5 Common Complaints Heard in Couples Therapy

Picture of a couple in their late 20s laying in bed with backs to each other.

It’s often said that love is a roller coaster – and with good reason! Incredible as it is to spend your life with the person you love, relationships often have their ups and downs. Most of the time, the underlying problems which are causing friction are miscommunication and difficulty connecting. These are the two leading causes of the vast majority of arguments and marital complaints.

All relationships, whether new or old, take time, effort, and commitment to make work. Whenever we enter a relationship, we do so with our own knowledge, experiences, and histories. This means that we have already developed our own coping and defense mechanisms for when we feel uncomfortable or upset, and these strategies might collide with those that our partner has developed for similar purposes. This can create a sort of impasse – by closing up in our own shells of self-preservation we can ultimately miss out on receiving the love and understanding we really crave.

Why a Lack of Communication and Connection?

When we shut down, we are essentially shutting our partners out as well. This can heighten negative feelings which can only increase friction within the relationship. Frequently this leads to the development of common and repetitive complaints which arise in relationships.  Robin Zarel is a therapist in New York with 35 years of experience. She practices a mix of educative, supportive, behavioral, cognitive, and psychoanalytic therapeutic approaches. In her experience, Zarel says that she has encountered similar complaints from couples over and over. She explains that of these complaints, “some may be indicative of underlying patterns and difficulties that might require a professional’s assistance.” Couples therapy and counselling can be an excellent option for couples who just can’t seem to come to a sufficient middle-ground on their own. Therapeutic intervention doesn’t equate to failure, as some might believe. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Seeking therapy to mediate problems within the relationships can be an important step in working towards a better and stronger connection with one’s partner.

Because of this, it is important to recognize common complaints which arise in relationships as well as the underlying meanings behind them. Knowing this can help us recognize when we are shutting down and what is really making us uncomfortable. Doing so can help open us up to being more honest in how we communicate as well as being more considerate of our partners in the process.

Below are 5 of the most common complaints that therapists like Zarel have encountered in their line of work and what they really mean:

1. “He/She Never Lets Go.”

Serious or emotional subjects can always feel even more impactful and hurtful when brought up after a particularly long day or when we’re tired, but the importance of these topics often warrants legitimate concern and attention. The real problem isn’t whether or not our partners “let go” of serious issues that they might feel exist within the relationship (or elsewhere), the problem is being able to communicate these issues with the empathy required. Of course, timing is important. Because of this it can be equally as important to discuss with our partners when and where talking about serious subjects is appropriate. Perhaps we can set up a time and place to go over what is bothering our partner in the near future. But we must follow through. Similarly, we must explore the real reason why we are resistant to hearing our partners express what’s bothering them. Most of the time, the real reason for our avoidance isn’t the issue itself but rather how we feel we will respond to it.

2. “I Don’t Want to be the Only One Initiating Sex.”

Intimacy can be an imporant part of many healthy relationships. When one partner always initiates sex or intimate behavior, the relationship can begin to feel one-sided. Sometimes the culprit is just a fundamental difference in sex drive or sexual need. Either way, sex can be one of the most difficult subjects for couples to discuss because it touches upon issues of vulnerability, attractiveness, self-esteem, and control. That being said, honest and open communciation is a key part of successful intimacy. Most importantly, when we talk about our concerns we must express our feelings. Emotion is another significant aspect of sexuality. If we feel that we are the only ones initiating intimacy, we must discuss this openly with our partners and let them know how this makes us feel. Through this we can begin improving not only our sex lives but also our romantic relationship as a whole.

3. “They Aren’t Responding to my Texts!”

We have to remember that while we are in a relationship our partners are ultimately their own person with their own lives and responsibilities. Sometimes this can be easy to forget in today’s world of instant gratification and instant messaging. While communication is a fundamental part of a healthy relationship, technology can compound existing insecurities and obsessiveness. Frequently being concerned over whether or not a partner responds immediately to texts is a sign of anxious behavior. Thus, it is important to examine where this anxiety is actually coming from, because it is likely not the result of the texting itself. We might actually be unconsciously picking at an existing problem within our relationship that we aren’t acknowledging directly, or, a problem with ourselves. Addressing the true cause of this anxiety will help reduce it rather than transferring it onto our partners’ texting ability.

4. “He/She Should Just Know!”

Even in relationships that have gone on for years, we cannot expect that our partners have developed a psychic ability to just “know” what we want and need. These desires must be communicated in order to be fulfilled. We might at times be tempted to think that if our partners truly cared they would simply understand what we want without telling them, but this isn’t really the case. Whether or not they are able to predetermine what we want or need is not a sign of love or concern, it is an unrealistic expectation that puts pressure on our partners to fulfill an impossible ideal. If we have a need that isn’t being addressed, we must ask ourselves whether or not we’ve brought it up in the first place. Then, we must consider when and how we did so, because this can greatly impact our partner’s response, or lack thereof. Otherwise, this dymamic can be unhealthy and ultimately not only detrimental to the relationship but harmful to the individuals therein as well.

5. “I Don’t Want to Bring it Up”/“It Could Break Our Relationship.”

According to Zarel: “The ability to communicate with openness, honesty and sensitivity is the cornerstone of a good relationship. If something important is troubling you and fear prevents discussion, this already is a sign of a problem either individually or in the relationship.” First, we must determine if our concerns are realistic. Then, we must uncover whether or not our fear is really about the issue itself. Or, conversely, is  the problem really about whether or not we will have to make an important decision regarding something that is already having a negative impact on the relationship. Either way, not bringing it up at all will do more harm than good as these problems will fester in the background.

While many of these points might seem like common sense, their regular occurence in relationships acts as a testament to the challenges we face in communicating when the feelings of others are involved. This is why couples therapy can be a helpful tool in mediating these thoughts and feelings to help us express what we need to in a safe, neutral setting. The important thing is that we make sure to address these problems at all, as ignoring them will only cause more friction in the long run, and may eventually lead to the end of the relationship.