What causes marriage problems? It’s easy to focus on symptoms and avoid the root causes. In this article we discuss four root causes that often surprise (and even anger) couples.
Years ago I transplanted some shrubs from Alabama to Tennessee. My dad gave them to me and told me precise steps on how to make the transition. They were beautiful flowering plants. We loved the colors and knew they would look great at our place.
At first, everything looked good. However, after a while, I realized the flowers on the shrubs weren’t blooming. Everything looked dead. I couldn’t figure out what was making the plant die (or appear to be dying).
I tried bug spray to kill any insects that might be damaging the plants. Long story short, we tried a number of things and couldn’t get the plants to produce. No flowers. No colors. Just dead branches.
It took a while but I finally diagnosed the problem – root rot. This usually happens because of something bad in the soil.
We had been treating the fruit (leaves, flowers and branches) when the real problem was underneath. Until we addressed the root problem, the plants would not produce.
I’ve found similar things happen in marriage.
There are levels to marital conflict. Some problems are deal-breakers in marriage (infidelity, abuse, etc). Others cause conflict that makes the marriage miserable. Some merely make communication and getting along a challenge.
As you can imagine, this means there are too many ‘problems’ to list.
There are also levels of marriage problems. I like to break them down into two categories: Root causes and symptomatic issues.
Root vs Fruit
Have you ever heard the statement ‘root vs fruit’? It’s used periodically in the counseling field when dealing personal problem areas. The concept is simple. There is a difference in a root and a fruit.
The root is what gives life to the fruit.
In the story above, it wasn’t until we dealt with the root of the plants that fruit started growing.
Why is this important when discussing marriage problems?
We often deal with fruit and ignore the root of the problem. It is pointless to deal with superficial issues and fail to address the deeper issues. It’s like trying to save my dying plant without getting the roots healthy.We often deal with fruit and ignore the root of the problem. It is pointless to deal with superficial issues and fail to address the deeper issues. It’s like trying to save my dying plant without getting the roots healthy. Click To Tweet
Root Causes of Marriage Problems
The list of marriage issues is endless. I hear a new one once a week. Root problems, however, are so numerous. I put them into one of five topics. These are the big root problems that must be addressed before you can deal with external issues.
Unfortunately, most marriage problems (especially in relatively normal families) are the result of couples failing to love their partner well.
I often find people bristle at that comment. But it’s true.
I frequently hear someone respond, ‘That’s not true. I love my wife (husband) but we still have major problems!’
My reply: ‘How do you define love?’
If you simply mean you have emotional or sexual feelings for your spouse, that is not enough. Real love – deep love – is selfless. Not selfish.
If you only think in terms of what you get out of marriage, you are not thinking about your spouse. You are thinking about yourself.If you simply mean you have emotional or sexual feelings for your spouse, that is not enough. Real love – deep love – is selfless. Not selfish. Click To Tweet
Giving and Receiving
Marriage is not only about giving. Receiving is necessary. No one wants to be in a one sided relationship. There has to be give and take.
The problem comes when we only focus on what WE want and ignore what our spouse wants and needs. It’s a matter of focus and perspective. It centers around our priorities.
If your priority is to be happy, chances are you will never reach your goal. Happiness is elusive to those who are self-center and pursue it at all cost.. Happiness comes from giving. Not just getting.
This is the game changer in marriage. As long as couples only think about what they are not getting out the relationship, they stay stuck. The moment they shift their priority to meeting their spouses needs, the relationship takes on a new trajectory. It all begins with thinking about what you can do to serve your spouse.
To help you get a picture of what this looks like, read the story of ‘people with no elbows.’If your priority is to be happy, chances are you will never reach your goal. Happiness is elusive to those who are self-center and pursue it at all cost.. Happiness comes from giving. Not just getting. Click To Tweet
What does it mean to love your partner well?
There are countless ‘ways’ to love your spouse better, but it boils down to a handful of attitudes. One of the most important is empathy. Empathy is the ability and willingness (both are crucial) to enter your spouse’s world and put yourself in their shoes.
Empathy happens when we choose to look at life through their eyes. To feel what they feel, see what they see, and care about what they care about.
Empathy can’t operate where selfishness exists. They are polar opposites.
Fear is the opposite of trust (which is the foundation of a healthy relationship). Where trust is lacking, insecurity and fear reside.
Fear manifest in many different forms: jealousy, insecurity, and abandonment issues to name a few.
Brene Brown (one of my wife’s favorite writers) defines trust using the term ‘Braving’ as an acronym. You can read more about it in her book, Dare to Lead.
B for Boundaries.
Can we be clear on what is acceptable and not acceptable in our relationship? Can we respect each other’s boundaries?
R for Reliable.
Can I trust you to be true to your word and keep your commitments.
A for Accountability.
Will you admit when you are wrong and apologize if you hurt me?
V for Vault.
Can I trust you to be confidential? Will you keep my confessions and emotions safe? Will you guard my heart?
I for Integrity.
Will you be consistent and live by high values? Will you choose courage over comfort? Do you live what you preach?
N for No Judgment
Can I be vulnerable with you? If I ask for help will you not see me as weak and broken? Will you be brave enough to ask for help?
G for Generosity.
Generosity is not just about willingness to give to others. It’s about expecting the best, believing the best, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
When stuff happens, will you believe me before you doubt me? Will you assume the best about me?
Below is a compilation video of Brene Brown talking about ‘Braving.’
Ever feel like you are going to snap?
We use that term for a reason. Stress is like a rubber band. Stretch it far enough and it will snap. Usually causing serious damage.
Like this guy:
The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy studied the effects of daily stress on couples.
Not surprisingly, they found the level of extradyadic (outside) stress had a direct correlation to intradyadic (internal) stress. The greater the level of external pressure, the more severe the internal stress. Which spilled over their relationship.
It’s like the rubber band of their emotions stretched to the breaking point.
Why is this so damaging to a marriage?
Under normal conditions, married partners offer support to one another. They hug. Say ‘I love you.’ Empathize with each other.
When stressed, we tend to withdraw. Fewer hugs. Less verbal encouragement. Criticism replaces empathy.
You can feel the rubber band stretching. When problems compound, the band gets tighter. If relief isn’t found, the band breaks.
Couples that learn to decrease stress, have a greater sense of unity and higher marital satisfaction.
Disclaimer: The next two factors deal with medical and psychological issues. While I have a degree in counseling, I am not a medical professional. I mention these two factors because the research I’ve done indicates they are valid reasons for marital problems.
4. Psychological Imbalance
These next two issues are very similar. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between psychological problems and chemical imbalance.
Here’s what I mean:
Psychological problems are issues that are rooted in emotional responses and reactions. They do not have a ‘physical or biological’ cause. In other words, if you did blood work, you would not find a cause.
Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder is a good example. There is no test you can run that shows a person has PTSD. It is an emotional, psychological response to trauma and pain.
Chemical or metabolic imbalance is, however, something that could show up in blood work, brain scans, or medical exams.
An example would be a tumor on an organ or gland that causes changes in temperament. We will talk about that next.
I acknowledge the ‘broad strokes’ as I talk about this. My goal (point) is there is a difference (even if subtle) between purely psychological problems and biological (chemical, metabolic, medical) problems. I hope you are tracking.
Psychological issues can cause marital problems ranging from depression, PTSD, and other anxiety dysfunctions. Without proper help, psychological disorders can damage trust and confidence in a relationship.
If you struggle with psychological disorders that are affecting your relationships, seek help immediately.
5. Metabolic or Chemical Imbalance
As mentioned above, these imbalances fall into the physical spectrum as well as the psychological.
I am aware of the continued debate among professionals about the role of chemical imbalance in behavioral issues. It is not my intent to weigh in on those issues. I do believe some problems can’t be reduced (bad choice of words) to merely psychological. There is substantial evidence that certain medical conditions affect behavior, which impacts marital problems.
This would include things like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, among other things.
Why is it important to understand these root causes?
Most couples only deal with external issues and rarely dig deep enough to understand what’s going on in their spouse emotionally, physically or hormonally. To resolve many marriage conflicts, we have to find out the real causes.
Like the plants I transplanted from Alabama; you can do all the right things (water, feed, and give them sunshine) but if the plant has root rot, most of that doesn’t even matters.Most couples only deal with external issues and rarely dig deep enough to understand what’s going on in their spouse emotionally, physically or hormonally. To resolve many marriage conflicts, we have to find out the real causes. Click To Tweet
I see couples frequently who do all the right things, yet they continue to have conflict and their marriage suffers. What they are doing is not wrong; just incomplete.
You have to deal with root issues. At the same time, we can’t ignore the symptoms.
When you go to a doctor, he will treat the symptom to give you some relief. But that alone will not heal you. You have to deal with cause of the symptom.
Let’s take a look at a few symptoms of a troubled marriage.
Symptomatic Issues in Marriage
What is a symptomatic cause?
It is the result (or symptom) from the root issue.
Here’s a quick example:
Sneezing is a symptom of either allergies or a cold. It is not the ‘real’ problem. Just the symptom.
It needs to be treated or it will drive you crazy. But until you deal with the root cause, you will likely have to deal with it again.
Most problems I hear about in marriage are symptoms of deeper issues. Root causes.
Sure, the need to be dealt with. Or, like sneezing, it will drive you crazy. But the root cause must be addressed if you want health in your relationship.
It is not enough to deal with financial debt if you don’t change the way you spend money. The problem will continue to come back until you learn to live on a budget.
So what are symptomatic problems in marriage?
They are too numerous to list, but here is a short list I encounter most:
1. Communication Issues
YourTango.com polled 100 marriage counselors to find out the leading causes of divorce. They found communication problems tops the list. The breakdown in communication looked like this:
- 43% said they had an inability to resolve conflicts
- 70% of men said nagging and complaining were the chief reasons for splitting up
- 60% of men said their spouse did not express appreciation
- 83% of women said they were never validated in their feelings and opinions
- 56% of women said their spouse did not listen
While this is disturbing, it is important to remember good communication is the result of trust and connection. That means bad communication is the result of lack of trust and disconnection in your marriage.Good communication is the result of trust and connection. That means bad communication is the result of lack of trust and disconnection in your marriage. Click To Tweet
Yes, you should work on communication skills, but techniques without trust is like putting a band aid a a gaping wound.
2. Financial Stress
I love statistics. But I realize they can be flawed. For example, one study in 2001 by J. Gardner and A. Oswald found the level of marriage happiness for a couple is related to ‘having money.’
However, another study by D. Morawetz indicated income and happiness are not related.
Here is my educated guess (insight). Money issues have a negative effect on marital happiness especially when debt drives a wedge in the relationship. The greater the debt, the higher the level of frustration. That’s just common sense. I see it all the time in couples.
The National Survey of Families and Households studied 4,574 couples and found the amount of debt a family incurred increased the likelihood of divorce. The higher the debt, the greater odds of divorce. (Source) (Source)
This falls under the root cause of stress in the relationship.
Money problems are like the rubber band being stretched. Too many money problems and the band snaps.
Money is not the issue; stress is the issue.
3. Sexual Frustration
I need to dispel a couple of myths.
Myth #1: Only men complain about not having sex.
The stereotype is that men only think about sex. Not true. The other stereotype is that women never complain about not having sex. Again, not true.
Statistics (and my experience in dealing with couples) is that both men and women desire sexual contact and get frustrated when it isn’t given.
Myth #2: Sexual frustration is because you are not having intercourse.
Sexual frustration can (and does) often occur in couples who have a regular sex life. It’s not about intercourse; it’s about connection. A physical orgasm doesn’t equal connection.
This often breeds frustration even when sex is regular.
This validates the thought that sexual frustration is a symptom, not a root issue. The root of the problem is lack of closeness and connection.
Most affairs are not driven by lust. That is another myth. They are the result of loss of connection at home.
It’s impossible to put every situation in this category; the reasons people have affairs are far to varied for that. But most marriage counselors acknowledge that the majority are not the result of raw lust. Rather the outcome of something lacking in their marriage.
Infidelity is primarily a symptom of something deeper. It’s dangerous to put it in those terms. It is easy to misread that statement and feel blame if your spouse has cheated.
This is not meant to place blame. The point is, infidelity is (in most cases) the result of disconnection in marriage. Why a couple becomes disconnected is another issue.
When trying to heal from an affair, it is vital to dig deep to discover why the affair happened. Without that knowledge, you are unable to work to make the marriage whole again.
I began this article with the story about my plants that had root rot. No matter what I did, the plants continued to decline. Not because I was doing the wrong things. I just wasn’t doing the right things. I was treating the symptom, not the real issue.
To fix relationship issues we first have to know what causes marriage problems. We’ve seen the difference in root problems and symptomatic problems.
Here is a brief recap:
- Root Causes of Marriage Problems
- Symptomatic Issues in Marriage
To get more help creating the marriage you desire and deserve, check out these resources:
Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
The Healthy Marriage Quiz
If you want specific help for your marriage, or you want to know your healthy marriage score, take the marriage quiz. You’ll get immediate access with suggestions on how to improve your relationship.
The Healthy Marriage Toolkit
Books, Courses, Programs and Tools designed to help you create the marriage of your dreams.
Healthy Marriage Courses
Our courses will help you build a strong marriage. Each course is designed to meet a specific relationship need.
If you are having serious marriage struggles, we recommend starting with ‘Save the Marriage System‘ by Lee Baucom.
Magic Relationship Words by Susie and Otto Collins
The Devotion System This free video will show you why men pull away and what you can do to enhance your relationship.
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