Marriages that are in trouble have this in common.

It’s natural for people to want to know the dos and don’ts of a happy marriage. We want to know what makes a couple fall in love—and then, perhaps only a few short years after saying “I do,” how they find themselves in therapy, falling apart at the seams.

The answer to this question is complex, but when looking through the hundreds of first sessions I’ve had with couples, I can tell you that there is one common problem. The truth is that each and every couple came in with a relationship that was diseased, or rather, dis-eased. More simply put, their relationship is not at ease.

Couples who come to me hoping that therapy will “work,” who think that a few words from me might finally make their marriage easy, are always disappointed. Therapy does not work. Couples work. Yes, the work is in pursuit of “ease,” but ease is different than easy. Easy just happens to you. Ease is a result of hard work.

The word “ease” and the word “easy” come from the same root, but in my experience, couples run into trouble when they want the relationship to be easier than it should be. Frankly, I think relationships should involve hard work. Couples should work to become oriented to one another and to the mutual dream they are chasing.

Couples should work to stay connected and to chase intimacy with one another. Couples should work to replace their unspoken disappointments with clear and concise expectations for one another and the relationship. They should look for ways to chase dreams and pursue goals together.

When couples stop working, they find themselves in four main categories of dis-ease.

01. Couples Are Dis-Oriented: They simply don’t have a context to evaluate the direction or speed in which they’re heading. These couples are seeking pre-marital counseling. Or they’ve just had a baby. Or they’re coming down off the high of the honeymoon period, and they’re simply unclear about where to go next.

02. Couples Are Dis-Connected: They wake up one day and realize they no longer feel at ease with one another. They ask questions about compatibility and start using phrases like “we’re just not a team” or “we feel like roommates.” Intimacy has evaporated, and they don’t know why it has happened.

03. Couples Are Dis-Appointed: They begin to believe that this—this marriage—isn’t what they signed up for. They based their high hopes in attraction and adrenaline, and when the relationship came down to earth, they began asking about the return/exchange policy. I had one bride tell me straight up: “I want a refund.”

04. Couples Are Dis-Couraged: They slowly and surely lose courage. They marry with the highest aspirations, full of hope and commitment, but somehow, someway, sometime, those things burn out. The courage to hope is replaced with an instinct to hedge. The courage to commit is replace with an instinct to protect.

The most proactive couples ask for help when they are disoriented, disconnected, disappointed, or discouraged, and the next step is to work toward finding or regaining ease. There are all kinds of ways that you can ask for help. It might be therapy. It might be an online course. It might be prayer or meditation. It might be taking a ceramics class or joining a bowling league together. Whatever it is, it’s work.

Relationships are never easy. (If they are, they’re likely not meaningful.) But relationships that matter always deserve attention and intention. If you really want yours to matter, pay attention to the places where disease is creeping in. And get intentional about healing the dis-ease that you may have.

Photo Credit: Joshua Ness