Indeed, a committed, healthy, long-lasting relationship is as much about acknowledging and loving someone for their best qualities as it is about loving them despite their faults and any adversity.
Even so, when it comes to spending the rest of your life with someone, you may still encounter and have to deal with relationship problems.
Causes of relationship problems and breakdown
You’ve probably heard of the increasing rate of marriage breakdown as well as the declining marriage rate. Certainly, while divorce and separation has been heavily studied, much research has also gone into understanding what makes relationships work.
Successful and lasting marriages are defined by characteristics like a high level of trust, general enjoyment of each other’s company, adaptability, compromise and independence.
Similarly, when relationships come to an end, it is often due to long-term problems going unresolved. Yes, relationships sometimes end quickly due to sudden factors like infidelity or violence. However, when a relationship is in decline over a longer period, other factors may come into play. Gambling, alcohol abuse, unemployment, disability, mental or chronic illness are common marital problems associated with greater rates of marriage breakdown, although many relationships of course do end without these contributors.
Even so, it may come as a serious shock to come to the realisation that your relationship is in trouble. After all, this is the person that you’ve probably shared every part of your life with for years or decades.
If you sense that something is not working in your relationship, then one of the best things you can do is this: talk about it honestly, respectfully and sincerely. It may feel uncomfortable, confronting and difficult, but it’s usually a better option than to ignore serious problems.
Talking about relationship problems
Most problems in a relationship can be traced back to long-term concerns which, for whatever reason, have gone unresolved. At the heart of these are often issues with communication (or a lack of it) and people’s sense of expectation.
So how do you deal with relationship problems if you, your partner, or both of you are not happy about something?
The first step is to understand the problem. It is vital that the situation be approached as something to be resolved as a partnership and with a view to be fixed. Talking about your concerns should not be another flashpoint where you revert to anger and blaming.
Here are some ways to start that conversation.
The right place and the right time
Talk about your relationship problems when you’re both calm and in control, such as after dinner and when you’re both relaxed. It may be that you’ve previously only voiced how you feel when you’ve been on the defensive, such as when you’re angry or feeling resentful. A calmer setting will likely mean a better result.
Stay in control and know what you plan to say
There are probably many things on your mind. While you know what you feel, are you confident that you can put such raw feelings into words? It may be worth writing down or taking some time to practice saying out loud (in your own space) how you feel before you start that conversation.
Have a goal in mind
While it’s important to talk about your concerns, you probably won’t get far if you don’t have a clear goal of what you want to change or achieve. The conversation shouldn’t be about venting or airing grievances — it should be about figuring out how the situation can be improved. It’s easier to work towards a resolution if you have something specific in mind.
Avoid accusing language and tone
Your intention should be to improve your relationship, not to punish or put your partner back in their place. A small change in how you say things can help. Avoid accusing language that starts with terms like “you always…” and “you never…” You can get the same point across simply by starting sentences with “I feel like I…”
Listen, listen and listen
Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish of the other person’s sentences. Make proper eye contact and be mindful of your body language. You should pay careful attention to what they say. Listening is as much a part of effective communication as is clearly putting things into words.
Keep your expectations realistic
As mentioned, relationships take a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance. It may be that your conversation doesn’t go as planned, is interrupted by kids or other events, or that the rawness triggers an argument. So keep your expectations realistic — while it’s possible that you may not get the desired result this time, remind yourself that this is all part of improving the situation.
Last but not least, remind yourself that talking about a problem is usually better than ignoring it.
The mere fact that you are talking about your relationship problems shows you’ve recognised that something may not be going right, and that you’ve acknowledged and are willing to work on improving things.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.