There are a lot of amazing things about being married: knowing that you’ve chosen a partner for life, having a constant companion, and getting a forever teammate. But it’s also undeniable that even the most incredible marriage is not free of challenges. Some of the obstacles you’ll encounter are completely out of your control (health crises, job loss, and family dynamics, just to name a few), but many are totally avoidable if you know what to look for. Ahead, find out what relationship experts say are the most common mistakes they see married couples making, plus how to dodge them.
Listen up, because this is a big one, people. “Couples get so comfortable with one another that they stop noticing and appreciating all that their partner does for them and the relationship,” says Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, relationship therapist and founder of online relationship community, Relationup. “More importantly, they stop acknowledging and expressing gratitude for their partner’s efforts.” So next time your spouse does something nice for you, know that a simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way.
It’s no secret that cash is often a subject of contention in marriages, but some of the friction around money can be solved by simply saving more of it. “Money is an integral part of a marriage and it is very tempting to jump into the ‘married lifestyle’ with nice cars, a nice home and nice vacations instead of building up your emergency fund and saving enough for retirement,” notes Scott Carroll, M.D., author of Don’t Settle: How to Marry the Man You Were Meant For. Make saving a priority from the beginning for less stress down the road.
Planning a wedding is fun, but planning your actual marriage is way more important. “Couples don’t talk about their future goals, how they’ll handle issues like finances or in-laws, and they don’t create a plan to work together,” points out Amy Morin, psychotherapist, lecturer at Northeastern University, and author. Instead of focusing all your energy on the act of getting married, spend some time talking about what happens afterwards, too.
The whole good cop, bad cop thing can go too far. “This happens most frequently when children are involved, but it can happen with extended family and friends,” says Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Officer at BeenVerified.com. “It is important that the relationship presents as a unified front. Undermining discipline, decisions about plans, or just general principles of the relationship will stir resentment and anger between the two. Make sure that differences are discussed privately beforehand so that the decision is a consensus.”
Meaning they’re too quick to make their exit when the going gets tough. “It seems so easy for couples to call it quits today,” says Tiya Cunningham-Sumter, a certified relationship coach and blogger. “Marriage is a commitment that comes with its good days and bad. Couples must stay invested and committed even when things feel a little funky.”
“Regardless of your relationship structure, one person can’t meet all your needs,” points out Kait Scalisi, MPH, an intimacy educator. “Having a strong community of friends and family strengthens your relationship.”
S*x matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters. “Often stresses in the relationship will be reflected in a diminished desire for s*x by one or the other,” says Kenneth Jedding, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author. “S*x will ebb and flow in a long marriage and, frankly, a long marriage, if good, will be about love more than s*x.” In short, s*x isn’t the be-all and end-all of your relationship, so it shouldn’t be the only way you measure the success of your marriage.
Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you should stop trying. “So many people feel that once they’ve found the one, that they don’t have to put in the work into the relationship,” says Stef Safran, a dating and matchmaking expert. “Romance and courting is something that people often say they miss when they get married. Remember to show your partner that they are special with words, gifts, romantic gestures.”
They say that couples who are best friends last forever, and there’s a good reason for that. “I have my clients plan dates together that aren’t typical dinner and a movie dates,” says Sunny Rodgers, a clinical s*xologist, certified s*x coach, and intimacy counselor. “Couples need to work on building their friendship, which will lead to a solid foundation for their partnership—and can help keep them together for a lifetime.”
“Arguing too little can be just as bad as arguing too much,” Carroll says. “Holding in all your frustrations just leads to resentment or if you try to block your frustrations from your conscious mind, it goes into your subconsciousness where it causes all kinds of psychological and physical problems. This is why it is so important to learn how to argue well in a healthy way, so you don’t take cheap shots at each other and you aren’t afraid to discuss—and even argue about—the issues you need to.”
“Many couples get into the dynamic of fighting for control, whether it is by trying to dominate the handling of financial issues, spending habits, or how to raise the kids,” notes Steve Mindel, J.D., a certified family law specialist and managing partner of a law firm. “To keep a relationship healthy, the goal is to strive for balance. Sit down together and decide who gets to be the captain of what.” That way, you’ll each have your own domain to have a say over.
Many couples can benefit from therapy way earlier than they expect. “By the time they see a marriage counselor, they are looking for permission to get divorced,” Morin says.
“In the beginning of relationships when everything is hot and new, sharing fantasies and being experimental may be an integral part of the getting-to-know-each-other process,” says Shula Melamed, a relationship and wellness coach based in NYC. “As time goes on, some married couples may rest on the laurels of all that history instead of continuing the conversation as the years and relationship progress.”
There’s no sugarcoating it: Marriage is challenging. “Sometimes couples forget there are imperfections in life, in people, and yes, in marriage,” Cunningham-Sumter says. “Their spouse has flaws and will make mistakes, as will they. That has to be okay. Marriage is the real deal; it’s not a trial run or a fairy tale. It’s two real, imperfect people trying to make life and love work.”
“Many couples makes the mistake of trying to spend too much time together and this time, inevitably, doesn’t amount to quality time,” says Dr. Jess O’Reilly, Astroglide’s resident s*xologist. “If you spend all of your non-working time with your partner, you’re bound to find yourselves engaging in dull, repetitive activities like running errands, staring at your phones, or surfing the web.” That’s pretty boring, and if you’re bored, that’s not a great sign.
“Couples often make the mistake of not paying attention to slow-moving but ongoing emotional, physical, intellectual, and experiential disconnection,” says Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counselor. “They don’t realize the many subtle ways they are ‘turning away’ rather than ‘turning toward’ their S.O.” This can lead to chronic disconnection, which snowballs into a much bigger issue. “Couples need to consciously and deliberately find ways to connect with their partner every day, and in ways that are meaningful in their unique relationship.”
Self-improvement shouldn’t stop once you walk down the aisle. “Get to know yourself well,” Scalisi suggests. “What triggers an intense emotional reaction? What parts of yourself don’t you love? Where can you be happier? You can find someone to help you on this journey or do it on your own.”
Some old sayings about relationships just don’t hold true. “In their quest to never go to bed angry, couples make up without actually making up,” says Chris Armstrong, a certified relationship coach and author. “Instead, couples should take a night break and agree to talk about things in the morning. This gives them an opportunity to talk when they’re likely more awake and less raw emotionally.”
While experts say stressing too much about s*x can cause problems, not having s*x at all is another major issue. “S*x is both a normal and healthy desire and a critical way of emotionally bonding that has to be constantly renewed,” Carroll explains. “The bonding s*x produces isn’t just conscious, it is mostly unconscious through the limbic system of the brain and is mediated by pheromones and neurotransmitter and neuropeptides such as dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin.” In other words, even if you don’t think you need s*x to feel close to your partner, you probably do.
“Sure, it might not be as exciting as those first few dates, but you need to keep it fun or otherwise you’re doomed,” Lavelle says. “Make sure that you have something to look forward to. Maybe this is a monthly date night or an annual vacation, but plan it and do it.”
Allowing others to get super involved in your marriage is never a good idea. “It’s okay to get a little advice—occasionally—for your marriage,” says Cunningham-Sumter. “However, no one has more power, insight, knowledge, or say on a relationship than the couple actually involved. Married couples have to communicate with one another and make decisions that work best for the two of them only.”
While it’s definitely possible to spend too much time alone together, it’s also pretty common to neglect your couple time when life gets crazy. “Frequently, married couples become so lost in their careers, their kids, or their extracurricular activities that they forget to spend time with each other,” notes Monique Honaman, author and marriage expert. “When the job ends, the kids move out, and they no longer play tennis several times a week, they are left looking at each other and wondering who that person is. Stay involved and do things together. Spend time alone with each other. It’s great role-modeling to your kids about the importance of focusing on each other to be a stronger married couple and better parents.”
Obviously cheating is bad, but couples often think they can work to forgive and forget what happened.”In most cases where there has been betrayal, it is very difficult for the partnership to heal and takes a lot of time,” Milrad says. “Many couples are not able to rebuild a sense of trust and safety in the relationship.”
“This can drive a wedge between a married couple,” says Vikki Ziegler, celebrity divorce attorney, relationship expert, and author of The Pre-Marital Planner. “Marriage is about compromise and being vulnerable, so you must let go of your ego and cop to your mistakes—otherwise it will derail your marriage.”
It might be easier than explaining how you feel about something, but using this phrase too often can cause lasting damage. “This ‘I don’t care’ statement is cavalierly thrown around, and what couples don’t know is that it subconsciously erodes the foundation of their relationship,” notes Rodgers. “Rather than relying on that simple-yet-complicated phrase, I suggest couples tell each other how they really feel about a situation, and why.”
“Instead, they ignore them,” Morin says. “Ultimately, those problems grow bigger and bigger and they become much harder to address.” Deal with issues as they arise so they don’t get out of control.
There are a lot of distractions in today’s world, which makes it more important than ever for spouses to truly listen to each other. “Put down your smartphone, get off the computer, or turn off your TV and give your partner your full attention by taking in every nuance and every word—and how it’s said,” Mindel suggests. “The lack of listening can creep up on the marriage and deep-down abandonment begins, or at a minimum, people start to build resentment. Listening is key, all the way around.”
Most people know that going into a marriage hoping your partner will change is a pipedream, but it happens more than you’d expect. “The only person you can change is yourself, and that includes your reactions to your partner and how they behave,” Scalisi says.
“Initially most relationships flow easily, but that is because there are so few expectations,” says Monte Drenner, a licensed counselor and life coach. “The longer the relationship lasts, the more expectations there are.” So why does it get harder the longer you’re together? “The reason is simple: If staying together was easy, everyone would be doing it. Once a couple realizes that it is normal to have to work at a relationship, they can settle in and do the work necessary for the relationship to grow.”
Lots of couples feel that sealing the deal with marriage will suddenly erase the problems in their lives or relationships, but unfortunately, that’s virtually never the case. “Being with someone doesn’t solve our problems, and if we expect our lives to radically transform, then we’ll tend to consciously or subconsciously blame our partners for the things that we brought to the relationship and that have nothing to do with them,” Jedding says.
“In the best relationships, partners function as a team,” says Samantha Burns, a couples counselor and dating coach “This means there’s a ‘we factor’ instead of a ‘me factor.” This comes into play with decisions as small as what to do on a given weekend to ones as big as quitting a job or purchasing a home. “Consulting with your partner shows you value their opinion, care about their feelings, and have their interests in mind. Oftentimes the conflict stems from differing expectations, which is why it’s essential to sit down and directly communicate so that you can set and agree upon expectations around decision-making, and avoid future conflict.”
Whether it’s a nagging mother-in-law or a best friend who keeps overstepping, it’s crucial to set boundaries as soon as possible in a marriage. “Instead, couples ignore them,” Morin says. “Ultimately, those problems grow bigger and bigger and become much harder to address.”
“You may not always agree with your partner’s opinions or behaviors, but it’s important that you approach threatening people and barriers as a unit,” Burns says. “You are a team, and you need to support your partner when he or she is in pain. A common issue I see in couples counseling is when one partner feels slighted or hurt by their partner’s family. You shouldn’t have to choose between your family and your partner, but you should have your partner’s back and assert yourself by addressing disrespectful behavior.”
Both feelings have key roles to play in a healthy marriage. “I try to remind clients that no matter what, they love each other,” Rodgers says. “It’s okay to not like each other all the time, as long as they can remember that their relationship is based in love.”
“If you wait until you’re in the mood to have s*x, you may never do it again,” notes O’Reilly. “This is because many of us don’t experience spontaneous s*xual desire. We don’t work all day, make dinner, clean up, help the kids with homework, put them to bed, listen to our friend complain about traffic on the phone and then hop into bed with an intense desire to have s*x. Instead, we hop into bed exhausted and pining for sleep. Couples who are still having s*x after 25 or more years of marriage understand this: Sometimes you need to get aroused before you experience desire and that’s perfectly normal.”
It might seem weird to keep going on dates with each other even after many years of being married, but experts say continuing to go on dates can lead to greater intimacy and connection—even for longtime spouses. “As lives get busier and routines get set, planning for spontaneity is one of those seemingly oxymoronic musts in committed relationships,” Melamed says. “Be sure to create unique and special experiences in this designated time as well as just mellow catch-up dinners.”
“This happens most frequently with finances,” Lavelle says. “One spouse will incur debt or other obligations without first consulting with the other, and it almost always leads to untimely discovery and a fight. Be honest and forthright with your spouse and discuss issues, financial or otherwise, before it becomes a problem.”
It sounds basic, but it’s more common than you might think. “I hear this so frequently from couples in crisis,” Honaman says. “Even if it’s emptying the dishwasher or switching the laundry, both husbands and wives need to remember to show appreciation to the other for things that are done to support each other or support the home or family.”
Many pairs are surprised to find out that this is actually not the right move. “This should never be the case,” Armstrong says. “It should always be that your spouse is number 1 and your children are 1a. When spouses are number one, both partners will feel taken care of. thus enabling them both to lean into their children’s lives more fully and together.”
This is a hard habit to break, but one that’s ultimately worth it. “You need to be present and find time to look at and talk with each other instead of staring at your phone 24/7—especially in bed!” Ziegler says.