We're most gracious with our significant other when we first fall in love. We happily give them the benefit of the doubt. We look past their faults, and we magnify their strengths. Communication is smooth and effortless — you just seem meant for each other.
At first, we fall in love with a fantasy. But getting a marriage to work means learning to live with a real human being as they are in everyday life. Inevitably, partners will say things that hurt the other's feelings, and they'll do things that upset their spouse. Couples in successful marriages know they're not "made" for each other. Rather, they learn to get along with each other.
So when couples seek counseling for marital problems, therapists usually focus on communication skills. These involve far more than just learning how to get your point across without offending your partner. They also include listening attentively when your partner is talking. Further, skillful communication means knowing when to say nothing and just let your anger go.
Good communication skills can improve the quality of a marriage. You learn not to push your partner's buttons, and not to respond when they push yours. When you get rid of these negative behaviors, you starting building trust, which is the foundation of effective communication.
However, as psychologists Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney pointed out in a recent article, good communication skills aren't always enough. Their research shows that couples counseling has a fairly high success rate for middle-class and high-income families, but that the prospects aren't nearly as good for low-income marriages. This is because external stresses have a larger impact on marital happiness than poor communication skills do.
Neff and Karney outline two ways that external stresses can creep into a marriage and corrode it. The first is by encroaching on "together time." Couples nurture their relationship by spending time together doing pleasurable things. This could be having dinner, playing sports, or even just cuddling in front of the TV. Without this "together time," partners drift apart, and the relationship grows stale.
Couples with good incomes tend to work normal hours, and their "together time" fits easily into their daily schedule. But low-paying jobs typically involve long hours and odd shifts. Moreover, low-income couples may be working multiple jobs. As a result, they have little time together.
Further, the time they do share is often taken up with discussions about bills and debts and problems at work. Instead of turning their attention toward the relationship, these couples are forced to deal with issues outside the marriage during the precious little time they have together. In other words, there's no time left for building the relationship, so it falls apart.
The second way outside stresses can affect marital happiness is by depleting a couple's emotional strength. Effective communication requires effort. For instance, when your spouse makes a nasty remark, you have to resist striking back. You may just let it slide, because you decide it's not worth fighting over, or you may let your partner know, in a non-confrontational way, that you were offended. Either way, it takes emotional resolve to hold back.
When you come home from a day full of stress, however, your emotional resolve is drained. For example, your boss says she needs you to work overtime, and when you get home, your wife demands to know why you're late. You tell her to stop nagging you, because you had a bad day. But of course, she had a bad day, too. Soon, voices are raised, doors are slammed, and now those outside stresses are inside the home.
In their research, Neff and Karney found that enhancing communication skills does little to resolve marital problems in low-income couples. Instead, interventions that improve the family's financial stability are far more effective at improving relationship satisfaction. These interventions can include counseling on budgeting and managing debt. Even more important, studies show that when a counselor can help a couple find training for new job skills, assistance for child care, and subsidies for health care, marriages are more likely to remain stable three to five years down the road.
The assumption has been that if you give couples the proper tools to communicate, they can work through their problems more effectively. But this new research shows that it isn't necessarily the case. In fact, the Number One predictor of communication breakdown in a marriage wasn't the personalities or even the psychological health of the partners, but rather the occurrence of financial difficulties and other major life stresses.
It isn't just low-income couples that are susceptible to external stresses: Even in financially secure marriages, work and family issues can deplete partners of the emotional resolve they need to communicate effectively with each other. With these couples as well, when "together time" is spent dealing with outside issues, there's little time left for relationship building, and the marriage starts falling apart.
These results suggest that counselors should focus less on the internal dynamics of a relationship and instead look first at the external stresses that are straining it. Alleviating these can go a long way toward boosting relationship satisfaction. In marriage, once you get the external stresses under control, the internal problems are easier to solve.
Neff, L. & Karney, B. R. (2017). Acknowledging the elephant in the room: how stressful environmental contexts shape relationship dynamics. Current Directions in Psychology, 13, 107-110.