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In the doldrums? Thinking about splitting up? Not so fast — you can bring back the magic. Here are five marriage stressors and solutions on how to address them.
| || || | As the recent recession dug in, U.S. divorce rates started dropping. Not because everyone's happier, mind you: We just can't afford to split up. With our collective net worth down nearly 18 percent thanks to the downturn, who has the cash for a divorce attorney and alimony?
If you feel your relationship may be in peril, try this strategy: Fall back in love. It can be done. In fact, 64 percent of couples who were verging on breaking up but who stuck with their marriages found their way back to conjugal happiness within a few years, according to an Institute of American Values study. The route to marital happiness may not be as hard to find as you think, but you first have to identify why your relationship is off course. We surveyed experts to find out which types of strains challenge couples the most, and how you can make happily last ever after.
Marriage stressor #1: Your nerves are frayed
In times of stress, we look to our relationships to help us through. This may be why traffic to online dating sites spikes when the Dow falls, says Gian Gonzaga, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at eHarmony Labs and an affiliate faculty member at UCLA. But while singles start new relationships in times of stress, people who are already coupled up may find that stress damages their couplehood. "Stress has a tendency to get under the skin of a relationship," Gonzaga says.
It does this, in part, by eating away at your self-control and weakening the resources that usually stop you from, say, dropping sarcastic wisecracks on your spouse. "Self-control functions like a muscle," says Eli Finkel, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. "If you've been implementing a lot of self-control in other domains, you'll have less left over for your relationship." So after you spend a day at the office trying not to say or do anything that will cost you your job, you may not have the resources left to handle even the smallest argument with your wife.
Your fix: Eat late. When partners who generally have good relationship skills are under extreme work stress, they have trouble using their communication and relationship tools, says Lisa Neff, Ph.D., an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She recommends taking time to unwind after you arrive home by doing what you want to do, instead of diving right into dinner. If you tell your wife that dinner conversation is much more enjoyable after you've shed the day's stress by shooting some baskets or tinkering in the garage, she'll be more likely to understand where you're coming from, Neff says. This will give her a chance to cool off as well: Neff has found that husbands of stressed-out wives are especially unhappy.
Marriage stressor #2: You're misreading each other
When squabbles break out, partners tend to see each other's negativity or hostility as an innate quality ("she's just mean" or "he's so stubborn") instead of by-products of the current tension, Neff says. "When couples aren't under any particular duress, they're more likely to forgive occasional behavioral lapses," she says. "But in the heat of an argument, people often blame their mates for negative behaviors, and that pattern tends to build on itself over time," says Neff.
Your fix: Stop dreaming about alternatives. If you're always wondering just how much happier you'd be with a wife who "didn't act like that" or who really understood you, stop focusing on alternatives. "Constantly visualizing ideal spouses makes you less happy because it creates more potential for unproductive desire or regret," says marriage therapist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., author of The Marriage Makeover. While occasional communication about the issues that bother you is important, Coleman recommends frequently communicating to her what you think is great about her, rather than constantly trying to smooth out the tics that annoy you. Tell her, for instance, that she did a great job painting the living room instead of saying, "That turned out well." That way she'll know that it's her you're impressed with, not chance.
Marriage stressor #3: You're on the wrong side of the libido gap
If marital tension has stalled your sex drive while hers remains revved up (yes, guys, it can happen), that's a problem. In a 2008 survey of 1,000 women, Michele Weiner-Davis, M.S.W., the director of the Divorce Busting Center and author of The Sex-Starved Wife, found that two-thirds of the women said they wanted sex as much or more than their husbands did. "The person with the lower libido generally controls the frequency of sex," notes Weiner-Davis. So if your partner is the one left wanting, she'll probably be even more frustrated, critical, and angry, making your life miserable in return.
Your fix: Touch without the turn-on. When Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, asked married couples to spend 3 days a week touching nonsexually for half an hour (with back rubs, for instance), the couples' levels of the stress hormone amylase decreased, and the men's blood pressure dropped. So even if you're not in the mood for sex, some physical contact can help reduce your stress and improve the way you feel about each other. "If you figure out what really hits the mark with your wife, her anxiety and tension about your relationship will diminish," says Weiner-Davis. Light physical contact may not be mind-blowing, but it'll quickly renew your connection — and probably reignite your enthusiasm along the way.
Marriage stressor #4: You're seeing too much of each other
In the past two decades, the percentage of people who identified their spouse as a "close confidant" increased from 30 to 38, says Stephanie Coontz, Ph.D., a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College, in Washington. In that same time period, the number of confidants of the average person has decreased by half. That means we're becoming more emotionally dependent on our spouses while losing some of the practical and emotional support networks we used to build with neighbors, kin, and community groups. This can have several downsides. First, research shows that married couples are less likely to visit, call, or offer support to family or friends. Second, while couples may think that spending all their time together means a happier union, the lack of social variety can significantly strain a relationship.
Your fix: Wrangle your buds. The best way to improve your outlook is to go out with friends — organize an after-work happy hour, hit the bar for Monday Night Football. If setting up your own event isn't your style, home in on a group identity by joining a rec league or political committee. Being part of a group can enhance a sense of belonging that could be a buffer against marital dissatisfaction, according to Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., the associate director of the University of Chicago's social neuroscience lab.
Marriage stressor #5: You're ignoring the little things
Whether it's going out of your way to find the book she wants to read, or simply moving one of her must-see movies to the top of the Netflix queue, sacrificing for her can boost health and happiness and lower breakup rates, according to research by Scott Stanley, Ph.D., codirector of the University of Denver's center for marital and family studies. "Sacrifice is a currency of relationships," Stanley says. "Show her that you're committed and that you care about her by putting the relationship and not yourself first." The good news is that when you sacrifice, the effort stands out. "It's a positive that's really salient," Stanley says. "It's not necessarily expected, but it's clear what you did for her."
Your fix: Schedule sacrifice. Write down a few things you know your partner likes, and set a reminder on your smartphone to do one of those things each week. If, on the other hand, you think you're the one who's sacrificing more, analyze the situation. "Your partner may actually be sacrificing a lot for you, but it's not in the channel you're responding to," Stanley says. What evidence is there that she's thinking of you when you're not around? Is the fridge always stocked with your favorite food? Did she let you change plans when your friend unexpectedly had a night free? If so, then thank her. She'll be happy to hear it.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA