A new study published in Marriage & Family Review found that the stories married couples tell in social settings tend to reflect their marital functioning and individual identity. Along with positive indicators such as meeting each other’s emotional needs, sharing positive experiences and having shared values or a united vision for the future, researchers also found negative facets of marital functioning reflected in these stories, pointing to marital distress and lower satisfaction. Researchers suggest that these challenges can occur even in strong marriages.
Here are five key reasons for marital dysfunction according to the study and how to begin working through them.
1. Sacrificing Individual Needs
Researchers suggest that the act of prioritizing the needs of the marriage over one’s personal desires is a conscious decision made by an individual, rather than a passive acceptance of unfavorable circumstances. It often entails suppressing or disregarding personal needs and aspirations.
Spouses may willingly make sacrifices for their partners without deriving much joy or meaning from them. For instance, they may adopt their spouse’s beliefs or feign interest in their hobbies. Consequently, the partner making these sacrifices often grapples with discontentment arising from neglecting their own needs. While sacrifices may be positive in certain situations and bring couples closer, participants in the study primarily pointed it out as a negative in their relationship.
A 2022 study suggests that such sacrifices can be costly, leading to lower relationship satisfaction for both the giver, who experiences lower well-being and the receiver, who has mixed feelings such as gratitude and guilt as a result of their partner’s sacrifice. Researchers suggest communicating about individual needs clearly, carefully evaluating the necessity of a sacrifice before making it and focusing on the positive results of the sacrifice if it has been made.
2. Enabling Negative Behavior
Spouses are sometimes reluctant to confront or address negative actions or habits within the relationship. For instance, traits such as selfishness or a lack of social awareness can become negative behavioral patterns that fail to meet the needs of a marital partner.
A spouse’s passivity or failure to communicate enables the persistence of problematic behaviors or uncomfortable situations that significantly impact the marriage. Sometimes, spouses may discuss these matters while telling stories to close connections but this does not resolve the deeper underlying challenge within the relationship. Addressing these behaviors head-on is crucial in fostering a healthier and more fulfilling marital dynamic.
3. Disrespecting Relationship Boundaries
Researchers suggest that “boundary mismanagement” occurs when individuals prioritize their personal identity over the well-being of their marriage. While establishing personal boundaries, such as ones around personal space or time, is healthy for individual and relational well-being, disrespecting them can cause strain.
Researchers share the example of a participant in the study who consciously shared only positive stories about her spouse and faced discomfort when her husband, who prioritized unfiltered honesty at all times, disclosed details she wished to keep private.
Disrespecting boundaries creates a relationship disconnect, which manifests when an individual neglects investing in their marriage or actively contributes to its breakdown by demeaning their spouse or their marriage.
Research shows that being caring and responsive to a partner’s needs and boundaries significantly raises relationship quality. The consequences of mismanaged boundaries further emphasize the need for a delicate balance between individual expression and preserving relationship harmony.
4. Navigating External Stressors
External influences and adversities wield a formidable influence on marital harmony. Distressing events such as the loss of a loved one, grappling with chronic health issues or navigating financial struggle can all take a toll on even the strongest marriages. These events can impact a partner’s mental health and their ability to communicate effectively in a relationship.
Here are some ways to minimize the impact of external stressors and strengthen the marital bond.
- Establish an emotionally safe space for open dialogue. Lean on each other and external support systems for help.
- Develop coping mechanisms together such as shared activities, new hobbies, grounding and mindfulness practices. Reframe challenges as opportunities for growth and learning.
- Adversity often requires adjustments and flexibility in roles, responsibilities and expectations. Being open to change as a team can alleviate strain.
- Despite challenges, prioritize spending quality time together. This can be as simple as a daily check-in or scheduling regular date nights.
- Encourage and prioritize individual self-care as it is also vital to supporting each other in the relationship.
5. Struggling With Uncertainty
Uncertainty arises when partners struggle with defining their wants and needs in a relationship. This can create a disconnect, leaving partners feeling unfulfilled or misunderstood as the unexpressed desires of one partner might clash with the unmet expectations of the other, causing emotional strain.
Encouraging open conversations about personal aspirations, engaging in activities that foster self-reflection and exploration such as attending workshops, reading books or seeking counseling together to better understand individual needs, supporting each other’s personal interests and cultivating empathy and patience towards each other’s struggles can help navigate relationship uncertainties.
Recognizing signs of dysfunction in a relationship can serve as a roadmap for couples to identify areas of improvement. Strengthening a marriage demands a dual commitment, both to personal growth and to collaborative effort with one’s partner, rooted in self-reflection, empathy and proactive communication every step of the way.