Any seasoned counselor will tell you that even the happiest couples have problems. In fact, Dr. John Gottman, famous marriage researcher and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, has identified four of the most typical areas of solvable marital conflict: technology, work stress, money, and housework.
While something such as housework may seem like no big deal, there is emotional importance attached to these tasks that deepens our bond when they are accomplished. When these tasks are not accomplished, partners no longer feel like a safe haven for each other in the chaos of life—rather they make life for each other feel even more chaotic.
Here are four solutions to the most common relationship problems.
Disconnecting from distractions
Cultivating emotional connection and intimacy in the age of our attention economy has become a difficult task for couples. Take a moment and ask yourself: how much time do you think couples spend or should spent talking with each other?
In a research study on young couples in Los Angeles, the average amount of time partners engaged in face-to-face conversation was 35 minutes… a week! Even worse, the majority of these precious minutes were spent discussing errands—who takes out the garbage, who takes the kids to school, or what needs to be picked up at the grocery store—instead of the relationship. This mindset of relationship-comes-second leaves couples feeling lonely.
While communication issues have many causes, a common culprit in today’s world is the seemingly endless number of notifications from our digital devices. They have become a distraction from the real connection right in front of us.
Solution: If your lover is complaining that you’re more focused on your phone than your relationship, that’s an issue you need to take seriously, even if you don’t agree. The fastest solution is to sit down together and create a tech agreement.
This could be an agreement that both partners will not text, check email, or update their social profiles during specific times of the day or particular events, such as date night, mealtime, or when either of you needs to talk. It’s vital that this agreement feels fair to both of you.
Bringing work stress home
Many couples never think to discuss how they de-stress after work, but the way we handle—or don’t handle—work stress at the end of the day can cause unnecessary conflict.
Take, for example, Steve and Ashley:
Steve has a deadline for a big project and knows he’ll be up late. When he gets home from work, he feels angry because Ashley has moved his well organized notes from the previous day into a big pile. Ashley, who has a micromanaging boss, gets frustrated when she opens up the fridge to find leftover pizza and nothing else. “Where is the food? You promised you’d go to the grocery store. What’s wrong with you?”
The real question they should be asking each other is “What’s going wrong between us?” The truth is they are bringing their work stress home and allowing it to sabotage their relationship.
Solution: Discuss your end-of-the-day routine with each other. Dr. John Gottman calls this a ritual of connection.
One of the amazing things about relationships is that our attachment bond with our partner gives them the power to co-regulate our emotions. This means when we leave our baseline state and are upset or sad, our partner has a keen ability to bring us back to baseline. On the flip side of the coin are couples who only intensify the already upset feelings, making it feel worse for both partners.
To develop co-regulation, I’ve had to figure out what distresses me. As a result, I ended up developing a soothing ritual: when I get home after a long day I hug my partner until I relax (2 to 4 minute hug). Usually by the second minute, my body relaxes and I let out a big sigh.
By this point, I’m ready to connect. After I’m feeling calm, we come together to complain to each other about our day. During this time we each get to complain about the difficulties that occurred, while the other is understanding and supportive. This is formally known as the Stress-Reducing Conversation.
Scheduling formal whining sessions can prevent the spillover of everyday stress into your relationship.
One of the fastest ways to relax is to enlist your partner, but don’t be afraid to decompress by yourself before connecting with each other. Go for a run, meditate, or watch funny cat videos—whatever feels right to you. Then, when you’re ready, find your partner for your end-of-the-day ritual of connection.
One of the most common areas of conflicts in marriage is about money, how to spend it, and how to save for the things that truly matter. Whether your bank account is full or you’re just getting by, you are bound to have conflict over money since money is so symbolic of our emotional needs. Balancing the emotional realities of money can be work for any couple since our feelings about money are so personal.
Solution: Most arguments about money are not actually about money. So, go beneath the dollar value to understand what money means to each of you. Before budgeting take time to have a constructive conversation about money and discuss any financial gridlock issues. After that, take time to prioritize your spending and then lay out an action plan for financial freedom.
When couples don’t do their agreed-upon share of the housework, issues in all aspects of the relationship may be impacted. One partner is left feeling disrespected and unsupported, which leads to resentment and ultimately a less satisfying relationship.
Often men are labeled the “slacker” around the house. From the men I’ve talked to in heterosexual relationships, they are not intentionally trying to be rude, they just don’t understand why housework is such a big deal to their partner. A man may agree that it’s unfair for his partner to work a second shift when she gets home, but many of them were raised in homes where their father did no housework, even if the mother worked, and old ways die hard.
British sociologist Ann Oakley documented that men tend to overestimate the amount of housework they do. Sometimes the man feels he should be applauded for his “help” but insteads finds himself being asked to do more, which makes him defensive and likely to do less.
Solution: Have a conversation about housework and split up chores so it feels fair to both partners. Create a list to determine who should do what. Use this list talk about how things are currently handled and how you would like them to be handled. Some items to include: car care, child care, finances, food, house cleaning, and house projects. For a detailed list, check out The Seven Principles That Make Marriage Work.
According to Dr. John Gottman, “Women find a man’s willingness to do housework extremely erotic.” When the man does his share to maintain the home, both partners report a more fulfilling sex life than in marriages where the wife believes her husband is not doing his share. How’s that for motivation to get off the couch?