The Most Common Source of Stress in Relationships Isn’t What You Think

Photo: Stocksy/Beatrix Boros

Healthy romantic relationships can be challenging to maintain. But, hey, if Michelle and Barack can navigate life's stresses and keep their #relationshipgoals status intact, you and yours can do the same, right?

The key lies in knowing which pitfalls commonly derail couples so that you and your significant other can prepare yourselves to sail through them rather than abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. If you're thinking you already know which arena causes couples the most stress—money, of course—you wouldn't be wrong. "Research suggests that money tops the list of relationship stressors," according to relationship expert Jess O'Reilly, PhD.

Also on that list? Sex and its potential result: children. "Sexual frequency is a top source of stress and conflict for my clients," Dr. O'Reilly says. "Even those who want to have more sex have difficulty carving out time to do so."

"Even those who want to have more sex have difficulty carving out time to do so."

Meanwhile, there's not-so-good news when it comes to those who choose to have kids. "Research confirms that relationship satisfaction declines after having kids and parents report that parenting is a significant source of stress in their relationships and overall lives," Dr. O'Reilly says, adding that some of this stress is caused specifically by division of labor issues between partners (AKA "the third shift").

Kiaundra Jackson, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and author of The Art of Healthy Relationships, agrees that sex and money are huge sources of relationship stress but she adds that poor communication joins them to round out what she calls the Top 3 Relationship Killers. "When you feel like someone is not taking your thoughts and feelings into consideration, is not actively listening to you, or only wants to get their point across, it can lead you to feel lonely, misunderstood, and often angered," explains Jackson.

Photo: Stocksy/Jennifer Brister

Though this information isn't exactly uplifting, it's also not likely to surprise you. However, there is one issue underlined by both Lifelab founder Tristan Coopersmith and Evie Shafner, LMFT, which is more insidious. Ready for it? Both experts say unrealistic expectations are what actually create the most strain in relationships.

Unrealistic expectations are what actually create the most strain in relationships.

For one thing, says Shafner, people go into relationships believing they will be forever happy simply because of their significant other, and that this person will be able to meet all of their emotional needs. Neither of these expectations are realistic. The potential result: disappointment, resentment, and anger. "There’s this misconception about the committed relationship that it’s the place to get all of your attachment needs met, and that your partner is going to become this ongoing reflection of our lovability," Shafner says.

Coopersmith explains that expectations related to your partner's personality traits or habits are also likely to backfire. "If the reality is that your partner is always five minutes late, accepting it is far better than feeling anger over it repeatedly, which only creates distance and corrosion," she says. This, Coppersmith adds, is true not just of behaviors but also of values: "If your partner values decadent food and you value clean eating, criticizing them for their choices creates disrespect and distrust in the relationship," she says.

Photo: Stocksy/Dylan M Howell

If you're feeling a little hot under the collar after reading this, worry not. It's perfectly normal to struggle with setting reasonable expectations for your relationship. This quote, from Bella DePaulo's book Singled Out, sums up why oh-so accurately. "Where once the tendrils of love and affection reached out to family, friends, and they surround and squeeze just one other person—sometimes to the point of asphyxiation," she writes of current societal relationship norms. "No mere mortal should be expected to fulfill every need, wish, whim, and dream of another human.”

To remedy this issue, you not only need to work on accepting your partner as they are and not as you wish they'd be, but also, says Shafner, you need to apply the same mentality to yourself. "You need to be able to rest in a foundation of your own self-approval, so that in moments where your partner is not able to give it to you, you're able to maintain it yourself," she says.

Mindfulness also helps. "Most of the time when you're upset with your partner, it’s because of a story you have going on and that story is not true," explains Shafner. "So when you become the observer of yourself, this allows you to really make room between you and your stories." She suggests using this more self-reflective perspective to work on your side of the street so as to avoid looking to your partner to fix every feeling you may have. Ultimately, she says, "We have to learn to soothe ourselves." Even in a partnership.

Originally published November 27, 2017; updated September 7, 2018.

Being in a healthy relationship is good for your heart—literally. Still, there's a reason you may be staying in a partnership that is anything but.

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