talking about marriage problems

What You Need to Know about Talking about Marriage Problems

Most people think that talking about problems is the best way to resolve them. But is that really true?

talking about marriage problems
Improve marriage communication by learning when and how to talk about problems

Do you remember the last time you talked with your spouse about a relationship problem? How did it go? If you are like all of the people I work with, it didn’t go well.

One or both of you probably became argumentative, defensive, or withdrawn. That’s because you talked about differences and became even more different in the process.

Talking about relationship problems actually damages emotional connection. But, because people believe this is what they are supposed to do, they keep doing it–making their marriage worse rather than better.

Why is there such a strong belief that talking about problems is a good thing?

I think there are two main reasons that people persist in this belief. First, it is logical. The idea is that if we talk about problems, we can understand each other better and work on solutions for ending the problems makes. If people were secure and unemotional, I think talking about problems would be a good thing.

Relationships are based on attraction and emotion rather than logic.

The second reason people persist in the belief that talking about problems is good has to do with social norms. Talking about problems is advocated by friends, family members, books, therapists, and online programs. They all reinforce each other. Cultural norms are resistant to factual evidence against them.

More people are more interested in what most people do than they are in what is the most effective thing to do. Often these two things are opposites.

Christians with strong faith are the hardest to influence with social messages because of their knowledge of the Bible. For me, no matter how many people say something, if the Bible says something different, then the Bible is right.

If you want to know what is the right thing to do, read the Bible.

The fact is, when you talk about relationship problems, it emphasizes the differences between you and your spouse. Because we always connect on similarity and disconnect on differences, the more we talk about our differences, the more distant our relationship becomes.

Counselors emphasize understanding over behavior change. A couple or individual may spend a year or more trying to understand things in an effort to change. People in coaching typically just use new skills and the reasons for the old problems cease to be important. For this reason, coaching is often much shorter than counseling, cheaper, and with more improvement.

Understanding never creates improvement without behavioral change. One good boundary, used consistently for a couple of weeks, accomplishes more than a whole year of explaining to your spouse what you want or why you don’t like your spouse’s behavior.

Unless you can honestly say that your talks with your spouse about marriage problems is improving your marriage, I suggest you try what I am about to teach you. Don’t just take my word for it. Test and compare. Let your own experience be your guide to what is good and what is not.

Experience and evidence are the only sound bases for discovering truth. Critical thinkers ask themselves, what is the evidence for what this person is saying? Does it match my experience about reality? Christian critical thinkers also ask, is this consistent with what God teaches in the Bible?

The Best Time to Talk About Marriage Problems

There are exceptions to most everything. Understanding the exceptions can help you to learn the principle better. Since talking about marriage problems causes more polarization of differences, it is typically damaging.

However, if you and your spouse are:

  • in agreement with what the problem is, and
  • both want the same outcome,

then talking about the problem can be very helpful. In my book, Connecting through Yes! I present a five step method of problem solving. The first step is to make sure you and your spouse are on the same page about what the problem is and both want the same outcome. That is NOT an optional step. Without that step, you cannot do problem solving. People who say problem solving does not work with their spouse are ignoring this step.

Too many people approach their spouse, say something like we have a problem with such and such, so let’s brainstorm some ways to make things better. They then have dismal failure and make their relationship worse. That’s because they don’t first make sure their spouse sees what they see and wants what they want.

Saying, I know you want to divorce, so let’s brainstorm some ways to improve our relationship will fail every time. Why? Because the person who wants to divorce does not want to improve the relationship. They are in the process of leaving it! Likewise, going to couple’s counseling with a spouse who is not interested in improving the relationship will create the same failure.

Working with someone who wants a different outcome than you is like two people pulling on opposite ends of a rope. It results in no change.

If you want to work with someone to solve problems, you must always find where you agree and work only on that aspect where you do agree. If there is no overlap in agreement, then you must work to re-interest your spouse in your relationship before you can work with your spouse.

This is why all of my coaching is with individuals, not couples. I help people to reconcile or improve their marriages even though their spouse doesn’t want to.

People who want the same thing become closer when they work on relationship problems together, provided they stay away from discussing their differences.

Do your relationship talks sound like this example?

You: “Honey, we’ve got a problem with our finances. Our bills eat up all the money and there’s none left over for us to have some nice dates.

Spouse: “Yeah, that’s true. I was wondering about that myself. What can we do?”

You: “I don’t have a solution, but I’m sure we can figure out something together. Let’s go for a walk and talk and do some brainstorming.”

Spouse: “Ok.”

Lots of people wish they could talk about problems that easily with their spouse. You can work toward that. Notice in this example, you wait for agreement about the problem before suggesting working on it. If your spouse had reacted defensively or said it was a non-problem, no attempt should have been made to work on the problem together.

No matter how important a problem is to you, talking to a disagreeable spouse about it will make you regret bringing it up.

Let’s look at an example of handling a disagreeable spouse when you bring up a problem:

You: “Honey, we’ve got a problem with our finances. Our bills eat up all the money and there’s none left over for us to have some nice dates.

Spouse: “We go out on nice dates. What’s wrong with our dates?”

You: “Yeah, that’s true, we’ve had some really good ones.”

Notice in this example that you do NOT try to do any problem solving since your spouse immediately became defensive. That is an indication your spouse is not on the same page. Just find something to agree with to end the defensiveness and immediately stop talking about it. You will need to use other ways to interest your spouse in dating more or budgeting better.

There are typically several other good ways to address a problem other than discussing it with your spouse.

I can hear you asking, like what? Well, like creating a budget, doing more things your spouse likes, using better dating skills when your spouse does go out with you, and helping your spouse to enjoy talking with you at home by agreeing and empathizing more.

There are always ways to improve a relationship besides talking about problems and they work a lot better.

Reacting to reactivity will just get you more reactivity.

If you just have to talk about marriage problems, there are two things you can do to make it go better

1 Talk about marriage problems when things are going well

The best time for talking about problems is when things are going really well, you are both in a good mood, and enjoying each other’s company. This will help you to speak more kindly, your spouse to be more receptive, and you can get back to having a good time right after as long as you don’t argue.

The worst time to talk about problems is when you or your spouse is upset.  Talking when you or your spouse is upset will create negativity and reactivity. There is no point to talking about problems when people are upset.

Many people fear talking about problems when things are going well because they already know that talking about problems will cause conflict. If you can’t talk about problems without conflict, then you need to stop talking about problems!

2 Do not blame your spouse even if your spouse is at fault

The way you talk about problems is more important than the actual problems. The main reason that marriages fail is not because of marriage problems. The main reason is that couples stop enjoying each other’s company. They either stop doing enjoyable things together or make the other person feel unloved, unimportant, or inadequate.

You need to care about problems, but you must also care about your spouse. Make your spouse feel important to you, even if what he or she is doing is harmful.

Example of blaming: It’s your fault this place is a mess and I hate living like this.

Example of sharing the problem: I have a hard time keeping this place cleaned up and I want to find a way to make it more pleasant to live in.

You can talk about problems without blaming your spouse for them.

The Alternative to Talking About Problems

Better than talking about problems is doing something about problems. This is what my clients do. For example, if the problem is a blaming and controlling husband, I do not advise my client to talk with her husband about how he is blaming and controlling. 

This is because no matter how sweetly she managed to say it, she would be blamed for doing so—growing the problem and making her feel even more hopeless. Instead, I help her to use sincere agreement and boundaries to put a stop to her husband’s damaging behavior without her even needing to talk to her husband about it.

Most effective approaches require a combination of validating one’s partner while also having good boundaries.

Relationship building comes before problem solving

The more your spouse finds you desirable and enjoys your company, the more motivated your spouse will be to solve any problems in your marriage. The converse is also true: the less your spouse finds you desirable or enjoys your company, the less your spouse will be motivated to solve any problems in your marriage.

Jesus told us we must take the log out of our own eye before dealing with the splinter in our neighbor’s eye (see Matthew 7: 3-5 for the complete refererence). Not only is that true, but we also need to do the same thing even if we are the one with the splinter and our spouse is the one with the log.

People do not want to lose someone they value. The more valuable you become, the more your spouse will respect your boundaries and be motivated to treat you well. The same principle is true for parenting. The more your children value your relationship, the more they will respect your boundaries and be motivated to behave well.

Getting started making your marriage relationship better

I have some free downloads on my website that will help you to help your spouse enjoy talking with you more, provided you still talk a little. On the other hand, if your relationship is severely damaged, you will need to do some preliminary work before your spouse is interested in talking to you. Many people are saving their marriages by working with coaches to do just that. If you would like to work with me, you can sign up for my services at

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