Call it the seven-year itch or a rough patch, but there’s a moment (or two or three) in every relationship where things between a couple are less-than-rosy.
Last year, family therapist Deb Sandella spoke to Global News about how couples can protect their relationship from five common pitfalls. But as January rolls out (a.k.a. “divorce month” according to MarketWatch) we wanted to arm couples – who are both on the brink of breakup or blissfully happy – with more advice on how to build a successful relationship in the long run.
A 2015 University of Chicago study found that the number of married people who say they’re very happy with their marriage has dropped almost nine per cent since 1974, making it the lowest point in nearly 30 years.
“We all want to put this thought out to the world that everything is happy in our marriages but no relationship is perfect,” says Jessica O’Reilly, a sexologist and relationship expert.
According to her, the happiest couples tend to be those who are involved in a partnership where both parties know on-going work and improvements are needed to keep things flowing smoothly. But if people believe in destiny – that their love is meant to be and everything will fall into place – that disconnect from reality could result in unhappy or failed situations.
O’Reilly adds that often couples who want help seek counselling too late.
“The average couple waits six or seven years after a serious problem arises and that’s why therapy fails because you’ve come to a therapist as a last straw… Relationships are imperfect and everybody has their ups and downs.”
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The good news is trouble in paradise doesn’t necessarily have to mean that an end to the relationship is looming. In fact, according to O’Reilly, the best way to make (and keep) almost any relationship strong is by taking an offensive approach.
To help couples recognize red flags, O’Reilly reveals four of the most common concerns couples raise with her during counselling sessions, and offers up solutions on how to fix them.
Issue #1: Poor communication
According to a 2012 survey of counselling professionals done by relationship website YourTango.com, communication problems were found to be the number one leading cause of divorce.
One major communication issue O’Reilly often sees from couples is their inability to convey their negative emotions.
“We have difficulty expressing ourselves in constructive ways,” says O’Reilly. “But when we’re jealous, insecure or angry, we tend to overrate these emotions. So if you’re jealous, you need to own your jealousy and acknowledge the emotion.”
When one partner is not honest with the other about their feelings – or not honest with themselves – that’s when a couple is more likely to see resentment building.
“Tell your partner what you need in order to adjust your feelings,” she says. “Recognize your feelings, own them and then talk to your partner.”
To get out of that rut, dating website eHarmony suggests making time for communication and going out on dates with your partner as if it’s the first time.
“It’s not role play exactly, but simply making an effort to ask your other half those date-like questions, like ‘If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?’” says Elisa Mclean, founder of the online dating platform queek’d, in a blog post for eHarmony. “It’s fun questions like these that take us away from our day-to-day activities and can really help to keep communication channels open.”
Issue #2: Division of household labour
Whether it’s taking care of the kids or chores, sometimes one person in the relationship will feel like they’re taking on the majority of household work, O’Reilly says.
“This is quite a simple one,” she says. “It only becomes really problematic when the problem persists and you allow it to fester and build resentment – and resentment, of course, is poison for a relationship.”
According to O’Reilly, it’s often the women in heterosexual relationships who perform a disproportionate amount of household labour. And it’s this unbalance that can really have an impact on individual happiness, relationship quality and even sexual satisfaction.
But sometimes, she says, it may be a case of perception versus reality – sometimes one party might not even be aware that they’re not pulling their weight as much as the other.
To solve that problem O’Reilly says, “It really is as simple as looking at everything that needs to be done, making a list and then dividing it up.”
And by doing this, then you and your partner will be able to get a clearer picture of where everyone stands on household chores.
She also suggests couples with this issue use smartphone apps to help allocate the household duties and keep track of who is doing what.
One example is Avacado, a private app for couples that helps them stay connected by sharing calendars and lists, as well as private chats.
Issue #3: The in-laws, extended and blended families
Sometimes parents, extended family and even previous spouses can put pressure on a relationship.
When it comes to family, O’Reilly says the situation can be tricky, but there’s one important thing to remember: if you want to preserve your relationship, be on your partner’s side.
O’Reilly adds, “I’m not saying your partner is always right but you are a team and need to be a united front… If not then maybe you guys shouldn’t be married.”
If a disagreement or argument does happen, do not confront your partner in front of anyone. Instead, speak to them in private afterwards to discuss the issue, O’Reilly says. Couples can also come up with a game plan on how to handle family issues ahead of time.
“You need to make an annual plan,” she says. “I’m not saying to stick to it day-by-day but agree ahead of time on how much time you’re going to spend and dedicate to these people in your lives who perhaps contribute friction or tension.”
Issue #4: Lackluster sex
Underwhelming sex can mean two things for a couple. First, that there’s an underlying problem in the relationship.
Resentment over the unequal division of labour is a very common reason people stop having sex, O’Reilly says.
“You don’t think that leaving chores for your partner is going to result in them withholding sex, and they’re not necessarily withholding sex in a spiteful way; they might just be tired at the end of the day.”
But sometimes intimacy issues are what they are (read the sex really isn’t up to par).
When a relationship starts out, passion is the driver – there is excitement of the unknown, O’Reilly says.
But once the relationship grows into something long-term, couples have come to know each other on a deeper level and the passion fades into attachment – a feeling of comfort and companionship.
The secret to getting that spark back, O’Reilly says, is inciting that fear and excitement of the unknown again.
“If you want to feel that excitement then you’ll need to make your lives more exciting,” she says. “You need to do things that get your adrenaline going. You need to push your comfort zone a little and do things that make you nervous again with one another.”
That could be as simple as experimenting with adult toys or picking up a new out-of-the-ordinary hobby as a couple.