DIY Marriage Counseling

Relationship experts reveal four common couple problems, and how you (yes, you!) can fix them yourself.

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Photo by Carolina Melis

Apologies to the Beatles, but as most couples can tell you, love is not all you need. Any long-term relationship takes hard work, a lot of flexibility, and plenty of talking (so much talking). Sometimes you feel stuck—and that’s where this advice comes in. “Counseling is often just a matter of nurturing the relationship,” says Carrie Cole, a cofounder of the Center for Relationship Wellness, in Houston. Do you need a professional to make you do that? Maybe. But there are probably a lot of bumps that you can smooth out on your own. Cole says that, in her experience, couples who seek counseling have often been letting a problem fester for years (six, on average, she says). Why not try to heal little irritations before they become giant problems? Yes, it’s hard, but here’s help: Six experienced marriage counselors break down some of the most common problems that bring couples to their offices and offer advice for working through them at home. Together.

The Issue: Feeling Disconnected

Telltale signs: “We don’t get married for economic necessity, like in the past. Now we want to feel madly, passionately in love, but that’s hard to keep up,” says Kathleen Mates-Youngman, a marriage and family therapist in Mission Viejo, California, and the author of Couples Therapy Workbook. What was once passion turns into the logistical ho-hum of soccer practices and dry-cleaning pickup, and the marriage suffers from neglect. “Couples start to take the relationship for granted and don’t give it the attention it needs,” says Mates-Youngman. “There are external stressors, and hurt feelings start to build up. Then people begin to feel resentful and stop trying.”

What a therapist would advise: You can probably guess: Put time and attention into your relationship like you would any project that’s important to you. “Big gestures require big effort and are less likely. Instead, focus on the simple things that matter to your partner,” says Scott Stanley, Ph.D., a coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage. “If your partner takes a walk every day after dinner for 15 minutes and you’ve stopped doing it with him, start it up again. We all know the little things that we could do on any given day that our partners appreciate. Do them.” And don’t underestimate a cheesy conversation. Think about the getting-to-know-you topics you spent hours dissecting early on in your relationship. For example, “Would you rather be with people or alone when you’re feeling stressed?” says Cole. “You think that you know someone, but you might be really surprised at the answer.” As unromantic as it sounds, you need to put time to talk on your calendar—even if it’s just 10 minutes a day. You might also re-create an early, memorable date to bring past sparks into the present, says Miles Wagman, a licensed family and marriage therapist and the director of the Relationship Center, in Red Bank, New Jersey. (Wait, is Almost Famous playing anywhere?)

Definitely don’t: Accept that this is just what happens over time. Relationships don’t have to become predictable; they get better as you learn more about yourself and your partner. Will you lose the connection at certain stressful periods (ahem, the survival mode of having small children)? Sure. But during those times don’t blame. Be patient and gentle with each other, and make it a habit to use questions rather than demands, says Marina Williams, a therapist in Boston and the author of Couples Counseling: A Step by Step Guide for Therapists. Instead of “You need to spend less time on the computer,” try “Could we find a way to spend less time on the computer and more time together?”

“We all know the little things that we could do on any given day that our partners appreciate. Do them.”

The Issue: Avoiding Confrontation

Telltale signs: You’re upset about something, so naturally you walk right past your partner when you get home from work and turn on the TV. Or maybe you escape the house—long hours at the office, CrossFit every morning. Avoiding confrontation or unhappiness by disappearing (emotionally or physically) can be common for people who grew up in volatile homes, says Williams: “Partners avoid confrontation when experience teaches them that it results in negative consequences.”

What a therapist would advise: Be willing to interact, even if it isn’t pleasant. “Fighting can be a good thing. It can bring greater intimacy,” says Cole. The key is letting the argument reveal what values are at play. For example: You fight about clutter around the house. Keeping score on who picks up more items of clothing or kids’ toys is only touching the surface. But say the argument leads to your husband’s explaining that growing up in a home with plastic protecting the furniture made him anxious; a lived-in house with stuff lying around feels comforting to him. (Cole says this is an issue that she went through with her own husband.) Then you end up with a productive discussion. “Know that you’re never going to change your partner’s values or beliefs on that subject, but once you understand, you can learn to negotiate,” says Cole.

Definitely don’t: Copy the avoidance behavior. If he’s just going to sit in front of the computer all day, then I’ll go shopping. Both people exhibiting a bad coping strategy is not the way to improve a relationship.

The Issue: Getting Stuck in Patterns

Telltale signs: Fighting? That’s no problem. You fight like champs. But it’s the same argument over and over again, with no breakthroughs. "I see a lot of couples who play certain roles over time that make them turn away from each other instead of toward each other," says Troy Love, a licensed clinical social worker and the president of Courageous Journeys Counseling, in Yuma, Arizona. Those archetypes include: the prosecuting attorney (pointing out the things your partner is doing wrong); the union president (picketing the unfairness—I’m the victim! You need to make things better); and the fire chief (Just listen to me—I know how to fix everything). Williams adds: “I also see a parent-child pattern—one partner communicates like the other is her teenage son—and sibling patterns, where they both have temper tantrums.”

What a therapist would advise: First recognize the role that you tend to play. Then own your behavior and identify your needs. What does that mean, exactly? “Couples struggle with articulating what they really require, so the argument becomes all about the other person. You have to own your needs and emotions,” says Love. You’ve heard the ubiquitous advice about using I instead of you statements, but it does help to avoid seeming accusatory. There’s no blueprint for a perfect interaction, but the keys are to have empathy for your partner’s pain, stick to the subject, and simply keep a civil tone. (So hard!) “Just ‘I’m here. I’m present. You can be yourself’ works wonders,“ says Love.

Definitely don’t: Start talking to your sister or a coworker instead of your spouse. When you complain to an outside party more than you’re talking to the person you’re married to about the issue at hand, that’s a new set of problems. “Getting validation from others feels good in the moment, but you’re playing with fire,” says Williams. “You may end up with friends or family who don’t support your marriage. Or, even worse, the venting—to, say, an officemate—can lead to a feeling of intimacy with the other person, and that’s how affairs can start.”

The Issue: Fearing Infidelity

Telltale signs: They might not be what you think. Infidelity can be emotional as well as physical. Is your spouse turning to someone else instead of you? Online, at work, at a bar: Wherever it is happening, a relationship is compromised when one partner is giving his or her affection and attention to an outside party. According to Wagman, “Infidelity is not necessarily about sex. It is about secrecy, betrayal, and deception.” And sleuthing for concrete clues—checking credit-card statements or text messages—isn’t as productive as listening to your intuition (which was probably speaking up long before text messages became a problem). Is your partner more distanced? Maybe you feel yourself turning to others, rather than your partner, for emotional support. That’s a red flag, says Love. Be especially vigilant at times of transition—when kids are born or head to college, when there’s a death or a job change. That’s when your marriage can be most vulnerable, says Mates-Youngman.

What a therapist would advise: Well, it depends. If you’re noticing that your partner or you are starting to pull away emotionally—even if the physical act seems unlikely—you need to make an extra effort to check in and communicate directly. Take a relationship inventory, says Love. This is largely preventative and obviously requires both partners to be on board. Ask a simple question at the end of the day: How connected are you feeling to me? “Sure, it might feel weird at first. But still, you start talking,” says Love. “And then you start to notice, ‘No, I don’t really feel connected to you.’ This is what you would be doing on a couples’ retreat.” If there is (or was) a physical affair, it’s probably time to see a professional. "Couples who are seriously distressed—as would be many who are working through an affair—may not spring back on their own,” says Stanley. “They need a plan from a therapist.” Good news: A 2014 study published in Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that couples who were able to forgive and work through infidelity or other betrayals ended up stronger and more satisfied.

Definitely don’t: Hope things will just right themselves. It’s scary to confront serious issues, especially when the truth might be life shattering. But sooner rather than later is always the best time to deal with it, especially before patterns of dysfunction become more ingrained. Don’t make ultimatums when you are caught up in the anger and the hurt of the moment. It is reasonable to ask for time to think before having a conversation or making any decisions. Also, don’t have your own inappropriate relationship to show your partner how it feels. Escalation will only cause more pain and make any kind of healing more difficult.

For more advice from the experts, listen to this week's episode of "The Labor of Love." Don't forget to subscribe and review on iTunes!