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This Is How to Rescue a Struggling Relationship

Overcoming "suffocation" and feeling good about each other again.

Linda*, a thirtysomething working mom, says, “The marriage started to fall apart when our child was born. We thought we were on the same page about everything, but when we were faced with the realities of parenting, nothing was what we had imagined. I wasn’t getting any sleep, nursing was a nightmare, and on top of everything, I felt like he was competing with the baby for my attention.”

Dave, her husband, has a different story: “I couldn’t do anything right. When I held the baby, she told me I was doing it wrong. If stopped to buy diapers on the way home from work, I always got the wrong ones. It seemed like she was always driving home the point that I was a terrible father and a worse husband.”

This is not an uncommon scenario. Couples therapists traditionally say that the three major problems that can bring an unhappily married pair to therapy are money, sex, and children—not necessarily in that order. These are just the outward manifestations of underlying, often unspoken psychodynamics that play out in a relationship.

Years ago couples therapy guru Harville Hendrix said that marital problems often start with unspoken expectations based not on the reality of a relationship, but on what we imagine a marriage should be. Recent research explains some of the psychological underpinnings of this idea.

For example, a guy may love it that his girlfriend is a successful businesswoman who works 60 hours a week. But once they marry, he might suddenly expect her to behave much more like his mother, who was a stay-at-home mom. Or a woman may want nothing more than to get married to the man she loves so that she can have a family with him and take care of their children. When she gets married, she finds that part of the fantasy is that he, unlike her own father, will come home every night at 5:00 and spend the rest of the evening with her and the kids. It doesn’t matter that he never got home before 8:00 before they married, or that he has always hung out with his buddies a couple of nights a week. Without ever talking about it or even thinking it out, she assumed that, in marriage, he would become a different kind of person.

How does getting married lead to such shifts in our expectations? And how can you keep your expectations from wreaking havoc on your marriage?

Psychologist Eli J. Finkel and his colleagues have come up with an explanation of contemporary marital problems they call the suffocation model of marriage. (I wrote about some of their studies in an earlier post.)

In a recent article, the team broke down some of the factors that make contemporary marriages better and worse than traditional ones. Their studies focus on couples in the United States, but I have seen these issues unfold in other parts of the world, and would be very interested to hear the perspective of those of you reading this who live in other countries.


According to the model, marriage partners are expected to provide a sense of physical safety and well-being. In simple terms, the traditional bread-winning husband was supposed to take care of housing, feeding, and clothing the family, and the traditional wife made sure that the home, food, and clothes were comfortable for the family.

Today, Finkel and his colleagues tell us, we expect our relationship partners to promote self-esteem and self-actualization. These concepts are part of the “hierarchy of human needs” formulated by Abraham Maslow to explain what motivates us as we move through life.

When a partner meets our self-esteem needs, he or she helps us feel self-respect and a sense that others respect us. Such partners also encourage our belief that we can cope with the difficult tasks life throws in our path, and give us a sense of prestige or status. These functions can be concrete, like the good feelings that come from walking arm in arm with a beautiful woman or a handsome man, or the sense that, “If this extremely successful person likes me, I must be worth something.” They can also be more subtle, like the quiet sense of self-pride imbued by knowing that someone you admire also admires you.

Self-actualization is closely related to self-esteem, but it involves the capacity for self-expression, personal growth, autonomy, spontaneity, and truthful self-assessment. For instance, because Dave was so admiring of Linda's professional abilities when they were dating, she felt empowered to seek a promotion at work.

The suffocation model of marriage proposes that when you feel good about yourself in a marriage, you generally feel good about the marriage as well. But the opposite is also true: When your spouse begins to chip away at your self-esteem, it almost inevitably affects your feelings about your marriage. And yet, criticism and conflict are inevitable in any long-term relationship. So what's the best way to balance your expectations and your spouse’s in a way that allows each of you to express frustration and dissatisfaction, while also protecting your marriage?

A Surprisingly Simple Solution

Finkel and his colleagues offer a solution that is simple but not always easy to put into action. They begin their suggestion with a quote from Carl Rogers, an icon of empathy-based psychotherapy (whose long and happy marriage is also iconic). Rogers attributed his marital success to the fact that he and his wife were always willing and eager for the other to grow: "We have grown as individuals and in the process we have grown together.’”

The emphasis on encouraging one another to grow, say Finkel and his team, is a crucial part of the modern “self-expressive era.” It is not always easy to support one another’s growth in a marriage. In fact, such mutual development seldom happens simultaneously. Sometimes you will feel that you are sacrificing your own growth in order to promote your spouse’s, but that only works when you know that they have done the same for you—and that they will do it again.

I have been told by numerous couples that the most helpful thing I shared with them is that they are both longing for some kind of reminder that the other person admires them. It helped Dave and Linda. As Dave put it, “When I said something good—something I really meant—about Linda, it eased the tension almost immediately.”

Saying something positive about your spouse is a great self-esteem booster. Try to pay attention to how often you say something negative or critical, and see if you can say something positive even half as often. These positive reinforcements don’t just make the other person feel better. They often make you feel better, too. Linda said, “It was kind of wild. When I said something nice to Dave, I actually felt better about myself."

Sometimes, especially if you do it regularly, you’ll also get positive feedback in return. That kind of return should not necessarily be your reason for saying something good, but it can certainly help.

So why not try it? The next time you’re tempted to criticize, try to find something positive to say about your spouse instead. Don’t stop if nothing happens at first. It can take time for old patterns to change—and for your spouse to trust that you really mean the compliment and aren’t just preparing for an attack.

* Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.


  • Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in America is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 238-244. DOI: 10.1177/0963721415569274
  • Hendrix, Harville (2007). Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. 20th Anniversary Edition Paperback.
  • Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York, NY. Harper.

Copyright @fdbarth 2016. Please follow me on Twitter @fdbarthlcsw.

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