There is a pervasive myth that somehow happy couples just agree on everything automatically all the time. Believing this myth, we enter relationships convinced that whatever problems or differences we have with our partners will be easy to solve. But, in reality, the individuals who make up a partnership will disagree frequently, and often struggle over even minor issues.

In the course of building and sustaining a lifetime relationship, every couple encounters many problems. Different backgrounds and experience, discordant perception of each other and events, unequal rates of education and growth, conflicting needs for self-expression and contact, and differing values and beliefs about relationships complicate and often block attempts at creating partnership together.

If you or your partner believe you have to "win" in a relationship, you'll tend to compete rather than cooperate. Earlier in life, you may have learned to believe that if you aren't the best, don't fight hard, or manipulate you won't get what you want, so you either fight to win, or give up. As partners, you struggle because you believe it's the way to get your needs met.

This kind of competition becomes stressful, counter-productive and toxic, poisoning the relationship by turning you into adversaries, and undermining the mutual support and encouragement you need to succeed in your relationship.

Differences can be frightening, and make resolving problems and conflicts with your partner tense and difficult. In a relationship intimate enough that you feel a deep bonding or sense of commingled identity, it's easy to experience disagreements as threatening. Disagreeing seems to indicate you are separate individuals who perceive everything differently, and have different needs and wants, and create fear that you'll be rejected or disapproved of if you are different.

Relationship models based on the idea that one person must lead and the other follow, or one "win" and the other "lose" can easily become power struggles, where the partners fight bitterly. Each partner struggles to be in control, or they avoid disagreements altogether because it isn't worth the struggle. Hence they spend a lot of their time either fighting for what they want or feeling deprived.

The belief that someone has to be in charge of the relationship causes couples to compete for power rather than cooperate. Otherwise loving partners can struggle because they believe it's the way to get their needs met. Between partners in intimate relationships competition becomes stressful, counter-productive and toxic, poisoning the relationship by turning us into adversaries, and undermining the mutual support and encouragement vital to satisfactory relationships.

Sometimes relationship problems are only indirectly connected to your partnership: your car breaks down, your kids need to get to school, your boss is difficult to get along with. These issues become partnership problems because you bring their effects, big and small, into the relationship with you. Anger at your unreasonable boss can quickly become a difficult evening with your partner if you bring your frustration home, are irritable, and the two of you wind up arguing unnecessarily.

Unskilled couples easily become tangled in a web of blaming, hurt and anger and, after years of similar unresolved conflicts, can build a backlog of bitterness that can't be healed.

Some problems are directly related to your relationship: you fight about housework, time, money, child care or sex. One or both of you becomes hurt or angry. For couples who don't know how to cooperate, such issues can escalate into a big problem or accumulate over time. When problems cause friction and never get resolved, they undermine an otherwise loving and viable partnership.

Only recently have psychologists and sociologists begun to discuss the elements of effective decision-making. Among other discoveries, they found that decision making (even in business) is more effective when everyone contributes their views of priorities, needs, wants, goals, and their thoughts about possible solutions. This cooperative approach means that both contribute their understanding to the problem (which often makes it clearer) and both feel involved in the process and committed to the success of the solution they agree upon.

In cooperative negotiation, both parties attempting to resolve a conflict or make a decision involving them can negotiate so that both get what they want. By working together, you can learn to solve the problems of the past (I'm afraid we'll fight about money like my first wife and I did); the present (I don't think I'm getting a fair share of the housework) and the future (what will we do if I lose my job?). Instead of being a struggle or something to avoid, solving such problems becomes an opportunity to re-affirm your mutual love and caring, and to strengthen your partnership and teamwork.

The skills couples need to keep intimacy alive in a long-term relationship differ from new relationship intimacy skills, and they're not obvious because people don't talk about them. Most couples need to lower their expectations of romance and glamour and raise the level of fun they have together. Regular weekly talks (I call them State of the Union discussions) keep the problems minor, the resentment level down, and the communication open, so that there is time and space for intimacy. In a successful, long term relationship, passion becomes a shared sense of humor and goodwill toward each other. I spend every day teaching couples how to do these things.

1. Learn to negotiate and solve problems together. Generally speaking, men value competency and problem solving. Women value intimacy and emotional connection. Learning successful problem solving ends fighting and power struggles, and therefore leads to more intimacy. You may think he's focused entirely on time, power or money, but what he's really trying to do is create enough security that he can feel safe to let his guard down. Or, you may think she's irrational, but what she's trying to do is honor the emotional side of the issue.

2. Make time for intimacy: Regard your face to face time as sacred (if is it will bless your marriage.) Take time to listen to each other. Touch as often as possible (put your hand on your spouse's leg while driving; give him or her a little squeeze now and then, hug and kiss each other). Create a cuddling space in front of the television, on the porch swing, in your bedroom, and use it. Intimacy is the art of making your partner feel understood and accepted. When this feeling is created, barriers fall. Gentle touch, eye contact a gentle sense of humor and the right words all create the atmosphere. Positive comments on your partner's looks or the day's activities positively will also help. Couples disconnect when they don't feel interested in each other anymore. To reconnect, make an effort to listen and understand each other's needs and wants.

3. The most powerful thing you can do to keep a marriage strong is form a partnership, a team, where both parties feel respected, cared about and needed. If you really want to restore the marriage, begin not by complaining, but by seeking to understand your partner. Once the connection is there, you can begin to work out the issues.

4. Don't hold a grudge: Talk about what's bothering you in a rational way. Ask clearly for what you want, and let your partner know why it's important to you. If you can't find a way to agree, go for a counseling session. Resentment will destroy your marriage. For the price of one session, before the problem gets too large, you can save it.

5. Show your appreciation: Let your partner know you appreciate what he or she does, personality traits, (i.e.: his sense of humor, her generosity, his practicality, her hard work) and companionship. The more you praise what you like, the more you'll get of it. We all want to be appreciated. Celebration + appreciation = motivation.

Author's Bio: 

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.

Dr. Tessina, is CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for, a website designed to strengthen relationships and guide couples through the various stages of their relationship with personalized tips, courses, and online couples counseling. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC News.