Your relationship with your spouse is one of the most important bonds in your life. It can provide you with deep love and connection, someone to share experiences with, and opportunities to help you grow into a better version of yourself.
But sometimes other forces — like bad habits and unhealthy beliefs — get in the way of that. We asked therapists to name some of the biggest threats to married people’s happiness. Below, they share their thoughts and offer advice on how to turn things around if you’re struggling.
Comparing your relationship to other people’s.
Humans have an innate tendency to see how they measure up to others. At times, that instinct for comparison can be a motivating force. But too often, it ends up being the thief of joy. Constantly trying to determine how your marriage stacks up against other people’s “can be dangerous to the health of the overall relationship,” Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace told HuffPost.
“Although some comparisons might make you feel buoyed, overall, comparison generally leads to a negative self-view,” Makepeace said. “Since there is no way to be privy to all the experiences and information in someone else’s marriage, typically you are comparing the day-to-day experiences of your own relationship to a social media or other highlight reel of the other marriage in question. That’s a lot of power to give away without having all the facts.”
Try to keep in mind that you’re only getting a small glimpse ― often a curated one — of what another couple’s life is like. When you stop comparing, you’ll open up more room for gratitude and growth in your own relationship, Makepeace said.
“Instead of focusing on outward comparisons, spend time reflecting on how much you’ve grown as a couple or the difficulties you’ve overcome.”
“Instead of focusing on outward comparisons, spend time reflecting on how much you’ve grown as a couple or the difficulties you’ve overcome,” she said. “This shift of thinking can lift your overall mood and challenge you to connect more deeply with your spouse.”
When you feel yourself falling into the comparison trap, identify what’s lacking in your own relationship and think about ways to take some positive action in this area.
“That dream vacation you might be envying? Invite your spouse into that processing, and perhaps turn it into a shared savings goal,” Makepeace said. “Envy the amount of time another couple spends doing activities together? Use that as inspiration to carve out more time together.”
Research has shown that people’s marital happiness declines after having kids ― especially during the first year of a child’s life — and takes a while to fully recover. While children can bring deep love and joy into a couple’s life, they can undoubtedly bring on new stressors too.
“Many married couples share a common focus on the ultimate goal of building a family, yet often overlook the profound impact that having and raising children can have on their marriage,” licensed clinical social worker Nicole Saunders of Therapy Charlotte in North Carolina told HuffPost. “It’s not uncommon that couples can trace the start of their disconnect back to the birth of their first child.”
It’s understandable — and normal — for the addition of kids to put strain on a marriage “given the new responsibilities and the diminished resources in terms of time, finances, and sleep,” Saunders said.
In order to combat this, she recommends making a joint commitment to carve out some time to connect as a couple.
“This can be as simple as setting aside 15 minutes in the morning to enjoy a cup of coffee together, or prioritizing quality time ― without distractions like phones ― before bedtime for cuddling and conversation,” she said. “It also means finding time for sex and intimacy, considering the constraints of energy and time that come with parenting responsibilities.”
Expecting you and your partner to stay the same over the course of the relationship
Many folks mistakenly believe that the person they marry on their wedding day will be the same person five, 10 or even 50 years down the line. Lauren Bailey, a Chicago-based therapist at the Expansive Group, has worked with quite a few clients who are having trouble coming to terms with a big change in their partner’s life, whether it’s something related to their career, sexuality or gender.
“The same is also true for other clients who are afraid of upsetting the status quo of their relationship when they realize something new or different about themselves,” Bailey told HuffPost.
“When we hold our partners or ourselves hostage and do not allow change, we do so at the expense of our individual and collective happiness,” they said.
Instead, try to give you and your partner the space you both need to learn and grow.
“Create the type of safe haven that they can bring back what they find about themselves, and ask for your partner to do the same for you,” Bailey said. “If the exploration scares you, make sure you have a place to voice those fears without shutting down your partner(s)’ exploration.”
“If your partner is trying to shut down your exploration, reassure them that exploration does not mean the end of the relationship,” they said. “One of my favorite lines from one of my clients was: ‘It felt like we were falling apart, but we were actually falling into place.’”
Not making time for regular check-ins
It’s easy for married couples to become two ships passing in the night, each so preoccupied by their own personal to-do lists, worries and distractions that they rarely have a moment of true connection. But when you fail to take each other’s “emotional pulse on a near-daily basis,” it has a way of widening the distance between you, said Los Angeles-based couples therapist David Narang.
“This leaves you isolated from each other, and more vulnerable to more intense conflict and also to possible betrayals,” he told HuffPost.
Narang suggests spending 15 to 20 minutes each night talking about the events of the day and, more importantly, getting into the “emotional impact of those events — e.g. joy, stress, fear or sadness — on each partner.” Ask questions so you can really understand where your partner is coming from.
“When we feel known by our partner, we are getting the closeness we need, and so we are spontaneously more likely to protect our couple,” Narang said.
“This protection means, for example, that when there is a conflict, we are more likely to contain it rather than to send it off the rails,” he said. “This protection also extends to strengthening our resolve to avoid betraying our partner, both because we specifically want to avoid hurting our spouse due to the feelings of closeness, and because it is now difficult for another acquaintance to look as appealing as one’s partner.”
Putting yourself last
You’re probably familiar with the airplane oxygen mask analogy: You must put on your own mask first before you’re able to help others. This line of thinking applies to marriage, too, Saunders said. You can’t be a great partner if you’re constantly putting other people’s needs before your own.
“I find that people who are unwilling to talk about their relationship, warts and all, to their support networks are doing so at the expense of their happiness.”
“If you hate your body, consistently put your personal aspirations aside, and disregard your emotional well-being, it becomes challenging to be your best self within the relationship,” Saunders said. “Reserving time each day for self-care promotes self-confidence, a positive outlook and overall happiness. Infusing the relationship with this energy on a daily basis immediately improves the dynamic.”
Blaming your partner for your unhappiness
As a marriage and family therapist, Makepeace often sees clients who believe that their partner’s actions or inactions are the reason they themselves are unhappy.
“Although unintentional, spouses can channel the disappointment in their lives into anger towards their partner, or use them as a scapegoat for their own failings,” she said.
“We are sometimes deeply affected by the actions of our partners,” she said. “But just as with all other relationships, we can only control our own actions.”
Remember that we are each responsible for our own happiness. Shifting your thinking here can help soften feelings of anger and dissatisfaction “and make both members of the couple more empowered to work towards their own joy,” Makepeace said.
Not asking for help or support
One of the biggest threats to happiness in long-term relationships is the belief that you and your partner “can get through your whole lives just relying on each other, especially in times of turmoil in the relationship,” Bailey said.
It’s a show of strength — not weakness — to lean on others for emotional support when you need it.
“It might sound self-serving as a therapist to say to ‘get a therapist,’ but trust and believe that your relational counselor is also in therapy and talking about their relationships,” Bailey said. “No one is an island.”
Bailey said their clients have also had success in support groups within their communities and from their inner circles.
“I find that people who are unwilling to talk about their relationship, warts and all, to their support networks are doing so at the expense of their happiness,” Bailey said. “Your support network is not there to judge your partner, but rather to support you. Let them be there for you. It can make a world of difference.”