I often wonder how the couples I see strolling the malls, parks, or who wine and dine at the local cuisine near where I live are actually engaging in the “fake it till you make it” act to avoid public humiliation. I think about my own relationship and the times I’ve walked out the door feeling extremely frustrated with my husband, but 5 minutes later am all smiles as we join friends to socialize.
I think about couples that I know personally- the ones who seem to “have it together” all the time and seem so happy in their lives together…are they really? Or is it a cover for what we know is the truth across the board in ALL relationships: That we change, grow (sometimes apart), struggle, and that we WILL disagree and have conflict.
I’m not saying that every unhappy couple out there puts on a mask to the outside world, and I’m also not saying it’s a poor decision if they do. There’s definitely something healthy about compartmentalizing your personal problems and exposing those to the proper people/professionals.
But just so you don’t have to wonder what makes a couple “unhappy”, I’ve put together some of my thoughts here based on experience, education, research, and my work with couples - many of which were still in the first 10 years or less of their marriage/relationship yet found themselves struggling to find happiness in their relationship.
Here are five common dynamics in unhappy couples:
1. Their expectations change, and they don’t talk about it.
You may have done a great job of starting your relationship or marriage off on a great foundation: open communication, sharing your life and relationship goals, discussion of how many kids you want/when you want them, etc. What many couples don’t realize and honor, though, is that expectations, goals, and desires can (and most likely will) change over time. In my work with couples, it is not uncommon to hear “that’s not what you told me when we went to premarital counseling”; “I thought we had agreed on that number!”; “that is completely different from what you said last week when we sat down at talked about this”.
The point: Change happens. You are allowed to change your mind, and so is your partner. The goal is to be communicative about that. So get ready, and work towards becoming flexible, understanding, and open to change when it comes to your relationship. Rigidity holds no place in a relationship because we are constantly changing and growing as individuals.
2. They don’t prioritize the relationship.
I once heard a client proclaim in a session “I don’t need to worry about making her feel special. We are married. She already knows she’s special.”
…Now I know why they had us practice sitting in silence and working on our own facial expressions in grad school. My professors might have cringed at my jaw drop in this session, but oh well.
Strangely, I could understand where this person was coming from. After years of being in a committed relationship (or committed to anything in life), we tend to get assumptive, lazy, and take special things for granted. I am here to tell you that healthy couples do NOT take their partner for granted. Unhealthy couples, however, typically do. This person was in therapy with their partner for a reason. Your relationship must remain a priority. Once you assume that you don’t have to work for your partner’s love and that you know everything about them/ what they need, you have officially walked into the danger zone of relationships.
3. Quality time is not intentional time.
Unhealthy couples don’t know the difference! It is one thing to set aside time to spend with your partner. It’s a whole other thing to create intentional moments of connection, play, and growth together. Being intentional with your time means you don’t just clear the schedule and sit on your couches, separately playing candy crush, browsing your Facebook, or texting other friends while watching Stranger Things. Intentional time is more like a date night, cooking dinner together while talking about your days, or pulling out a board game and putting the phones aside for the evening. Unhealthy couples have typically forgotten how to spend active time together, and they feel more like roommates.
4. They don’t listen.
Couples who are struggling in their relationship typically have drifted away from a solution-focused mindset and are in defense mode more of the time. Even when couples have made their way into my office (a positive step, certainly) and we begin the process of re-learning how to have healthy and effective dialogue, the listening role often poses as a challenge for many people (and this can be across the board when it comes to gender). Listening has become the last thing a person wants to do for their parter, simply because communication has turned into a war zone of sorts.
5. They never had the boundaries talk.
One of the more insidious issues that couples face, that may not be as prevalent toward the beginning but could blow up in their faces later, is having the boundary talk about their prospective families. Family dynamics are a significant factor in relationships and, therefore, relationship success. If you have not discussed what your expectations are regarding how involved your family will be in your relationship or how active you plan to remain in your parents’/families’ lives, it could lead to friction, resentment, and frustration later on.
Do any of these 5 categories resonate with you? Fear not. Change is always possible, if you allow it.
Check out a FREE copy of my relationship e-book: The Five Relationship Mistakes You Are Making, And What To Do About Them for more relationship tools and tips!