Every relationship is different—they all have their own benefits, their own struggles, their own quirks, and their own history. But there are some aspects of relationships that, for better or for worse, are almost universal. In fact, there are certain forms of relationship stress that come up again and again, in all types of relationships in all different areas of the world. And the number one source of relationship stress? Well, again and again, studies show that it comes down to one thing: money.
Money is a huge source of stress in a relationship. Firstly, many of us are awkward talking about money, so we never develop a good communication strategy to have the tricky conversations. Secondly, sometimes there’s simply not enough of it—and that affects every part of our lives. Thirdly, whether there’s enough money or not, having different attitudes towards money and styles of spending and saving can cause stress—there’s a whole lot that can go wrong.
Money is definitely a huge issue—and there’s no denying that it consistently comes in as the top source of relationship stress, but it’s far from the only relationship killer. Here are the other (dis)honorable mentions in the relationship stress category, because the more you know about potential downfalls, the more you can protect yourself against them.
This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. Data has shown that couples with children tend to be less happy in their relationship than childless couples—and there’s no denying that children can put a huge amount of stress on your relationship. Your sex life suffers, you don't have any time for yourselves as a couple or just as person, your needs and wants are all suddenly sidelined. Does that mean you shouldn't have kids? Of course not—for some couples, it’s clearly the right choice. But be honest about how much it will stress your relationship and try to prepare for that, by checking in regularly and finding time together when you can.
In a way, it’s wrong to call poor communication a relationship killer—because there’s a good chance that if your communication is poor, your relationship is never going to get off the ground, at least not in a healthy way. Poor communication means that you’ll struggle to develop intimacy, trust, and a life together—but if you do manage to get into a long-term relationship without good communication, it will make things harder every step of the way. When you don’t feel heard, every situation seems more stressful and, importantly, more adversarial. If you’re not approaching things as a team, every interaction can become fraught with anxiety and you don’t feel like you’re getting the support you need. If you find that your communication isn’t up to par you should start to address it as soon as possible, because you need to give yourselves a strong foundation.
According to the famed John Gottman of the Gottman Institute—who has spent decades studying marriages and their breakdowns—there is one single factor that can predict relationship breakdown more than anything else: contempt. Though he points to four factors that can really wreak havoc on relationships (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), he says by far the most destructive is contempt. If you find your partner sneers at or belittles you—or you find yourself feeling disgusted by them, that’s a major problem. Judging or feeling contemptuous toward each other is bound to create a huge amount of stress in a relationship and, if Gottman has anything to say about it, can lead to its downfall. If there’s a lot of contempt in your relationship, you may need to look at whether it’s the right relationship for you.
Finally, this is a source of relationship stress that isn’t talked about often enough—having unrealistic expectations. Lifelab founder Tristan Coopersmith and Evie Shafner, LMFT both point to unrealistic expectations as a huge source of relationship stress. If you have a vision of 'true love', where your perfect soulmate enters your life and completely transforms it into a fairytale, then you are bound to be disappointed. Every time you disagree, have a fight, or even just feel a bit down, then you might start stressing and overthinking—wondering why your relationship isn’t as perfect and transformative as you imagined it would be. Try to let yourself off the hook. Remember that no relationship is perfect, that disagreements are natural and—crucially—that your partner is not single-handedly responsible for your happiness. Your happiness is your job. If you take a more realistic view of what your relationship can and will be, then it should alleviate a lot of the stress.
Money, kids, communication—there are so many things that can go wrong in a relationship. But this isn't scaremongering and it shouldn’t make you feel your relationship is doomed to fail. Instead, knowing where the sources of stress can lurk can help you make your relationship stronger, by letting you protect yourself against them. It’s a good reminder to take stock of your relationship once in awhile and make sure you’re in a healthy, happy place. Stress will come your way—that’s just a part of life—but with a strong foundation, you’ll be able to handle it and keep thriving.