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According to recent census data, approximately 50% of first marriages end in divorce, one of life's most stressful events. Even for those marriages that do not end in divorce, many are characterized by unhappiness. For example, it has been estimated that approximately 20% of all married couples experience marital distress, or discontent with their marriage, at any given time. Despite the risk associated with marriage, almost 90% of the population chooses to marry at least once, and nearly 75% of divorced individuals choose to remarry. Therefore, understanding marital distress and its consequences, and developing effective marital therapy treatment programs, have been major foci of individuals in the field of mental health.
What are the Causes of Marital Distress?
Although couples become unhappy with their marriages for a variety of reasons, there are several recurring themes that are frequently associated with marital distress. The most frequent problem reported by unhappy couples is poor communication. Spouses often feel that their partners are making excessive demands or requesting much more than they can give. Other spouses feel that their partners are too withdrawn or do not share or open up enough. Finally, distressed spouses often avoid talking about problems in their relationships because they end up arguing and fighting with each other. These communication problems often result in spouses feeling bad about themselves, their partners, and their relationships.
A second problem frequently associated with marital distress is unrealistic expectations that spouses may hold about marriage or about each other. For example, spouses may believe that their partners should know what they are thinking and feeling without asking. In addition, distressed spouses are likely to have negative explanations for their partners' behavior. For example, distressed spouses are likely to blame their partners for anything bad that occurs in the relationship.
A third problem frequently associated with marital distress is lack of intimacy or loving feelings between spouses. Although the strong emotions associated with courtship naturally decline over time in relationships, many spouses become upset when they observe such a decline. They may perceive this natural decline as a loss of loving feelings, which is then often associated with a decrease in demonstrations of affection and decreased sexual activities. Other difficulties reported by distressed couples include specific problem topics, such as money management, jealousy, conflicts over values, and problems with in-laws. Other spouses become distressed when confronted with negative life events, such as the death of a family member or a serious illness. Still other couples become distressed because of changes in one person's life that leave the partner feeling excluded. Employment success and making new friendships are common examples of this.
What Are the Consequences of Marital Distress?
Evidence indicates that individuals who have problems in their marriages are more likely to have a variety of psychological problems, including depression and alcoholism. Compared to individuals who are married and getting along with their spouses, both men and women who are in unhappy marriages are much more likely to be clinically depressed. Distressed spouses are also more susceptible to physical health problems. Another problem reported by spouses who are having marital problems is violence within the relationship. Almost one third of all married couples will experience violence at some time in their marriage, with distressed spouses being at greater risk. Marital violence can have a major impact on the relationship and on the psychological, as well as the physical, well-being of each spouse. Finally, behavioral problems in children are more common in families in which the parents are unhappily married. A number of studies have found that children who are exposed to marital distress, particularly to violence in the home, are at greater risk for their own emotional problems.
Behavior and Cognitive Behavioral Treatment
By the time they consider therapy, many couples also have considered the option of divorce. Therapy can help to answer questions of whether or not the relationship can provide what each spouse needs for a satisfying marriage.
Although there are a number of treatment programs for unhappily married couples, the most widely researched form of treatment for marital distress is cognitive behavioral marital therapy. There are several general goals of this approach to marital therapy.
First, spouses are taught how to identify and increase the number of caring behaviors they do for one another.
Second, they are taught specific communication skills in order to improve the quality of their communication. Improving communication often produces greater emotional closeness and intimacy in the marriage.
Third, spouses are taught problem-solving skills so that they can successfully resolve problems in their relationship without getting into destructive arguments.
Finally, they are taught how to improve the quality of their sexual relationship through sexual enhancement, as well as how to identify and modify unrealistic beliefs that may be contributing to their unhappiness.
Many studies have been conducted in the United States and in Europe to evaluate the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral marital therapy. Results have shown that about 65% to 75% of the couples treated with this method improve substantially at the end of treatment and maintain these gains following treatment. As with all forms of therapy, however, spouses must be committed to improving the quality of their relationship and be willing to make changes in themselves for therapy to be effective.
Because marital distress is so strongly associated with a variety of psychological problems, nearly 50% of all individuals who seek therapy do so because of marital problems. Research has shown that in addition to improving the quality of the marriage, cognitive behavioral marital therapy is an effective treatment for many psychological problems, including depression and alcoholism.
Finally, a number of studies have shown that behavioral premarital intervention programs based on the same principles as behavioral marital therapy programs are effective in helping couples develop and maintain a successful marriage.
What Is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?
Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy are types of treatment that are based firmly on research findings. These approaches aid people in achieving specific changes or goals.
Changes or Goals might involve:
a way of acting - like smoking less or being more outgoing;
a way of feeling - like helping a person be less scared, less depressed, or less anxious;
a way of thinking - like learning to problem-solve or get rid of self-defeating thoughts;
a way of dealing with physical or medical problems - like lessening back pain or helping a person stick to a doctor's suggestions; or
a way of adjusting - like training developmentally disabled people to care for themselves or hold a job.
Behavior Therapists and Cognitive Behavior Therapists usually focus more on the current situation and its solution, rather than the past. They concentrate on a person's views and beliefs about their life, not on personality traits. Behavior Therapists and Cognitive Behavior Therapists treat individuals, parents, children, couples, and families. Replacing ways of living that do not work well, with ways of living that work, and giving people more control over their lives are common goals of behavior and cognitive behavior therapy.
The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) is an interdisciplinary organization committed to the advancement of a scientific approach to the understanding and amelioration of problems of the human condition. These aims are achieved through the investigation and application of behavioral, cognitive, and other evidence-based principles to assessment, prevention, and treatment.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Individuals in distressed marriages or relationships persistently feel unhappy and dissatisfied with their relationships. Couples may fight frequently without coming to resolutions. This may cause individuals to feel worn out. Others may rarely fight, but feel disconnected to their partners. As problems persist, communications generally becomes more difficult. Couples may be less intimate or affectionate and engage in sexual activities less often than they used. Individuals may feel sad, depressed, jealous, worrisome, tense, or angry.
There is no definitive method to diagnose marital distress. Instead, individuals who are unhappy in their relationships and wish to seek help are encouraged to visit a licensed therapist, called a marriage and family therapist.
In some cases, an individual's partner is unwilling to seek help. Although it may be more challenging, individuals can go to marriage or couple counseling on their own. The therapist may provide useful ideas on how to improve the relationship and how to find better ways to approach the person's partner about the idea of entering treatment together.
Alcoholism: Studies involving long-term, committed couples have shown that individuals who are having problems in their relationships have an increased risk of alcoholism. In such cases, alcohol may be a way of self medicating or temporarily escaping one's problems.
Anxiety: According to studies, marital distress has been associated with anxiety disorders. Anxiety is an unpleasant complex combination of emotions that are often accompanied by physical sensations, such as irregular heartbeat, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, tension headache, and nervousness.
Depression: Individuals who are experiencing marital distress have an increased risk of developing depression. Symptoms of depression may include overwhelming feelings of sadness and grief, loss of interest or pleasure in activities usually enjoyed, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. Depression may result in poor sleep, a change in appetite, severe fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Severe depression may increase the risk of suicide.
Behavioral/emotional problems in children: Children may also be affected by their parents' marital distress. Research has shown that children are more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems if there is continuous conflict among their parents. Some children affected by marital distress may act out in school or at home, have low self-esteem, or feel sad, angry, or withdrawn. Children may also exhibit nonverbal or verbal hostility or aggressive behaviors.
Decreased work productivity: Marital distress has been associated with decreased work productivity, especially in men. This may be the result of decreased concentration and preoccupation with problems at home.
Infidelity: Marital distress may cause people to cheat on their partners and have affairs. For instance, if there is a lack of physical and/or emotional intimacy that is straining a couple's relationship, a partner may end up having an affair with someone.
Violence: Distressed couples have a greater risk of experiencing violence at some point in the relationship. Violent or aggressive behaviors can have serious affects on the relationship, as well as the victim's psychological and physical well-being. Abuse typically occurs in cycles. When the abuser gets angry, tension grows and there is a breakdown in communication. Then the abuser verbally or physically mistreats the victim. Afterwards, abusers are usually apologetic. In some cases, the abuser will deny that the abuse ever took place. Sometimes the abuser may behave pleasantly and kindly towards the victim most of the time. This often makes it difficult for the victim to leave the abuser.
Experts recommend that victims call 911 to report the attack to police and get immediate medical attention. People who are being abused are advised to leave their relationships. Because it may be difficult to leave an abusive relationship, abuse survivors are encouraged to seek the help of a friend, family member, or support group. Staff at emergency shelters can help victims file for court-ordered protection from the abuser, if necessary.
General: Couples may experience problems early on in their marriages, while others may be happy for many years before problems develop. There are many factors that may lead to marital distress. Below are some of the most common causes of marital distress.
Poor communication: Experts believe that poor communication is the most common cause of marital distress. Communication skills include verbal, non-verbal (facial expressions, gestures, and vocal tones), and listening skills. All of these skills are important in a relationship because they help people know what to say, how to make good choices, and how to behave in different situations.
People with poor communication skills may be unhappy or upset with how their partners are behaving, but they are unable to express their feelings. In other cases, talking about such issues results in fighting. Sometimes people will avoid discussing bothersome issues in order to prevent arguments. As a result, the person's feelings go unresolved and changes are not made to improve the relationship. Communication problems often cause spouses to feel bad about themselves, their partners, and their relationships.
When a couple has communication problems, people often feel that their partners are making excessive demands or requesting much more than they can give. Other people may feel that their partners are too withdrawn or do not share or open up enough.
Having poor communication increases the likelihood that other marital problems, such as lack of intimacy, sexual difficulties, and major life transitions, will cause marital distress.
Arguing: Frequent arguing is also a common cause of martial distress. Many experts believe that the topic being argued is less important than how the argument is actually handled. If one or both people in a relationship have poor communication skills, they may not be able to properly resolve their arguments and as a result, they might fight often. People who are unable to compromise, negotiate differences, and listen to others are most likely to face marital difficulties. Some experts suggests that it is important that couples view their relationship as a partnership.
Studies show that money is the number one thing couples argue about, followed by issues relating to their children. Other common conflicts involve problems with in-laws, cultural clashes, and differences in values or priorities. For instance, some couples may have very different religious beliefs that come into conflict when they try to make major life decisions. Couples may also disagree with the parenting philosophies of their partners.
Lack of intimacy: A lack of emotional and/or physical intimacy among couples may also lead to marital distress. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), it is natural for strong emotions associated with courtship to decline over time. For instance, romantic gestures (such as buying flowers) or weekend date nights may become less frequent over time. Although this is considered normal for most couples, some people may perceive this decline in courtship behaviors as a loss of loving feelings. These feelings may lead to a reduced interest in sexual activities.
Intimacy may decline for many other reasons, including emotional stress and sexual difficulties. For instance, working long hours may cause a person to feel tired and stressed when he/she returns home. As a result, his/her partner may not feel as emotionally or physically connected to the person.
Sexual difficulties: Sexual difficulties, such as erectile dysfunction (ED) or menopause (which leads to a decreased libido), may also lead to marital distress. Sexual activities are important for many relationships because it is one way for couples to be physically intimate and close with one another.
Infidelity (affair): Infidelity is a potential cause of marital distress. Infidelity may lead to feelings of jealousy and mistrust, as well as a lack of intimacy.
Major life transitions: Some couples experience marital distress during major life transition or changes, such as the birth of children or moving. Changes that affect a spouse's role in the relationship, such as retirement, employment success or advancements, or unemployment may also put stress on a relationship.
Negative life events: Negative life events, such as the death of a loved one, diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness, bankruptcy, or inability to have children, may lead to marital distress.
Substance abuse: Substance abuse may lead to marital distress. This type of behavior may strain a couple's relationship and lead to increased arguments. This is because drugs and alcohol may interfere with a person's judgment and cause people to behave in ways they normally would not. If the individual is frequently under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it may lead to a decrease in emotional intimacy. In addition, many substances, including alcohol, may lead to a decreased libido (sex drive).
Domestic violence or abuse: Domestic abuse or violence may lead to marital distress. Domestic abuse occurs when an individual emotionally, verbally, or physically mistreats his/her spouse or intimate partner. However, victims may also include children and/or other family members.
It is very important that victims suffering abuse contact the appropriate authorities immediately. Domestic abuse is a crime that should not be tolerated. Experts recommend that victims call 911 to report the attack and get immediate medical attention. People who are being abused are advised to leave their relationships. Because it may be difficult to leave an abusive relationship, abuse survivors are encouraged to seek the help of a friend, family member, or support group. Staff at emergency shelters can help victims file for court-ordered protection from the abuser, if necessary. If the abuser seeks treatment, including counseling, he/she may be able to change his/her behavior. However, the victim should avoid contact with the abuser until the abuser has received treatment and has shown that he/she is no longer abusive. Victims are also encouraged to seek counseling.
Women! Marital Distress Means Less Relief From Stress
Here's a novel idea for unwinding after a stressful day at the office: Find a happy marriage.
That's the suggestion from a new UCLA study that tracked levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone, among 30 Los Angeles married couples involved in one of our age's trickiest juggling acts — raising kids when both parents work full time.
"At least as far as women are concerned, being happily married appears to bolster physiological recovery from work," said Darby E. Saxbe, the study's lead author and a UCLA graduate student in clinical psychology. "After a tough day at the office, cortisol levels dropped further among happily married women than less happily married ones. Less happily married women also showed a flatter daily pattern of cortisol release, suggesting that they are rebounding less well from everyday stress."
Long-term elevated cortisol levels have been associated with a host of maladies, including depression, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, relationship problems, poor social adjustment and possibly even cancer.
"This is the first study to show that daily cortisol patterns are linked to marital satisfaction for women but not men," said co-author Rena Repetti, a UCLA professor in the department of psychology.
The findings, which are part of a larger study conducted by the UCLA–Sloan Center for the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), appear in the January issue of Health Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal published by American Psychological Association. Adrienne Nishina, an assistant professor of human development at the University of California, Davis, was the study's third author.
CELF researchers asked the study's 60 middle-class parents to complete a standardized test of marital satisfaction. Twice during each of the three days over which the study was conducted, the parents also filled out a questionnaire while they were at work that asked how their workday was going and how busy they felt. At four intervals — early morning, late morning, afternoon and evening — the UCLA team collected saliva samples, which were then analyzed for cortisol concentrations.
Released by the adrenal glands under stressful conditions, cortisol is widely considered a reliable marker for an individual's response to — and recovery from — stress. Cortisol levels start high in the morning and steadily decline over the course of the day, with intermittent rises as stressors arouse the adrenal gland. The slope of the hormone's daily decline is believed to be correlated with well-being, with steeper declines reflective of better health and shallower declines predictive of health problems.
"Cortisol may by one of the routes by which repeated everyday stress translates into long-term mental and physical health problems," Repetti said.
Overall, women in happy marriages enjoyed stronger cortisol declines than their counterparts in less blissful unions, the UCLA team found. Men, no matter the quality of their marriage, showed an exaggerated cortisol decrease after busier days. However, only happily married women appeared to enjoy this benefit; unhappily married women did not show the exaggerated drop-off in cortisol after a busy day.
The investigators said additional research is needed to understand precisely how marital satisfaction influences the body's stress response process. But they believe that a natural tendency to socially withdraw after a stressful day may help explain why men and happily married women showed the exaggerated decline in cortisol after busier days at work while unhappily married women did not.
"They're coming home from a busy day and instead of having some time to unwind and relax and have a spouse picking up the load of setting the table, getting dinner going, signing forms for the kids, these women may have to immediately to launch back into another stressful routine," Repetti said. "Perhaps in happily married couples the demands of domestic life are being shared more equitably between men and women, or at least that may be the case when wives return home from a demanding day at work."
Past research has looked at the effects of marital satisfaction on cortisol levels, but the CELF study is the first to look at the relationship outside of the laboratory separately in men and women. Most researchers in the past have aroused cortisol responses by subjecting participants to such stressors as public speaking or electric shock. The CELF study, on the other hand, tracked real-life families as they went through their actual daily routines.
"Past research has found that men appear to get a health and longevity boost from marriage, while for women, being married is only beneficial insofar as the marriage is high-quality," Repetti said. "This study is the first to point to daily cortisol fluctuations as a specific pathway through which marital quality affects health for women but not men."
"It may be that a chronically unhappy marriage creates multiple occasions everyday when the wife needs to mount a stress response, putting her cortisol levels on a kind of roller coaster ride," Repetti said. "The system is under more wear and tear. It's like driving a car in traffic conditions that are constantly stop and go. You need to repeatedly step on the gas and apply the brakes, step on the gas, apply the breaks. Over time, you create a less reliable system. You don't stop and re-accelerate as quickly. You don't recover as quickly."
Causes of Marital Conflicts, Stress, and Disharmony
There is no shortage of jokes about unhappy marriages; mostly because nothing is funnier than the truth and there is no shortage of unhappy marriages. And when you consider that more than half of the people who get married end-up divorced, you have to wonder what we're doing wrong. Why can't we just get along? Well, knowledge is power; and when you know something is causing a problem, you have a much better chance of learning to deal with it in such a way that it doesn't cause problems. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss. You may simply think that stress is a natural part of life, and the way you deal with common problems is the best or only way to deal with them. In both cases, you'd be wrong; and until you start to look at the causes for marital conflict and asking yourself how you're currently dealing with them, and how you could better deal with them, you're relationship probably won't improve much. Here's a list of common sources of marital stress and conflict; consider how you are currently dealing with these issues, and how you could better deal with these issues:
Money - most couples argue over bills, debt, spending, and other financial issues.
Kids - discipline, diet, and other parenting issues can be sources of disagreement between couples.
Sex - frequency, quantity, quality, and infidelity are all common sources of stress and disharmony.
Schedules - time apart and a lack of quality time together serves to get people out of harmony.
Chores - many couples argue over equitable distribution of household work, and how to do it.
Friends - not all friends are helpful to relationships - some of them are poisonous.
Habits - many people are married to someone who has one or more habits they find undesirable.
Family - in-laws, siblings, children and step-children can all create stress within a marriage.
Expectations - judgments and unmet expectations are a major source of conflict in marriages.
Personality conflicts - if you don't like something about your partner, one of you must change.
You may recognize one or more of these areas as an area of stress in your life and relationship. Each of these is a very common source of marital discord; but they are also areas of opportunity - opportunities for learning, growth, and harmony or chaos, stress, and misery. The choice is yours; but don't simply assume that your marriage is broken, or your partner is broken, and you're dealing with these issues in the best possible way. Assume that you may be able to let-go of an opinion, judgment, expectation, or belief that could create harmony in any of these areas where you are experiencing friction, and your partner and marriage will be just fine when you get it figured out. Would you be willing to change the way you look at one or all of these issues, or is it easier and more convenient to simply change partners or relationships? Think about it; and then find a way to be okay with the things in your life and relationship.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA