What can cause relationship problems?
Relationship problems may be triggered by an unexpected event, like the loss of a job, illness or the death of a child. But any major life changes, even some we may have chosen ourselves, such as moving house, having a baby or inviting an elderly parent to live with us, can place huge pressures on a relationship.
In some ways, these everyday events are easier to overlook, because we think that everyone experiences them. So we try to cope, ignoring the signs of stress.
Many people are living in highly stressful relationships, with partners who are abusive or alcoholic, who have long-term illness, are unemployed, or who are having affairs. You may be doing your best to cope, to carry on as normal, and may even be admired for doing so.
Whatever the problem, the first step towards dealing with it is acknowledging it. Here are some of the most common sources of stress, and suggested ways of coping with them, which may save your relationship.
Babies and young children
New babies bring pleasure and joy. But they also bring broken nights and change the balance of your relationship. Sometimes a mother is so involved with her baby that her partner feels excluded and jealous.
Many women also go off sex for a period after giving birth. Second babies bring jealousy from the first-born, and generally more demands. A partner who is feeling neglected may then withdraw and stop communicating, or spend more time at work.
It's essential that you have time alone together, away from the children. You might book a babysitter and go out for the evening, or leave the children with friends for part of the weekend. The main carer is also likely to be pretty desperate for time away from children - alone or with friends - on a regular basis. Try to work things out between you so that you are both getting your needs met. This can relieve a lot of the pressure on your relationship.
It's quite common to feel jealous of, and competitive with, your partner's child or children, perhaps almost feeling like another child yourself. These are very uncomfortable feelings. Remember that your partner has chosen to live with you and that you have an adult-to-adult relationship that is quite different from the parent-child relationship. Try to establish your own relationship with the child, for example by finding an enjoyable activity that you can do together without your partner.
Some step-children may seem deliberately hostile to a step-parent. They may feel that aggression is their only source of power in this situation, and will express it openly or by silence and withdrawal. You will need to talk to your partner to get support, but be careful to talk about your feelings and not to criticise the children.
Starting an affair
Many of us fall in love and start a relationship hoping that it's going to meet all our needs and that we will live happily ever after. When we run into problems, whether at home or at work, it's easy to blame the relationship and think we are with the wrong person. At this point, it may be tempting to give up on the relationship or start an affair with somebody else.
Having an affair does not necessarily mean the end of the relationship. The impulse to have an affair is often a symptom of underlying problems between the two of you. The third party might be the right person, but it's just as likely that you will take the same problems with you into that new relationship.
To tackle this dilemma, it's crucial that you start listening to each other's disappointments and needs, and for this you may find that you need professional help, from a relationship counsellor, for instance.
Although sexual difficulties are often a symptom of other problems, in some relationships they are the basis of the difficulty. People often feel shy or ashamed of acknowledging them, but many problems are solvable with expert help. (See 'Useful organisations')
Unemployment and redundancy
Redundancy is usually sudden and shocking. Whatever the reason, it's likely to dent someone's self-esteem and so make them feel bad-tempered and moody, as well as anxious. At the same time, your partner may start to feel resentful if they are now the sole breadwinner. This may be aggravated if, quite understandably, the jobless person is keeping busy by seeing friends or taking up other pastimes. In this situation, it's a good idea to talk about rebalancing things, so that the working partner gets more support and doesn't have to do all the domestic chores.
If neither of you works, you're both likely to get anxious and, unless you express these feelings, tense, angry or simply withdrawn. Long-term unemployment, whether it's you, your partner or a grown-up child, is draining for the whole family. The unemployed person will often feel inadequate and powerless and this may mean that they withdraw sexually. They may also feel sad, depressed, or humiliated.
Shortage of money can produce a lot of anxiety and fear, and can easily become the main focus of a relationship. Share your feelings as much as you can, rather than withdrawing in panic or blaming your partner for not earning enough. You could contact the National Debtline or go together to your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). All CAB staff are trained to offer help with debt and redundancy problems. They can help you to check whether you are getting all the benefits you are entitled to, and discuss whether other options are available.
Many money problems are actually power struggles being played out through money. If this is what is happening with you, a counsellor or therapist is probably your best source of help. (See 'Useful organisations' and 'Further reading' for more information.)
This puts an enormous strain on any partnership. Apart from the extra work involved, the well partner will often have unwelcome feelings like resentment, hatred or jealousy. It's essential that you have a place to air feelings, so that they don't get in the way of your caring or damage your own health and wellbeing.
Bottling them up will only increase the pressure on the relationship. It can also take the pressure off if the ill partner has a place to talk. There are organisations that support people with specific diseases and those caring for them. Your hospital or social worker should have details of groups dealing with your partner's illness.
You may have knowingly teamed up with a drinker, or your partner may begin drinking later in your relationship. One of the hardest things about living with an alcoholic is their mood swings. They may be quite abusive, even violent, when drunk, but charming when sober; affectionate and attentive when they're drinking, but very withdrawn again when they stop. And the expense of drinking may cause money problems. Your partner's alcoholism need not lead to the end of your relationship, if you are both willing to get help. (See 'Useful organisations'.)
Physical violence and emotional abuse
This is probably one of the most difficult situations to deal with, but there is increasing support available for both partners, which could save the relationship. The physical violence doesn't have to be frequent to make you a victim.
More common, and perhaps even more frightening and undermining, is the emotional abuse. Slamming doors and threats like, "Don't you ever do that again" evoke a constant fear of violence. You may begin to adapt your behaviour so that you don't provoke your partner. You may get confused because your partner becomes loving after an attack, telling you it wasn't that bad, that you should forget about it, perhaps even pretending that it didn't happen, so that you begin to doubt your own experience.
Your partner may be in the habit of humiliating you in front of your friends, or making constant critical remarks about what you do and how you look. This kind of verbal abuse may happen again and again, and can be devastating over time.
Emotional abuse may also take the form of silent withdrawal. In this situation most people start to feel ugly, worthless, ashamed, unloved and unlovable. You may start to move away from your friends and become withdrawn at work. As your self-esteem plummets, you may feel increasingly dependent for friendship and love on the very person who is abusing you.
Partners may resort to violence in response to their own feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, loneliness and depression. The patterns involved in a violent and abusive relationship usually run very deep and you will need professional help if you are to save your relationship. Acknowledging what is going on is an important first step. You might want to start by talking to a friend.