relational pain

Why are some relationships just harder?


Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Sometimes Fighting For Your Marriage Means Separating

Sometimes fighting for your marriage means separating for a period of time to allow the marriage to heal.


Side note – This post is not an invitation to debate whether or not separation is a good or bad thing. What it is about is how to do a separation well. I have been counseling for many years and I have seen couples thrive and reconcile after having a structured separation.  I know it works when done well, and when the couple truly desires to reconcile to one another and remain married.

avenues counseling

Some essential things to keep in mind when considering a marital separation –

1.  You will need a third party to help you and your spouse develop the structure for your separation of which all parties must agree to.  This role is best filled by a counselor, pastor, or some other subjective/impartial third party.

2. Assess your motives for the separation – are you separating to be “free” from your spouse knowing all along you want a divorce or is your goal reconciliation? As you assess your motives please know that to desire reconciliation is not to say it absolutely will be the outcome of the separation.  When a couple arrives at the place of considering separation there is likely to be much hurt, pain, and relational items to be resolved.  So to desire to reconcile with your spouse is not the same as “you must reconcile.”

3.  Structure, structure, structure – any separation I oversee has structure.  I have found this is easiest to achieve by sitting with the couple and creating a contract (or you may call it a covenant) together.  The purposes of the contract are to outline what the arrangements, expectations, and commitments each promise to during the separation.  It is a document for each spouse to sign as well as the third party you have asked to oversee your separation.  Some items to include within this agreement are the length of the separation (I begin the separation with any couple recommending a 6 month separation), amount of contact the couple will have during separation, expectations for what each spouse is to accomplish during this time, an agreement of how each will handle their finances, where each will live, how to handle visitation with children (if it applies), how the couple will communicate their separation to family, friends, and their children (if applicable), and individual and couple counseling frequency.  It is also important to ask each spouse what they feel like they need for themselves during this time of separation and to incorporate their needs into the contract when healthy and support the ultimate goal of reconciliation.

Some tips for a time of separation –

1.  Don’t do it alone

Create a team (counselor(s), pastor(s), trusted friend(s), etc.) of support.  Think of this team as your triage team.  This team will be available to you to assist in nursing your marital relationship back to health.  Be sure to put people on this team who are for your relationship and not those who will be negative about your spouse.

2.  Separation means you separate

Take a relational break from one another and stick to it. Remember the goal is reconciliation … so honoring the separation is essential for this time apart to do its job.  Defining the level of contact you will have with one another should be one of the items addressed in your separation contract.

3. Focus on you and your “stuff”

This is not a time for you to focus on your spouse’s issues.  Focusing on the issues your spouse needs to work on will not help you address the areas you need to change. Worry about you only and what you need to focus on. If your focus remains solely on what your spouse needs to change and how they are wrong, this should be an indicator to you that you are ignoring some things in your own heart.  Pray for them and your marriage, but don’t fixate on how your spouse needs to change.

4. Honor the contract you signed

Do what you agreed to do in the contract you signed. Your separation is not a time to play or to ignore your marriage. It is a time of relational reprieve to allow each of you to focus on your own heart and mind and to ultimately bring about change and healing within your marital relationship.  This time is essential for the future of your marriage. Take it seriously.  I’m not saying you can’t have fun during this time or still enjoy life, but I am saying that if you see your separation as a chance for fun then this points to a bigger heart issue. If this is you, be honest about it with yourself and your team.

5.  Don’t hide

Do not hide your fears, concerns, or your feelings of hopelessness for your marriage.  For your separation to have its best chance at allowing you and your spouse to reconcile, you must be committed to honesty and openness.

6.  The kid factor

Being separated without kids

Just be thankful you don’t have kids because being separated with kids is hard.

Being separated with kids

Being separated and having your children remain one of the top priorities is hard.  You are in the midst of your own confusion and pain, and your stress level is most likely very high.  Parenting while living through this hard time of separation may be one of the hardest things you ever do.  You must (and I mean must) purpose every day to think about your children and how to protect their little minds and hearts during this time.  Just think, if this time is hard and confusing for you, how much more is it for them?  A lot more.  I would like to suggest you ask, and re-ask, this question to yourself daily, “In all of the decisions I am making while separated about our family, arrangements, how I talk about my spouse, etc., am I making decisions based on what is best for them?”  I am not saying that your children should be prioritized over and above reconciling your marriage, but what I am saying is that you need to be keenly aware of where “your stuff” begins and ends and not let it interfere with how you and your spouse care for your children during this time of separation.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC