There’s no way around it: Long-term relationships are hard work—and there will be bumps along the way. Even the best marriages go through ups and downs, but couples that last have one crucial thing in common: They know it’s them as a unit versus the problem, not one person versus the other.
“You can’t solve couple problems individually,” says therapist Jocylynn Stephenson. “It almost always fails because you don’t have the input of the other person.”
Meet the Expert
Jocylynn Stephenson is a licensed marriage and family therapist with Emily Cook Therapy. Based in Bethesda, Maryland, she specializes in marital conflict, separations, and divorce decisions.
While the specifics of those problems will vary from couple to couple, there’s comfort in knowing that others are likely grappling with some of the same core issues you do. Read on for a look at six of the most common marriage problems—and an expert’s advice on how to work through them together.
1. You don’t take an interest in each other’s interests.
It starts with the best of intentions: You want your partner to be independent and pursue their passions, even if you don’t quite understand them. At the same time, you don’t want to overly burden your partner with the things you love that they don’t. While these sentiments come from a good place, they can create distance in a marriage. “If we allow for too much individuality, we end up in silos,” says Stephenson. “Then, we’re just kind of living parallel lives instead of weaving a life together.” This can lead to a loss of intimacy and interconnectedness that’s crucial for a healthy relationship.
Be intentional about getting more involved. You don’t have to make your partner’s hobbies your own or know every detail about the roster history of their favorite football team. But you do need to look for opportunities to share your passions. “Figure out where the two of you can align so you have visibility on each other’s internal lives,” Stephenson explains. If you love figure skating and a particularly exciting competition is coming up, ask your partner to watch it with you. (Knowing the engagement has a distinct beginning and end will help make them more amenable to participating.)
On the flip side, if your partner is an avid cyclist, make time to check in on the pastime. “It can be as simple as saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on for you? Are you going on any big rides soon? Who do you ride with?’” Stephenson says. By actively staying in-the-know about what’s important to your partner, you validate their interests—and reconfirm your marriage as a place to explore those interests in the process.
2. Your spending habits are different.
No surprise here: Money is one of the biggest sources of tension between married couples, particularly when it comes to how to spend it. But all hope is not lost just because one person has a tight hold on their purse strings, while the other subscribes to the Ariana Grande “7 rings” school of thought. (Key lyric: “If I like it, then that’s what I get.”)
In these instances, Stephenson begins counseling by helping couples explore the reasons behind their habits. “A lot of our work as marriage therapists is about helping couples understand one another, so I start with what spending means to each of them,” she says. “Where did you learn how to deal with money? What did you see growing up?” This lays the groundwork for more empathetic conversations about how to approach finances as a unit.
Set expectations about how to share. Scrutinizing each other’s every purchase is likely only going to add fuel to the fire, so it’s important to find compromises in this realm. A combination of joint and separate accounts can work wonders, but even then you’ll want a window into your partner’s individual goals, habits, and desires. “Here, we talk about what it looks like to structure your money,” says Stephenson. “What are the big things you want? What are the big things you’re saving for? What does your spending look like on a week-to-week basis?”
It’s also helpful to set clear expectations for how you’ll handle larger financial decisions. Work together to determine what “big” means—maybe it’s a specific amount, maybe it’s a type of investment, such as a new stock or business opportunity—and how you’ll approach those decisions.
There’s no right answer here: Some couples will want to discuss everything beforehand, while others are fine if one person takes the lead but clues the other in after the fact. Either way, setting explicit guidelines and sticking to them will minimize surprises—which can feel like breaches of trust—down the line.
3. You’ve fallen out of sync on intimacy.
When it comes to sex, the most common marriage problem Stephenson encounters is differing levels and types of desire—and a reluctance to discuss that openly. “There can be a lot of shame, judgment about performance, and pressure to be and do all sorts of things, so we don’t talk about it explicitly,” says Stephenson. That makes normalizing open communication on this front is a crucial first step.
Try a two-prong approach. “Step one is understanding their history,” says Stephenson. “What did sex and intimacy look like before it changed for the worse?” Identifying the root of a problem is the first step in solving it, so she encourages couples to talk about what's contributed to the change.
Step two is determining where each person wants to be going forward. If those levels of desire match up, figure out how to remove or work around the barriers keeping you from getting there. If they don’t match up, make sure each person knows the best way to satisfy their partner while still keeping their personal boundaries intact. While it’s not a perfect solution, putting in the effort can go a long way towards showing your spouse that their needs are important to you. When done in a safe, supportive environment, it can also open you up to new experiences that can deepen your personal sexual enjoyment.
4. Jealousy has reared its ugly head.
While you might think this insecurity stems from concerns about physical infidelity, Stephenson finds that’s not typically the case. “Most often, I find that couples get jealous of their closeness their partners feel with other people,” she says. “It’s more the emotional stuff.”
Reinvest in your relationship. Assuaging this type of jealousy is all about sharing your inner world. “Inevitably, it’s a matter of giving a person more time, more attention, and more of yourself,” Stephenson says. “In my experience, couples that have close relationships [outside of their marriage] but don’t experience jealousy are also doing the work to maintain emotional intimacy. If your partner gets enough of that, then they’re usually satisfied.”
5. It feels like you’re growing in different directions.
It’s inevitable that people will evolve in different ways over the course of a long-term relationship, and that these changes might, at times, lead you to question your compatibility. Perhaps the career-focused person you married has eased their professional ambitions in favor of finding fulfillment in family, or the partner who once shared your dream of settling closer to relatives now hopes to retire to a remote cabin in the woods. These divergences can seem like impossible hurdles to overcome, but it’s important to realize that while the specifics of your individual dreams may have changed, you’re likely still aligned on the core components. “Generally, couples want to be happy and emotionally stable, and they want to eventually stop working,” says Stephenson. “Those are the big umbrella goals, and the rest are particularities.”
Meet your partner where they’re at. Part of the issue here is feeling like you no longer know your partner, so put in the effort to get reacquainted. “I ask couples to make time for lots of intimacy work,” says Stephenson, who uses a list of prompts from The Gottman Institute to encourage meaningful dialogue. (Topics include greatest fears, best friends, life goals, and more.) “In giving couples these questions, I essentially ask them to get to know each other again, and to do that in a positive way.” Understanding your partner’s hopes and dreams in intimate detail also provides more wiggle room for finding common ground. Maybe it’s not a literal cabin in the woods they need, but the feelings of privacy or being connected to nature that the cabin would provide. Finding a way to satisfy those wants in an environment you’d also be happy with could be the key to ensuring a successful future together.
6. You’re bored.
Ennui can be a silent relationship killer. What do you do when there’s no discernible problem, but you’ve both lost perspective on what makes your bond special? Boredom typically manifests itself as a lack of enthusiasm, and it can take a toll on a marriage if left unchecked.
Confront the issue head-on. “If I find a couple is drifting apart because they think they know everything there is to know about their partner, I tell them that they’re wrong,” says Stephenson. “Their partner has grown and changed. If you can’t see that, then you’ve got to open your eyes.”
If that boredom is a result of predictability in your life together, the best thing you can do is share that with your partner in a way that allows you to do something about it. “Externalize the problem,” Stephenson advises. “Where does your boredom come from, and what do you want to do about it?” If you feel, for example, that you’re no longer having interesting conversations, evaluate how you spend your time individually. Are you reading books, delving into new interests, or otherwise engaging in the kind of things that lead to that? After all, sometimes the best way to help your relationship is to help yourself first.