Arguments and disagreements occur within all close relationships, and are a normal part of dealing with differences in ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. However chronic relationship conflict and stress is a serious issue. It has been linked to poorer mental and physical health and can affect other areas of life such as relationships with family and friends, and work. Children also suffer when exposed to high levels of conflict at home, and are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, behavioural problems, and poorer health.

Learning effective and respectful ways to communicate differences is an important step in building a healthy, fulfilling relationship, and which can benefit our overall wellbeing and those around us.

What causes relationship problems?

There is no one, single cause for relationship problems, but a number of factors can play a part. 

Past experiences

A person’s family and upbringing can play an important role in his or her future relationships. People whose parents divorced are more likely to experience relationship breakdowns than those whose parents remained together4 and seeing high levels of conflict during the childhood and adolescence or experiencing abuse in the early years has been linked to relationship problems later in life.

Life transitions and stress

Life transitions, such as moving from living together to being married, having a baby, children leaving home, and moving into retirement can put strain on a relationship, and the couple can start feeling less ‘connected’ to one another.

Personal stress can also place strain on the relationship. When people are stressed, they find it more difficult to be positive or to be forgiving with their partner, which can increase their sense of dissatisfaction in the relationship. Work problems or financial difficulties, difficulties with in-laws or extended family, or balancing the needs of aging parents with the needs of caring for one’s own children can spill over into the relationship and increase stress between couples.

How people think

The way people think about themselves, their partner and their relationship is an important factor in relationship outcomes. Couples experiencing problems can start to blame each other and see each other as the cause of arguments and difficulties, viewing their partner’s behaviour as selfish and intentional. Seeing the relationship or the other person through a negative ‘lens’ can lead to placing more weight on negative events than on the positives, when they occur. This pattern can lead to more conflict or withdrawal.

Behavioural factors

Particular patterns of behaviour can be important signs that a relationship is at risk. Interactions that include disrespect, defensiveness, criticism, or ‘stonewalling’ (putting up a barrier to communication) are signs that a relationship is in crisis. A ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction has been suggested as a good indicator that a relationship is functioning well.

Habits of healthy relationships

Couples that successfully navigate life transitions are those who take time to talk about how they can manage changes together. Consistent positive emotions and behaviours can protect against the regular ups and downs of life. Couples who express positive feelings and see each other in a positive light are more likely to experience success in their relationship,  while positive views of the bond can help promote relationship stability and protect against negative feelings, even during arguments. Forgiveness, as well as feeling and expressing gratitude, both have positive effects on the relationship. 

Whilst stressful events can have a negative impact on a relationship, they can also help to develop strong coping skills within the couple. Successfully coping with small stressors early on in the relationship can lead to increased knowledge and confidence in managing future difficulties. The ability to listen to and understand the other person’s point of view and emotional experience, share one’s own  thoughts and experience with one’s partner, and engage in problem-solving together are also characteristics of rewarding and successful relationships. These qualities help couples not only to overcome life stress together but also to strengthen their relationship through good times and bad.

Therapies that work

Relationship problems are a common reason that people seek help from mental health professionals. Emotion-focused couple therapy (EFT) and behavioural couple therapy (BCT) are two of the most widely studied and supported forms of treatment for relationship problems. Research has shown that these psychological interventions are helpful in improving relationship satisfaction and the quality of interactions for many couples.

Both these therapies focus on strategies aimed at improving communication and understanding within the relationship.

Changing the view of the relationship

Rather than blaming each other, it is helpful for both partners to accept that their attitudes and behaviours influence the relationship. Each partner might think about the causes and consequences of their behaviour, and develop a better understanding of how their actions affect their partner, positively and negatively.

Expressing emotion

Couples who are experiencing difficulties in their relationship often avoid expressing their emotions or vulnerabilities, or they may criticise or blame each other. Sharing private thoughts and emotions, and encouraging caring, understanding, and acceptance from a partner, can be helpful in building closeness within a relationship.

Using affection and humour

The use of playfulness, affection and positive humour (rather than humour that includes criticism or put-downs), particularly during arguments, also promotes relationship satisfaction and closeness.

Improving communication

Learning effective communication and problem-solving skills can be an important part of improving interactions within a relationship. For example, if there are high levels of criticism or blame, each partner might learn new ways of openly but respectfully expressing his or her concerns. Or, for couples who avoid communication, learning to safely share their worries and increase positive expression of emotions may be helpful.

Problem-solving within a relationship might include steps such as agreeing on a clear definition of the problem, brainstorming solutions and the likely outcomes for each partner, agreeing on a solution and trying it out, and making a plan to re-evaluate whether it solved the problem or needs further work.

Promoting strengths

Focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship and of your partner can increase levels of enjoyment and satisfaction, and encourages positive behaviour. For example, couples might like to think about what attracted them to their partner in the first place, or to think about things they can do that their partner would appreciate, and deliberately do those things more frequently.

Source: Australian Psychological Society (APS) website