It’s a cliché that the biggest problems in marriage revolve around money and sex — but these aren’t the only areas that can make or break a long-term relationship. A host of unhealthy dynamics, hurtful behaviors, and poor priorities can mean the difference between thriving and failing.
In his extensive research on marriage, the psychologist and researcher John Gottman, a doctor of clinical psychology, has identified four harbingers of unhappy marriages he calls the Four Horsemen. “These include criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness,” explains Sara Miller, the owner of Confluent Relationship Therapy in Chicago. “These are behaviors displayed in relationship dynamics that are proven to be damaging over time.”
To maintain healthy, happy romantic relationships, it’s important to spot (and root out) common problems that can lead to discord or even divorce. In one way or another, many of the things that destroy marriage are rooted in the so-called Four Horsemen. But others go beyond this rubric. Little, everyday conflicts can add up to marital strife, or sometimes it’s deeper issues that rear their ugly heads.
Here’s a look at seven common behaviors that can destroy a marriage or long-term relationship — and how to fix them before they do.
1. You Communicate Poorly or Not at All
No one will be surprised to learn that poor communication degrades relationships. If one or both members of a couple feel unheard, put down, or shut out, it’s difficult if not impossible to build connection.
Unhealthy communication has many faces within marriage. In some cases, it can look like an inability to talk with your spouse about how you’re really feeling. This can eventually lead to volatile emotions. “Without being able to express feelings on a regular basis, small issues turn into suppressed, bottled-up emotions that boil over into explosive conflict when least expected,” says Miller.
Poor communication might also look like not fighting fair. Miller says that when things get heated, spouses often start conversations too harshly, stonewall each other, and turn to passive aggression.
You don’t have to be a master communicator to rectify this problem. A handful of skills can be learned to take you from screaming or stonewalling to speaking calmly and productively. Miller recommends starting by finding something you can empathize with or validate in your partner. In other words, try to see things from their perspective. Perhaps you can understand how they would be hurt, angry, or frustrated by a situation — even if you wouldn’t be.
Additionally, be sure you’re really listening to your partner, not just waiting for your turn to speak. “Active listening skills can help in this area, including reflecting back the content of the conversation to the partner so they feel heard,” says Miller. “If the conversation is too intense for partners to have respect for each other, then a short break in the conversation is needed, so that everyone can remain physiologically calm.”
2. You Let Outsiders Gain Too Much Influence on Your Marriage
A healthy marriage needs a support system of relatives and friends — but some external relationships can exert undue influence. A parent, friend, or even a child can hold inappropriate sway over your marriage. “When a third party becomes too involved in a couple’s decision-making process, it can lead to conflicts and decisions that may not align with the couple’s own values and priorities,” says the Brooklyn, New York–based therapist David Tzall, PsyD. “The presence of a third party can erode trust. If one partner feels like their opinions and preferences are consistently overridden, they may lose trust in their spouse’s commitment to the relationship.”
To protect your marriage from too much outside influence, Dr. Tzall says boundary-setting is key. “The first step is to have open and honest communication with your spouse. Discuss how you both feel about the involvement of third parties and what boundaries you’d like to establish. Clearly define what roles and boundaries you want to set with respect to third parties.”
Then, communicate to the “influencer” that your marriage is a two-person-only relationship. “Explain that while you value their input, the ultimate decisions regarding your relationship should be made by you and your spouse,” Tzall says.
3. You Don’t Seek Help for Addictive Behavior
Addiction can show up in unexpected ways. Besides well-known culprits like drugs and alcohol, activities like social media, work, shopping, gambling, and gaming can all become addictive, according to Tzall.
Whatever the source of addiction, it can drive a serious wedge between you and your partner. “When someone is struggling with addiction, their priorities often shift away from their relationship and loved ones. The substance or behavior of addiction becomes the central focus, leaving less time and emotional energy for the relationship,” he says. People embroiled in addiction may also develop secretive behaviors and end up isolating from their spouse because of shame.
Trite as it may sound, identifying an addiction really is the first step toward healing — for yourself and your relationship. Once you’ve come clean to yourself and your spouse about what has a hold on you, Tzall encourages seeking individual or couples’ therapy. A trained therapist can help you and your spouse navigate recovery. “This might include limits on the addictive behavior or consequences for violating boundaries … [or] might involve mindfulness, exercise, or engaging in hobbies.”
4. You Withhold Sex or Physical Affection From Your Partner
A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior found that a satisfying sex life and a warm interpersonal climate are both associated with marital satisfaction.
Similarly, research published in April 2023 in Scientific Reports revealed that affectionate touch was robustly related to the degree of love reported between partners. Sex and physical intimacy are, after all, what distinguish marriage and romantic relationships from other relationships.
So what happens to marriage when sex and affection go out the window? Often, a feeling of disconnection develops. Some studies have shown that lower sexual satisfaction is linked to increased marital problems.
Of course, lots of factors can create a desire discrepancy, and sexual frequency ebbs and flows with the rhythms of life, affected by child-rearing, stress, and physical health. A season of less sex can be quite normal. “An unsatisfying sex life can create a wedge in the relationship, but just because there is a struggle in this area does not necessarily mean the relationship will be doomed,” says Miller.
If you’re intentionally withholding sex, though, there may be underlying issues eroding your relationship. “When it is a product of emotional distance in the relationship, clients need to work on their bigger picture issues first before tackling sexual intimacy,” says Miller. “Also, sometimes clients have past trauma that inhibits their ability to fully participate in sexual intimacy on a deeper level.” Her recommendation for rekindling physical connection: Get a tune-up in therapy. A therapist can help you identify the “why” behind a lack of intimacy and take steps toward reconnecting physically with your spouse.
RELATED: 6 Easy Ways to Spice Up Your (Married) Sex Life
5. You’re Not on the Same Page About Money
It’s okay if you and your partner have some differing ideas about money — but being on totally opposing pages about finances puts a serious strain on your relationship. Everyday life entails innumerable decisions about money, so disparate financial philosophies may cause daily struggle.
Though it’s normal (and even healthy) for couples to have some strongly worded discussions about money, a healthy relationship is marked by the way it handles these conflicts, says Miller. Again, clear communication is key. “Couples need to discuss the value and meaning of money in their lives, and what it symbolizes for them. Couples almost always differ in terms of their weekly spending habits and can disagree or have ‘fair fights’ about those topics.” As long as you’re striving to understand each other and working toward compromise, she says, financial disagreements don’t have to drive you apart.
6. You Let Apathy Creep In, or You Fall Into a Rut
As innocuous as apathy might sound, feelings of ennui can be just as damaging to marriage as red-hot anger. A study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that indifference toward a romantic partner was a primary reason couples entered therapy.
Apathy can creep in when you and your spouse neglect quality time together, don’t share interests, or simply fall into a rut. “While stability is essential, excessive routine can lead to feelings of monotony and disinterest,” says Tzall. “External stressors such as work, financial issues, or family problems can also divert attention and emotional energy away from the marriage.” Long-term unresolved conflicts or resentments can eventually create emotional distance, too. If partners don’t feel supported or validated, they may withdraw emotionally from the relationship, Tzall says.
To keep the spark alive in your marriage, counteract apathy with a bit of excitement. Surprise your partner occasionally with gestures, small gifts, or surprises, Tzall suggests. It also helps to focus on the things you have in common. “Identify common goals or projects that you can work on together. Collaborating on shared objectives can strengthen your bond.” And of course, regularly communicating with your partner about your feelings, needs, and desires keeps your connection strong.
7. You Don’t Seek Couples’ Therapy When You Need It
Whether your marriage is in dire straits or you could just use some fine-tuning, there’s no shame in seeking help from a therapist or other mental health professional. Research shows that couples’ counseling really works. A study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, for example, looked at 32 couples who participated in emotionally focused couples’ therapy, and on average, couples experienced relationship improvements 24 months after treatment. Attending therapy could not only help improve your marriage, it could also unearth individual issues that need addressing.
Granted, therapy isn’t usually cheap, so if you’re concerned that counseling might be a financial burden, check your insurance coverage before diving in. You might even contact a local place of worship or mental health nonprofit. Some offer free or reduced-cost counseling. Or check out these affordable online therapy options that can get your marriage back on track.