What causes relationship problems?

Close relationships offer comfort, support and fun, but are also sometimes a source of distress, frustration and despair. Natural phases of highs and lows in attraction, energy and enthusiasm can place stress on relationships. Unfortunately we have little control over these aspects. However, many problems arise from factors such as work and financial pressures, or goals and expectations being different between partners. These are some of the areas in which we can make changes, which can boost relationship satisfaction and pave the way for new growth together. 

What are the most common relationship problems?

These problems are examined below and are followed by suggestions for improvement.

Poor communication
The way people talk (or don’t talk) to one another can cause a lot of distress and tension. Some examples of poor communication are when one partner:

  • Has a demanding or intrusive communication style and the other partner withdraws or refuses to communicate in response.
  • Tries to manipulate the other with negative emotions, such as anger and sadness.
  • Personally criticises his/her partner, such as calling him/her ‘lazy’, rather than explaining that it is their partner’s behaviour that they dislike.
  • Fails to show concern for or understanding of the other by not physically or emotionally responding to them.

Enhancing communication
Good communication requires many skills. Some basic ideas to get you started are:

  • Remove all distractions, such as television or radio noise, and arrange a time to talk that suits you both.
  • Avoid interrupting your partner. If you are unsure or upset by what has been said, summarise back what you have heard and check for accuracy before replying.
  • Avoid labelling your partner. Focus on behaviour rather than the person. Personal attacks are unlikely to improve the situation, where as identifying specific behaviours opens up opportunities for change. Also, try to speak in encouraging and positive ways, so that you are showing support rather than putting your partner down.
  • Talk about the good aspects of the relationship, as well as the problems.

Poor problem-solving skills
Problem solving skills are vital to working out relationship difficulties, and other issues that affect relationships, ranging from simply paying bills to organising activities that involve quality time together.

Some common barriers to problem solving are:

  • Not identifying the cause of the problem. For example, assuming your partner’s recent disinterest means he/she is losing feelings for you, when the actual reason is work stress.
  • Choosing a solution before considering all options. For example, thinking that a holiday will fix a situation, rather than looking at minor changes that could make a great improvement.
  • Trying to solve the problem without your partner. Not working out solutions together may lead to blaming one another when things don’t work out.

Improving problem solving skills
Good problem solving skills can be hard to learn, and even harder to apply in difficult situations when it is hard to think clearly. Here are some suggestions:

  • Separate big problems into smaller ones and deal with each individually in order of importance. This process makes big and often overwhelming problems manageable.
  • Consider all possible options and strategies before choosing a solution. Sometimes the least obvious ideas turn out to be the most helpful.
  • Work with your partner because both of you need to have a sense of shared ownership in the process and shared responsibility in the outcomes. Remember to ask your partner for ideas and opinions and get feedback regularly.
  • Focus on the positives and learn from each situation. If things don’t go exactly how you want them, think about what did work and what you could do differently next time.

Inadequate partner support
Both partners need to give and receive adequate support for a relationship to survive and flourish. Some common problems in this area are:

  • Having unrealistic expectations and demands. Relying on your partner to meet all your support needs is likely to place too much pressure on them. Your partner is only human and makes mistakes, gets tired and has his or her own needs.
  • Not effectively communicating your needs can result in arguments. For example, when one partner gets upset because the other forgot to do something that they did not realise they were meant to do.

Promoting partner support

  • Identify and be realistic about the support you need. If you don’t know what you want then it is unlikely you will get it.
  • Communicate your expectations clearly and check your partner has understood. Check he or she can and knows how to meet your expectations.
  • Remember to forgive and be patient. Give your partner a chance.
  • Spend quality time together and share experiences.
  • Spending time together is not 'quality' when you are tired and distracted, and end up arguing or failing to enjoy each other’s company.

Lack of quality time together

Quality time together involves:

  • Jointly planning to spend quality time together and, when doing so, focus on positive things, unless you agreed to do otherwise beforehand.
  • Identifying shared interests that you can enjoy together and try to think of new ones that you can try. Also, deepen your understanding of the activities your partner enjoys most.

Who can help?

Psychologists can help you deal with relationship problems. The APS Psychologist Referral Service can help you find a qualified APS Psychologist with experience in treating and managing such problems.