Marital Distress

Marital distress is one of the most frequently encountered and disturbing human problems. Everyone who is married experiences difficulties. For some, these troubles reach the point of profound disappointment and doubts about staying married. Even marriages that are seemingly going well can suffer distress if a single shattering event, such as an extramarital affair, takes place. Marital distress has powerful effects on the partners, often leading to great sadness, worry, a high level of tension, anxiety, and depression. And, if prolonged, it can negatively impact one's physical health.

The effect on families is also profound, especially when conflict is high. Children raised in high-conflict homes tend to have more emotional difficulties.  And once marriages are distressed, a progressive dyadic decline begins that easily cascades downward, ultimately leading to the demise of the relationship. However, in most situations, this negative direction can be corrected and most marriages can return to a state of satisfaction. Some can make these changes on their own, but most often the successful repair of a relationship in distress is best facilitated by a trained marriage and family therapist.

Causes of Marital Distress

The causes of marital distress vary from couple to couple and often present as difficulties with communication. Over time, the breakdown in communication evolves into increased arguing, stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt. Distressed couples tend to engage in these negative patterns of of communication often and are unable to successfully repair the relationship after an argument. Eventually, this will spill over into intimacy, and sex. And the couple gets locked into a negative pattern that builds walls instead of connection.

In some instances couples do well for a period of time and then find themselves overwhelmed by the longer-term tasks in marriage. Research shows that the risks of marital distress and divorce are highest early in marriage and these risks increase when the couple first has children, when their children are adolescents and again, when they leave home. Additional causes of marital distress include substance abuse, gambling, the loss of a child, children with special needs, lack of financial resources, infidelity, infertility, loss of employment, and untreated mental illness.


How Do You Know When to Seek Help or Suggest Doing So to a Friend?

No one has a perfect marriage, and most couples can use help with their marriage from time to time. Pre-marital preparation and marital enrichment programs such as the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) and the Relationship Enhancement Program are available in many locations. All couples can benefit from the unique education that if offered by marriage and family therapists. You don’t need to be in a distressed marriage to be in marital therapy. Many people with solid marriages choose this path to enhance their relationship. 

Marital distress is a different state from the usual ups and downs of a marriage. In distressed marriages, people feel fundamentally dissatisfied with their relationship. Moreover, their disappointment doesn’t just come and go, but seems constant. Couples with high levels of marital distress fight frequently—the conflict remains unresolved and becomes exhaustive. Or the spouses may not fight, but stand apart in complete alienation, no longer doing kind things for each other and no longer communicating. 

Frequent arguments that don’t get resolved, the loss of good feelings, and the disappearance of friendship, sex and vitality are other signs that a marriage is distressed. Behaviors such as contempt, withdrawal, violence, and a complete loss of connection signal that a marriage is in desperate trouble and that it is at high risk for divorce. Furthermore, you do not need to be legally married to experience  “marital distress.” Serious, long-term, committed relationships can experience the same kinds of major problems. 


Effective Help for Distressed Marriage 

The good news is that there are effective treatments for marital distress. No one begins as a perfect partner and a successful marriage depends on a number of skills, such as the ability to understand one’s own behavior and motives, to understand one’s partner, to argue and problem-solve productively, and to effectively negotiate differences—all of which can be enhanced by working with a marriage and family therapist. 

In part, marital therapy is about partners working to validate and accept each other, to gain insight and learn to manage differences. It is important for couples to distinguish the difference between solvable and unsolvable problems.  Progress requires an understanding that all couples have perpetual problems; the key is to develop skills for talking about problems, recurrent or otherwise, and find workable solutions before the problems become overwhelming. 

Marriage and family therapists have expert training in the navigation of these difficulties. They know how to imbue couples with a sense of progress even as they struggle with marital conflict. There are different therapeutic modalities that are effective when working with couples in distress.  Some promote skills and practice; others examine the roots of the problem, looking at process between the couple rather than the details of a particular argument. Most marriage and family therapists integrate modalities and tailor their approach to best fit the couple they are working with. 

When looking for a therapist make sure that you search from someone who is trained to work relationshionally. Marriage and family therapists have specific training and experience working with couples. Starting couple therapy can be difficult, though it also offers the immediate relief of being able to share honestly one’s feeling. It is also common to feel discouraged as you argue in the first few sessions in front of the therapist. But couples that commit to marital therapy begin to create a process for overcoming their difficulties. Sometimes the resolution of problems happens quickly, but typically a longer period is required. Successful outcomes are possible when both partners are equally invested and open to making positive changes to their relationship. In cases of marital distress, it is often helpful for each partner to work with an individual therapist as well.


What Should You Do if Your Partner Won’t Go to Therapy?

Some people with marital problems won’t seek help even when the need for help is glaring. If your partner won’t go to therapy, try to encourage him or her. A distressed marriage is very unlikely to fix itself. And delaying treatment can further exacerbate symptoms of distress in the marital relationship. If your partner just won’t go, you can begin to do some things yourself. A marriage and family therapist can work with you individually, offering expertise about how to improve the relationship without both of you joining therapy. He or she can also suggest better ways of of approaching your partner about the idea of entering treatment together. 

Still, a positive outcome is more likely if both partners commit to and willingly participate in the therapy. 


Meadows, Robert; Arber, Sara. “Marital Status, Relationship Distress, and Self-Rated Health: What Role for ‘Sleep Problems’” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 56.3 (Sep 2015): 341.

Balderrama-Durbin, Christina; Snyder, Douglas K.; Balsis, Steve. “Tailoring assessment of relationship distress using the Marital Satisfaction Inventory—Brief Form” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 4.3 (Sep 2015): 127-135.


For more information on the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), please click here.

Last updated July 2016

Understanding the Benefits of Marriage and Family Therapy

Find a Therapist

If you or someone you know is experiencing distress, therapy with a marriage and family therapist (MFT) can help.

Find an MFT


Continuing education designed specifically for MFTs. Explore the 85 online courses offered and expand your knowledge on a variety of topics. Start your personalized online classroom and earn CE credits at your own pace.

Earn CEs