5 Life-changing events that can make or break your marriage

Jan 1, 2016 at 2:00 p.m. ET
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No individual or couple is immune to challenges — even the kind of enormous problems that threaten to rock the very existence of your relationship. While a lot of us accept that we're going to have rough patches in our marriages or committed unions, not all issues between couples are created equally.

It's one thing to argue over whether you should have let your teenage daughter go to a dance dressed in a mini skirt, and quite another to be faced with the kind of emotional, financial or even physical stress that eats you up inside, causes you to lose sleep and ultimately affects every aspect of your relationship — from how and when you communicate to whether you even deem it possible to communicate your feelings with your partner.

There is a light of hope here: If you are both devoted to the greater purpose of sustaining your relationship and are willing to turn inward to confront your problems and tackle them together, you can weather any storm. It won't be easy or comfortable, but relationship experts are here to offer ways in which you can work together to resolve your most serious issues.

For starters, conflict isn't necessarily negative, says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a marriage and family therapist, and it might help to view it with more rose-colored glasses: "It's paradoxical, but conflicts in relationships fortify them," Hokemeyer says. "Without conflict, relationships decay into apathy. They lose their fire and become stale and boring. Conflict, however, signifies that the individuals in the relationship care. They feel strongly about a position and each other. They get angry. They dig in their heels and they wonder why their partner doesn't see things their way. But in time their emotional reaction subsides and they realize they hate living in the angst of the conflict. Slowly they desire to have the conflict resolved."

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Here are five of the most challenging relationship obstacles.

1. Bankruptcy or major financial issues

Money problems are very common in relationships — and are also, unfortunately, a leading cause for divorce. But the problem may not be that neither of you has plans of becoming a millionaire anytime soon, but that you haven't figured out how to negotiate the finances you do have as a couple. "It involves not just restructuring financially, but adjusting emotionally and socially to the derivative effects of this fiscal trauma," says relationship expert and author April Masini of Ask April. "Many relationships break up over a bankruptcy, or before and leading up to it, but those that don’t may find themselves rolling up their sleeves, regrouping and working together to get out of a hole they’re in. This experience can be rejuvenating and defining to a relationship, and these couples should remember that it’s not the bad things that happen that are most important — it’s the way you handle these experiences that are more so."

2. A serious accident in which at least one of you is injured

There may be times in your relationship when one of you is called upon to be the caregiver, but rarely do people, when they commit, think seriously about what "in sickness and in health" actually means. Furthermore, it's nearly impossible to prepare yourself for that task, which can be overwhelming for both parties. "When an unexpected trauma occurs, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the extent to which a spouse or partner in a relationship, is really there for you when you can’t show up the way you usually do," Masini says. "These types of opportunities make you appreciate the partnership you’re in, and that your back is covered. For the person who is not injured, it’s an opportunity to figure out how much you have taken your injured partner for granted, if you have, and how grateful you are for his or her health."

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3. Loss of a job

Similar to experiencing a bankruptcy or financial hardship, losing your job can rock a couple's world because it's an unexpected bump in the road that forces one to think quickly, make new plans and deal with the here and now aspect of perhaps not having the funds to cover certain luxuries that couples took for granted.

In dealing with obstacles this big, Hokemeyer gives the following advice: "The first thing couples need to do is remind themselves that this particular difficulty is just one moment in time. Typically, when couples fight they think that this particular fight defines the entirety of their relationship. This is because they get caught up in the intensity of their limbic system and lose contact with their intellect and rational judgment. So when couples feel compelled to attack, they need to do the exact opposite and pull back and allow things to cool down. In this way they gain control over their emotions and get back in touch with what's truly important, which is the integrity of their relationship."

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4. The illness and caregiving needs of elder parents

At some point, if we're all lucky enough to nurture a long and fruitful relationship with our partners, we might be forced to confront the needs of our own parents, who may come to live with us or require additional, costly assistance and care. No matter how selfless you or your partner may want to be during this sensitive time, it's unreasonable to assume it won't require an honest conversation about how both of your lives are about to change and an adjustment period.

5. Death or illness of a child

No parent wants to give a millisecond of thought to the possibility that something heartbreaking could happen to their child, but some couples are forced to face the saddest reality: the loss of a child or an ongoing debilitating illness. There are honestly no words that can do this situation justice but, simply because we have to try, Dr. Steven J. Hanley offers seven dos and don'ts for couples dealing with this and other tragic challenges.

  1. Listen — Truly listen to your spouse and try to empathize with their experience or point of view.
  2. Don't blame — It is OK to be angry, upset or even furious, but blaming doesn't solve anything. Focus on using "I" statements rather than "You" statements.
  3. Let your partner help — We all have different skill sets and some of us are better at dealing with certain situations vs. others. If your partner is able and willing to take the lead, let them and ask where you can support.
  4. Communicate your needs — For example, "I need you to know how I am feeling" can be a very helpful way to start expressing yourself.
  5. Give each other space — Allow yourself and your partner to feel and express whatever emotions come up.
  6. Don't always try to "fix it" — Yes, during these difficult experiences decisions have to be made and things need to get done, but it can be offputting when one in the marriage is always trying to "fix it" instead of just listening.
  7. Reconnect — It is hard during difficult times to smile or enjoy each other but you should make it a point to try. Some people feel guilty about laughing or enjoying themselves in the face of tragedy or tumult. While there is an appropriate time and place for sorrow and stress, it is OK to take a break.