Despite the happily ever after trope popularized in media, a happy, healthy marriage isn’t one devoid of conflict. Instead, partners continue to bond by solving problems together while respecting each other as individuals. Doing this involves communication, empathy, trust, openness, and a willingness to be proactive.
When we discuss the reasons behind failed marriages, it can be tempting to look at big one-time events. These can certainly be dealbreakers, but some issues are more subtle. Some small behaviors and actions could be destroying your marriage without you even realizing it.
We’re going to break down what these issues look like in different areas of life. First, however, we should understand how the little things accumulate and why ignoring them can be grounds for divorce.
Why the small things matter
In a marriage, partners invest a huge amount of energy and resources into each other. This makes them vulnerable to the people they care for most, and treasure that vulnerability in return. To maintain that intimacy, partners need to tune into each other’s needs, because small issues are amplified in vulnerable spaces.
Married couples can be blind to the impact of their actions (and inactions) when they neglect the signs. As friction builds over time, it can turn into resentment, stress, and discourage proper communication. It’s like a domino effect.
That’s why being proactive is vital to sustaining a long-term marriage. Not only does it address things while they’re still manageable, but it shows a constant willingness to work on the relationship 一 something every partner appreciates.
It all begins at home
We’ll start at the place you and your partner spend the most time together 一 at home. Research shows a positive correlation between a couple’s shared leisure time and their marital quality. But such proximity also invites issues when we ignore the little signs like…
1. Uneven distribution of responsibilities
Whether a household is made up of just partners or a large family, chores are always a sore point, especially when someone isn’t pulling their weight. A spouse who shoulders the lion’s share of housework can feel unfairly burdened or, worse, like a servant to their partner.
This is something particularly influenced by gender roles, as the majority of household responsibilities tend to get pushed to non-male partners. Pay attention to how yours are distributed.
2. Not enough privacy
As important as quality time together is, couples also need a level of privacy at home. When people can be comfortably alone, they have the space to decompress away from their partners. This isn’t just helpful during an argument. Even happy couples need personal space for individual pursuits, and to preserve a sense of self.
3. Unfair expectations
When you start dating, you present the best of yourself to your partner. You may dress up, go out, and generally focus on the experiences that build the relationship. It’s impossible to maintain that when you’re living together because you’re also people outside of that presentation.
Expecting your spouse to be the first-date version of themselves is a sure way to unsettle them at home 一 the place they expect to feel most comfortable.
4. Lack of quality time
So we know quality time is important, but the keyword is quality. Simply being in the same room isn’t spending time together. Your focus should be on connecting with your partner, being present, and doing things you both enjoy.
It’s quality time when you end it feeling lighter and closer together, whatever that means for you and your partner.
Work and money issues
Money is the number one issue couples argue about. Financial conflict isn’t limited to not having enough or being in debt, either. Money has social and personal dynamics on top of economic ones. People approach money with different attitudes, priorities, and habits. When individual values don’t align, it creates tension, but what does this look like?
5. Money stress
It’s dangerous to tie one’s self-worth to finances, but it’s a trap many partners fall into, especially if they view themselves as “breadwinners”. When economic stress creeps into a relationship, you can end up unfairly attributing that stress to a spouse. This can be a sure way to make your partner feel like a burden and obligation, even if they earn as much or more than you.
6. Flimsy work boundaries
That stress also comes from not having clear work-home boundaries. While working from home isn’t necessarily a bad thing 一 especially in these times 一 poor boundaries will leave you prioritizing the job at home. Not only is this an issue in itself, but it can also spark the conflicts discussed in the Home section.
7. Unequal career support
The next two points cover the social dynamics of money, starting with how you and your spouse support each other. If you’re both invested in your careers, you need to be equally invested in mutual support. When one partner expects support without reciprocating it, the other is forced to sacrifice their ambitions, passions, and income.
8. Unequal power dynamics
The second social issue around money comes when “breadwinners” mistake financial contributions with power. Paying the bills doesn’t make one a ruler in the home, even with a stay-at-home spouse. Marriage is always a commitment to maintaining equality, and using money to control that dynamic is grounds for divorce for many spouses. Rightfully so.
Friends and social interactions
Before we look at the marriage issues based on social interactions, we should stress that no relationship type is more valuable than another. We’re social creatures who need a mix of emotional connection, companionship, and support to lead fulfilling lives.
We need interpersonal relationships outside of romantic ones so emotional labor doesn’t fall squarely on our partners. There are healthy ways to find the right balance. Likewise, there are unhealthy social habits that could be ruining your marriage.
9. Overreliance on mutual friends
While gossiping is a guaranteed conflict starter in a marriage, sometimes you do need to talk things out with friends. Whether you’re organizing your thoughts or looking for outside counsel, this can be a healthy way to sort through feelings so you can constructively express them.
However, things get messy when couples only have mutual friends to do this with. Not only does it make hangouts awkward, but it turns a conflict into a morality game. Even when mutual friends avoid taking sides, it’s hard for couples not to attach judgments to how friends respond.
It’s just unfair for everyone involved, and can hurt other relationships beyond the marriage too.
10. Socializing as an escape
That said, it’s okay to want a bit of space when tensions are high 一 if the goal is to give each other room to process things. The point should always be to return in a better mindstate to resolve the conflict. Going out simply to avoid a hard conversation only gives it room to fester, making it harder to fix.
Unresolved conflict is like a badly-played baseline. Even when every other band instrument is working well, a bad baseline underpins everything with discord and keeps any rhythm from forming.
Just as you’d expect your friends to maintain boundaries when discussing your marriage, you may not want your spouse heavily involved in who you hang out with. This is fine when it comes to respecting the privacy of other people you interact with, but it doesn’t mean hiding things from your spouse.
When you hide things or move in ways that don’t inspire confidence, you may invite suspicion. More importantly, you display neglect for your partner’s feelings and an unwillingness to communicate. Even if you consider another relationship “innocent”, examine why you feel the need for secrecy.
Every sign of an unhappy marriage listed here involves some action or another. Now, though, we’ll look at two specific behaviors that are standalone signs that you’re destroying your marriage.
It’s a messy topic, but there is some value to normalizing jealousy, but there’s a huge caveat here. It’s a normal human reaction, but so is anger. As with anger, there are productive and destructive ways to express what you’re feeling.
Normalizing jealousy means acknowledging and addressing it, not suppression. When you feel it, it’s also rarely caused by your partner or spouse doing something wrong. The confusion that comes with jealousy stems from not looking at the internal reasons behind it.
“It’s never too early to bring it to your partner, but it is essential that you remember that the jealousy you’re feeling is yours to deal with and is not theirs,” says research psychologist Joli Hamilton.
13. Conflict avoidance
When one partner wants to work through issues but the other doesn’t, there’s a second conflict at play. One spouse ends up shouldering the emotional burden while the other shows they aren’t invested in doing the work.
Conflict isn’t just something to fix, it’s also an opportunity to show your commitment to your spouse. As we know by now, neglecting even the smallest version of conflict can ruin a marriage.
The leading reason why couples divorce in the US isn’t because of infidelity or money as many may think. Studies agree that it’s simply because of ‘incompatibility’. However, saving a failing marriage, may it be from infidelity or incompatibility, is still highly dependent on what you’re willing to do about it as a couple. Our experts are here to help you every step of the way.