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How can you tell the difference between big and little problems in marriage?

The last several months have been hard on everyone. We've heard this from countless couples. We’ve also heard them say, “Sometimes, I can't tell whether we are just having a bad day or whether something is really wrong.”

At the individual level, this can show up as having trouble distinguishing life's ordinary upsets from something more serious: chronic anxiety, depression, or burnout.

In marriage, this can show up as having trouble distinguishing everyday tiffs from conflicts that threaten to eat away at the very foundation of marriage.

In our interviews for The 80/80 Marriage, we noticed a difference between two kinds of problems. On the one side, there are little problems, small disagreements, misunderstandings, and arguments that are relatively easy to resolve. Then there are big problems, problems lodged so deep that they can be almost impossible to resolve without outside help.

How can we deal with these two kinds of problems in marriage?




1. The minor problems

When it comes to minor misunderstandings and disagreements, the research on marriage is clear: communication is the key. If you quickly and cleanly reveal these problems to your partner, they can actually become a catalyst for deeper intimacy and connection. To do this, we're huge fans of a two-step process that we explore in greater depth in the book. First, reveal your inner experience. Second, make a reasonable request of your partner. Taken together, it sounds something like this, "It hurt my feelings when you showed up 20 minutes late for dinner. My ask is that you text me next time if you're going to be late."


2. The major problems

When it comes to those problems that pose an existential threat to marriage, talking about it often isn't the best solution. In fact, these bigger problems can trigger so much anger, resentment, or sadness that trying to talk through them can make everything worse, not better. That's why when you hit one of these big problems, it’s often essential to seek the help of someone outside the system: a pastor, rabbi, coach, or marriage therapist.


3. Distinguishing minor and major problems

How can you tell whether you’re dealing with a minor or major problem in marriage? First, pay attention to the level of emotional intensity. If this problem triggers anything over a seven on a scale running from one to ten (where ten is full-on emotional meltdown), you may be dealing with a major problem. Second, pay attention to its frequency. If this emotionally explosive conversation keeps coming up again and again, that's another sign that this isn't some minor issue that's just going to go away. It's bigger than that. It's an issue that might require seeking outside help.

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