“Most couples argue over three things: money, sex, and power,” says psychotherapist Ross Grossman, MA, LMFT. Those three arguments, Grossman explains, can be further boiled down to the single issue of power. Who decides when to have sex? Why type of sex? Who decides how money should be spent, and if it’s worth it to send the kids to a private or public school?
“Most people want to have some kind of ‘agency’ in their relationships. They want to be able to have a say,” explains Grossman. “Otherwise, it’s not a relationship, it’s a hostage situation.”
But sometimes, asserting one’s agency can go too far, and “Couples fall into the trap of command/demand thinking,” says Grossman. This is what often causes unhappy marriages.
Someone who engages in command/demand thinking believes they know the rules of the universe, and if someone [i.e., their partner] is violating those universal rules, they must be punished.
This “I know what’s right” mentality causes a lot of problems in marriages and leads to unfulfilled couples. It’s important to keep this in mind when considering these signs of an unhappy marriage:
1. Your partner is very secretive with their online accounts, social media, and phone.
As long as you aren’t demanding a daily report and requiring constant monitoring, then it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to ask to see your spouse’s social media accounts or phone. But you have to ask yourself, why do you want to see their phone — is it because you believe they aren’t being loyal? The answer isn’t to ask to see their phone. “The resolution is to talk about privacy and trust,” says Grossman. “You may want to ask them for reasons why they might not want to share their account information with you.”
2. Your partner is unwilling to have sexual relations with you.
“Certainly there are some reasonable causes for sex to diminish,” says Grossman. “But a complete dry spell for longer than a few months is definitely worth a conversation.” Like pretty much every problem in a relationship, the key is talking to your partner to see what’s going on. “Does your partner want you using porn all the time? If sex is painful or inconvenient, can you both be flexible and find other ways to be sexual without intercourse? Or perhaps one or both of you are insisting on personal perfection?” Through communication, you should hopefully be able to come to a mutually agreed-upon solution.
3. Your partner doesn’t express compliments or gratitude.
Every relationship needs what Grossman describes as “love deposits” or “Kodak moments.” You should be thanking your partner, telling them how good they look, how you appreciate them, and so forth. In fact, for every withdrawal (i.e. criticism), Grossman believes there need to be five love deposits that come in the form of compliments, small gifts, surprises, or acts of service.
4. You have fights in public where your partner blurts out private information.
No matter how strong the relationship is between a couple, there will be times you disagree and argue with each other. That’s to be expected. “However, if your partner consistently has low impulse control, cannot wait until you get home, and feels as if they must air your dirty laundry in front of the world, they are suffering from the command/demand mentality.” In essence, they’re thinking that you, their partner, must always act perfectly, and since you’re not, they have the right to chastise you immediately, no matter where you are.
5. You’re afraid to say anything remotely confrontational or critical because you fear it will end the relationship.
You shouldn’t attempt to keep the peace at all costs, Grossman says. “Peace is nice; calm is nice, but fearing disputes can be devastating for a relationship.” Either this means that your partner has anger issues, so you feel the need to tiptoe around them (needless to say this is bad). “Or the reason people don’t confront each other is because they believe they must be perfect or else they’re sub-human.”
6. You or your partner lack a sense of humour.
“Humor is crucial in a marriage,” says Grossman. “Can you laugh it off when your partner farts right near you? Can you look at your disagreements with some perspective?”
Grossman continues, “Both you and your partner would benefit from assuming that you are both fallible humans and as such, are often comical in your own desperation to command life and have it go your way.” In other words, does your partner take everything so seriously? If so, their lack of humour will likely contribute to an unhappy marriage.
7. The inability for you or your partner to receive criticism.
No one likes to receive criticism. “But a complete inability to hear criticism points to a very shaky self-image, and in fact indicates both a lack of humour and a lack of perspective on human foibles,” says Grossman. After all, to err is human. If you can’t receive criticism, then there’s no way for you to grow, there’s no way for the relationship to grow, and there’s no way to resolve issues.
8. You or your partner always plays the victim, never taking any responsibility.
In most arguments, both people are to blame—at least to some degree. It’s healthy for both you and your partner to admit your part in disputes. “If you feel you are being mistreated, say something, do something,” says Grossman. “But simply nursing your ‘victimization’ will not resolve your relationship. Set healthy boundaries on what you will and will not tolerate, with the understanding that your partner is human and will sometimes make mistakes.”
9. You are unable to forgive and hold onto grudges.
“Once again, the command mode says, ‘You must never act poorly. You must always treat me well. You are not allowed to ever make the horrific, catastrophic error of crossing me. Therefore I will remember your misdeed forever and punish you with it wherever and whenever possible,’” says Grossman. No relationship can withstand this punishment. Not only that, it’s bad for the grudge holder, too. “Holding resentments is like spiting your enemy by swallowing poison. Forgiveness may actually be the most selfish thing you can do because it releases you from the pain of resentment.”
10. You or your partner are unwilling to accept apologies.
Look, we all make mistakes. Some are bigger than others. Some are true deal-breakers. Many partners will say goodbye once they identify what they determine is a true lack of loyalty. “But short of disloyalty, physical violence or endangerment, it’s important to allow your partner some chance at redemption and repair. Continuously rejecting any attempts to make things right is a definite red flag for the relationship.”