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What do couples fight about most?


“What's the biggest struggle you see in couples today?”


This is one of the most common questions couples therapists hear, and there’s lots of diverse research and opinions on the subject.


Generally, I try to avoid answering superlative questions definitively. But in my practice, the issues I see presenting the most frequently happen to be sexuality and intimacy, but that’s only representative of the couples who come to me; a therapist whose niche is parenting might see that as a more repetitive issue.


My colleagues and friends often discuss how although there is so much content available about relationships in general, they often wish there were more targeted, specific practical guidance for building strong relationship skills.


Below, is a compiled list of 10 common areas of conflict in couples. It’s not exhaustive, and there are many examples that fall into multiple categories, but I think it’s a useful place to begin:


1.       Communication and conflict resolution:


We start here because it’s really a core issue that affects all the others, but it also deserves its own category. We all grow up speaking slightly different languages, even if we technically speak the same ones. The way we learned to express (or repress) ourselves in families of origin, social environments, and communities, as they intersected with our natural personalities and life experiences may need to be adapted to our partners’ paradigms for all this, and vice versa. Learning ways to communicate respectfully, empathetically, and collaboratively can help us transform arguments into dialogue, promote encouragement and gratitude, and build ongoing connection, love, and trust.


2.       Roles and responsibilities:


Many couples just assume that task assignments and household roles will fall into place naturally, based on who’s happy to do what, and sometimes they do. But often one partner, or even both, can develop resentment around the default division of responsibilities. Having clear conversations regularly about who will take care of what, and reassessing occasionally as needed, can diffuse some of the tension and resentment that can build up around these differences.


3.       Parenting and family life:


If/ when we are blessed with children, they, appropriately, become a priority and focal point of both the parents and the marriage. Centering values around how to parent our progeny can make us better people and spouses, but it can also sometimes spark discord. Reminding ourselves and one another that we both love these kids and want the best for them, helps us stay grounded when strategizing about how to meet their varied physical, psychological, educational, and spiritual needs.


4.       Socializing, community, and recreation:


Almost everyone needs friends and outlets for recreation. How, when, and with whom we pursue these will often involve or affect our partners. Spending time with friends and community can be a wonderful way for couples to bond, even with one another. Participating in recreational, communal, creative, and volunteer activities can as well. Travel, vacationing, and “date night” are some more examples of these. But when spouses’ tastes differ about the ways to incorporate these elements into their lifestyle, it’s important to understand and honor both sets of feelings, and try to create opportunities for both preferences to be considered and integrated, wherever possible.


5.       In-laws and family-of-origin relationships:


Every family dynamic has its own constellation of patterns, idiosyncrasies, assumptions, and expectations. The way we function and malfunction, love and hurt, rupture and repair, connect and protect within the complex dances of our relationships. When we unite with a partner who comes from a different family system, there are almost inevitable differences in our mindsets, based on our own family histories, sensitivities, and experiences. Learning to discuss, empathize, clarify, adjust, and refine our own new boundaries and connections with our respective families of origin as a couple is part of what can strain and/or strengthen both a marriage and the in-law relationships.


6.       Finances, spending, and saving:


Money is one of those hot button topics that is both difficult to talk about and completely pervasive. Wherever you fall on the spectra from poor to wealthy, materialistic to minimalistic, ambitious to carefree, nearly everyone needs some money (or at least currency) to live. The way we go about earning and budgeting is heavily influenced by culture, family of origin, personality, education, goals, and values. Rarely do two people have identical feelings and opinions about finances, and so determining how to manage them within a household will require mutual empathy and respect.


7.       Values, religion, and fidelity:


Our psycho-spiritual consciousness and belief systems comprises the entire backdrop for the “why”s of our lives. Some of us focus on this more mindfully than others, and in hundreds of different ways. Even within the same religious systems or personal beliefs, there are dozens of subcategories of how we practice logistically and align philosophically. (To make things even trickier, most of us evolve in these beliefs and values over the arch of our lives.) Fidelity is included in this set because while every monogamous relationship assumes boundaries of fidelity, the details, extent, and ramifications of how they’re guarded is very values-based. Deep, open, intimate, ongoing dialogue about our respective values, convictions, and specific commitments can help us understand and inspire one another with more depth and appreciation and evolve together.


8.       External stressors, circumstances, and big decisions:


Often, a couple could be functioning smoothly and happily for a while, but then a situation presents itself that creates tension. Some examples could be the loss of a job, or a new job offer, the need to move homes, an illness or death in the family, or a crisis in the community. When external stressors, circumstances, or crossroads intersect with the rhythm of a couple’s usual flow, it can throw off their sense of balance, and require new skills and conversation to frame what’s happening as an invitation to shore up our union and become better teammates rather than adversaries.


9.       Physical and mental health matters:


Our physical and mental health are a significant part of how we are able to show up in our lives and relationships. How we view and attend to our health is one of those values mentioned above, and worthy of exploring within our lifestyle choices, especially inasmuch as they affect a partner. When we’re able to proactively and appropriately prioritize our wellness, it can often enhance our connections, and when we’re struggling with health disturbances, that will often play out relationally too. From minor issues like superficial injuries, mild low moods, or “healthy-sick,” like the flu, to more serious injuries, illnesses, or chronic conditions, couples will need to figure out how to support, compensate, and strategize when one isn’t feeling well. These challenges can pit us against each other, make us closer, and often do a little of both. Paying attention and learning from these interactions can help set us up to weather them better than if we only react instinctively.


10.   Sex and intimacy:


Emotional and physical intimacy are possibly the areas of marriage where we find the most potential for both pleasure and pain. When there are moments and seasons of synchronicity and attunement, it can be euphoric. But when there’s misalignment, pressure, pain, or feelings of abandonment, it can be devastating. Desire discrepancy, sexual shame, fear of rejection, past attachment wounds and trauma are some of the common culprits that can sabotage our quests for healthy intimacy. Most couples will bump into at least some of this at some point. Learning some basic vocabulary, biology, gender differences, and emotional processes for discussing and building mutual love, passion, intimacy and pleasure in and out of the bedroom, can make the difference between a couple that grows apart versus one that grows together. We are always in a natural rhythm of connection, disconnection, and reconnection, but knowing how to access, activate, optimize, and elevate these interactions helps us do so intentionally and with love.


Each of these issues can potentially strain, or even threaten the fabric of a relationship, or they can be used as a fulcrum to deepen it, depending on whether and how we turn against or toward each other in these moments. Entire volumes can and probably have been written about each of these 10 elements, but using a list like this as an overview to begin a conversation with a partner, or with yourself in anticipation of partnership, is a great starting point for increasing awareness and relational health.


*The list in this post is the outline for a virtual talk I will be giving on 06/16/2024. To learn more about it and/ or to register, check this out:


 

 

 

 

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