What would you do in this situation: You bring up something that bothers you about your relationship, but your partner doesn’t take it seriously. So you try bringing it up again or hinting that it still bothers you, and you either encounter another dismissive response or your partner makes minor/temporary efforts but soon slips back into old habits. Would you bring it up a third time? What about a fourth?
One of the most common causes of long-term relationship breakups is when one member of a couple stops complaining about something that really matters to them because her or his previous complaints have been ignored. They might stop complaining, but because the issue remains, they continue to accumulate resentments and/or to drift emotionally until the relationship is in full crisis.
When the other partner realizes the entire relationship is now under threat, they feel totally blindsided, “But you haven’t mentioned this for months! How was I supposed to know it bothered you so much?”
“I told you over and over,” is the typical response, “but you didn’t do anything.”
“Because you stopped complaining about it, so I thought things were okay!”
Of course, by then things are very much not okay. So much so that it is often difficult to save the relationship, even if authentic efforts to address the situation are finally made.
To be clear, few ignored complaints are important or meaningful enough to cause a breakup, but some are. In more than 20 years of working with couples, I’ve identified three kinds of what I call “high-risk complaints” — ones that are most likely to cause relationship erosion if they are habitually ignored.
3 Common Relationship Complaints You Should Never Ignore
1. Frustrations about sex.
Complaints about not having enough sex or feeling unsatisfied with their current sex lives is a very common relationship complaint and one that is typically voiced many times in one form or another (some subtle, some more overt). When the other partner makes only minor and short-lived efforts or, more commonly, responds with excuses, dismissiveness, or minimizing, it can cause a real emotional wound, because of the nature and frequency of the rejection it causes. Every night going to bed and nothing happens will feel like a stinging rejection, one that impacts mood and self-esteem, as well as other aspects of emotional health. (See “10 Surprising Facts about Rejection.“) In order to protect their feelings and self-esteem, they are likely to withdraw emotionally, and over time, the emotional gulf that gets created becomes impossible to reverse.
Therefore… When your partner voices sexual frustrations or concerns, take them seriously. Discuss them honestly, work on finding mutually satisfying resolutions, follow-up, deliver on promises, and if you’re stuck, get educated — there’s lots of info out there about this issue. And remember, if your partner used to voice sexual complaints and stopped, it by no means guarantees they are no longer upset about it or affected by it — they probably are.
2. Clashes with in-laws.
Marriage involves the formation of a new family unit (even if there are no children) that becomes a priority in terms of loyalties and obligations. When in-laws create conflict (e.g., the in-law has an overtly hostile or critical attitude; ignores and shuns; or disrespects boundaries, for example, by ignoring requests to check before unscheduled drop-ins), it is up to the other partner to set limits with his or her parents. Not doing so and ignoring the complaint or minimizing it erodes feelings of loyalty and safety, and can lead to an early breakup or a tense and unsatisfactory marriage.
Therefore… As difficult as it is to set limits with parents who might feel offended or betrayed by such actions, if the boundaries are reasonable and clear, most in-laws learn to respect them in time. Keep in mind that they are likely to test the boundaries first, so it is important to address any violations and reinforce the stated expectations. The most effective way to do this is to respond to the very first violation (testing of the limits), as failing to do so will make the boundary violations and clashes continue.