By: Charmaine Saunders, Ph.D.
After the early glow of a new relationship comes the hard work, the compromising, the caring, the lessons, the healing, the forgiving, the resentments, the differences, the difficulties. So many relationships don't stay the course these days and those that do ask a lot of us. What are the main causes of marriage breakdown? What are the 10 deadly sins?
1. NOT COMMUNICATING
Communication is a two-way process. It's about speaking and listening. It's no use if we only do one of these because then we're not truly communicating. The challenge of true communication is that even as one person speaks, the other is receiving the message in a different way. That's why it's easy to misunderstand each other. Partners come to the table with individual baggage and that muddies the waters. We need to learn and practise the skills of saying what we mean and listening carefully to others. We need to be generous in our interpretations, ask questions when unsure and be assertive about our needs but not strident in our demands. There's a place for silence but not in anger. When resentful, silence can be a weapon. Know when to speak and when to hold back.
2. NOT SPENDING QUALITY TIME TOGETHER
This is a sure way to lose closeness in a relationship. Life is so busy these days but rather than spending less time together because of this, we actually need to spend more. It takes commitment and effort. Ideally, a couple should spend at least an hour together in quiet company every day, but if that's impossible, then once a week. Whether there are children or not, commit time to just be a couple; remember why you got together in the first place, laugh, play, have fun, make love, share your day, listen to music, go for a walk. Keep it simple but do it.
3. BAD SEX
I say bad sex rather than not enough sex because when it comes to sexuality, quality is definitely more important than quantity. There's fast-food sex, which is fine on the regular menu but there must also be gourmet food occasionally. Sometimes, it's nice to jump your partner's bones and sometimes you need to make a date to enjoy sex together. If libido levels vary, and they probably will, compromise - focus on sharing time and space and let it be less about point-scoring and physicality and more about love. Sex is just one of the many components of a healthy relationship if it's allowed to be that and not the be-all-and-end-all. My best advice about sex - have fun with it, keep it fresh and don't let your ego get in the way.
4. NOT HAVING CLEAR BOUNDARIES
Co-dependent relationships are addictive until we learn better. Once we do, we begin to draw clear boundaries around us which involve not taking on our partners' personal issues. We learn to say: “This is your responsibility. I'll support you but I can't fix it for you.” Refuse to enable addictions and bad behaviour; assert the right to make personal choices and decisions; affirm individual needs and goals that are separate to the other. This actually brings deeper intimacy in the long run because each party is fulfilled and complete with much more to offer. It's OK to say no when you're tired or busy or involved in an activity. Sharing is important, but so is walking our own journeys.
This is not just about sexual betrayal; it's much more to do with the breaking of trust, which is the cornerstone of any close relationship. Strangely enough, infidelity in itself does not necessarily spell the death of a marriage if the partners are prepared to look honestly at the causes. I've seen marriages greatly strengthened by a partner having an affair. Serial infidelity, of course, is a deal-breaker. That's more about ego and insecurity than sex and has to be dealt with by the erring partner and can't be healed within the marriage unless that person is prepared to change. Invariably, people who are at the wrong end of infidelity speak of the loss of trust and damage to the future rather than the sexual aspect.
This is an all-encompassing area involving trust, openness, loyalty and faith - all relationship characteristics that the average person would deem desirable. We first need to be honest with ourselves because self-delusion and lack of self-awareness are very damaging to marriage. Honesty is not only about talking; it is an attitude and includes respect for the other person. If something in the relationship needs change and adjustment, an honest appraisal and adjustment needs to be undertaken with enthusiasm, with no blame, criticism or recriminations. Projection is tempting but part of being mature is self-knowledge and “owning up” when we're wrong. There's also honesty about desires, needs, etc because we can't ask partners to support us if we don't acknowledge and express our wishes.
No matter how much we love someone, we never own them. Control stems from fear. When we feel insecure about life, ourselves or our relationships, we tighten the reins in order to make ourselves feel safe. But it's not anyone's responsibility to reassure us that we're OK. Love is about sharing and support, not possession and domination. It's a myth that guys are always the controlling ones; women can be just as bossy and demanding. It's difficult to be accepting of choices and behaviours that we personally may disapprove of but we don't have a right to live another's life, though we can give advice and guidance. This is true even of our children, let alone an adult partner. The best way to combat the desire to run someone else's life is to focus on your own, not in a self-centred way but in a minding-your-own-business way. If you want someone to love you, loosen, rather than tighten, your hold. By the same token, don't let others control you. Take their point of view on board but tell them gently to back off. It's better to make a mistake on your own than do things right, living others' reality.
Almost all of us are co-dependent till we learn how not to be. The seeds of co-dependence are sown from the start of life, when we learn to work around others' moods, wishes, needs etc. We invest our self-esteem in the approval of others and hand our personal power over to those we love. Standing up in our own integrity is difficult, especially at first, but the rewards are great.
One area in which this really shows is addictions. We're all addicted to some things and many are harmless. It's up to us to regulate them but unfortunately, with some of the more destructive habits like drinking too much alcohol or reckless gambling, denial is part of the package and partners become easy targets for blame. Be honest about your own bad habits if you know they're yours; if you're at the receiving end, refuse to accept blame that doesn't belong to you.In place of relying on two people needing each other, we can develop instead co-creative partnerships that empower both. The greatest gift of non-co-dependence is that we give out of love, not duty, obligation, fear or habit.
9. NOT PUTTING YOUR PARTNER FIRST
While it's important to live your own life and not be too restricted by your relationship, it's equally vital to give your partner your unconditional support. That does not mean you agree with everything they do, but a sure killer of passion, and eventually love, happens when you allow hobbies, family, friends and - God forbid - exes, to take up time and energy that rightfully belongs to your partner. I probably get more mail about exes than any other topic and the complaint is usually that they are intruding in some way. The best rule of thumb is to stay friends by all means but keep them in the background, not the forefront, of your new relationship. The same goes for other people you're close to - don't let them interfere. Keep your twosome private and special with everyone else on the periphery. If you stand together and stay close, you will automatically be strong through the challenging times. Some people marry but continue to live a single life - this just won't work. Be committed or be single.
10. NAGGING, CRITICISING, JUDGING
No one likes to be criticised and if it's coming from your own spouse it becomes very demoralising, especially if it continues relentlessly. Whether you're at the wrong end of this behaviour or dishing it out, the best method for stopping is to be assertively honest in handling this habit. Sometimes it's just small, picky things which build up and these can be just as wearing. Insist on the right to do things and make choices your own way. If you're the critical one, grit your teeth when they're folding the laundry differently or making a mess in the bathroom. Feelings are more important than details. Judging others is never attractive. We can disapprove and make our opinions clear but we can never totally know what motivates another, so if in doubt, ask. Never jump to conclusions and overreact before finding out the facts. This is really a danger zone for relationships. Love cannot thrive in a negative atmosphere, so even when angry, exasperated, frustrated, stressed and fed up, come only from love.
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