It’s not easy to have a great relationship with your boy/girlfriend, partner, or spouse. But it’s not impossible, either — it takes some work, of course, but it’s good work, work that’s a joy when everything comes together.
A lot of times, though, the work isn’t enough. We get in our own way with ideas and attitudes about relationships that are not only wrong, but often work to undermine our relationships no matter how hard we work at it.
I’ve watched a lot of breakups (some of them my own). I’ve seen dramatic flare-ups and drawn-out slow fades, and I’ve tried to pay attention to what seems to be going on. Here are a few of the things I’ve seen that cause people to destroy their own relationships.
1. You’re playing to win
One of the deadliest killers of relationships is the competitive urge. I don’t mean competition in the sense that you can’t stand to lose at tennis, I mean the attitude that the relationship itself is a kind of game that you’re tying to win. People in competitive relationships are always looking for an advantage, the upper hand, some edge they can hold over their partner’s head. If you feel that there are things you can’t tell your partner because she or he will use it against you, you’re in a competitive relationship — but not for long.
2. You don’t trust
There are two aspects of trust that are important in relationships. One is trusting your partner enough to know that s/he won’t cheat on you or otherwise hurt you — and to know that he or she trusts you that way, too. The other is trusting them enough to know they won’t leave you or stop loving you no matter what you do or say. The second that level of trust is gone, whether because one of you takes advantage of that trust and does something horrible or because one of you thinks the other has, the relationship is over — even if it takes 10 more years for you to break up.
3. You don’t talk
Too many people hold their tongues about things that bother or upset them in their relationship, either because they don’t want to hurt their partner, or because they’re trying to win. (See #1 above; example: “If you don’t know why I’m mad, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”) While this might make things easier in the short term, in the long run it gradually erodes the foundation of the relationship away. Little issues grow into bigger and bigger problems — problems that don’t get fixed because your partner is blissfully unaware, or worse, is totally aware of them but thinks they don’t really bother you. Ultimately, keeping quiet reflects a lack of trust — and, as I said that’s the death of a relationship.
4. You don’t listen
Listening — really listening — is hard. It’s normal to want to defend ourselves when we hear something that seems like criticism, so instead of really hearing someone out, we interrupt to explain or excuse ourselves, or we turn inward to prepare our defense. But your partner deserves your active listening. S/he even deserves you to hear the between-the-lines content of daily chit-chat, to suss out his/her dreams and desires when even s/he doesn’t even know exactly what they are. If you can’t listen that way, at least to the person you love, there’s a problem.
5. You spend like a single person
This was a hard lesson for me to learn — until it broke up a 7-year relationship. When you’re single, you can buy whatever you want, whenever you want, with little regard for the future. It’s not necessarily wise, but you’re the only one who has to pay the consequences. When you are with someone in a long-term relationship, that is no longer a possibility. Your partner — and your children, if there are or will be any — will have to bear the brunt of your spending, so you’d better get in the habit of taking care of household necessities first and then, if there’s anything left over, of discussing with your partner the best way to use it.
This is an increasing problem these days, because more and more people are opting to keep their finances separate, even when they’re married. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of arrangement in and of itself, but it demands more communication and involvement between the partners, not less. If you’re spending money as if it was your money and nobody else has a right to tell you what to do with it, your relationship is doomed.
6. You’re afraid of breaking up
Nobody in a truly happy partnership is afraid of breaking up. If you are, that’s a big warning sign that something’s wrong. But often, what’s wrong is the fear itself. Not only does it betray a lack of trust, but it shows a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem — you’re afraid that there’s no good reason for someone to want to be with you, and that sooner or later your partner will “wise up” and take off. So you pour more energy into keeping up the appearance of a happy relationships than you do into building yourself up as a person. Quite frankly, this isn’t going to be very satisfying for you, and it also isn’t going to be very satisfying for your partner.
7. You’re dependent
There’s a thin line between companionship and support and dependency. If you depend on your partner — that is, if you absolutely cannot live without her or him — you’ve crossed that line. The pressure is now on your partner to fill whatever’s missing in you — a pressure s/he will learn to resent. If you expect your partner to bring everything while you bring nothing to your relationship — and I’m talking finances as well as emotional support, here — you’re in trouble. (Note: I’m not saying that you need to contribute equally to household finances — what I’m saying is that if you’re not contributing to the household budget, and you’re not contributing anywhere else, things are out of whack and that’s never good.)
8. You expect happiness
A sign of a bad relationship is that one or both partners expect either to make the other happy or for their partner to make them happy. This is not only an unrealistic expectation to lay on yourself or on them — nobody can “make” you happy, except you — but it’s an unrealistic expectation to lay on your relationship. Relationships aren’t only about being happy, and there’s lots of times when you won’t and even shouldn’t be. Being able to rely on someone even when you’re upset, miserable, depressed, or grieving is a lot more important than being happy all the time. If you expect your partner to make you happy — or worse, you’re frustrated because you aren’t able to make your partner happy — your relationship isn’t going to fare well when it hits a rough spot.
9. You never fight
A good argument is essential, every now and then. In part, arguing helps bring out the little stuff before it becomes major, but also, fighting expresses anger which is a perfectly normal part of a human’s emotional make-up. Your relationship has to be strong enough to hold all of who you are, not just the sunny stuff.
One reason couples don’t fight is that they fear conflict — which reflects a lack of trust and a foundation of fear. That’s bad. Another reason couples avoid arguments is that they’ve learned that anger is unreasonable and unproductive. They’ve learned that arguing represents a breakdown rather than a natural part of a relationship’s development. While an argument isn’t pleasant, it can help both partners to articulate issues they may not have even known they had — and help keep them from simmering until you cross a line you can’t come back from.
10. You expect it to be easy/you expect it to be hard
There are two deeply problematic attitudes about relationships I hear often. One is that a relationship should be easy, that if you really love each other and are meant to be together, it will work itself out. The other is that anything worth having is going to be hard — and that therefore if it’s hard, it must be worth having.
The outcome of both views is that you don’t work at your relationship. You don’t work because it’s supposed to be easy and therefore not need any work, or you don’t work because it’s supposed to be hard and it wouldn’t be hard if you worked at it. In both cases, you quickly get burnt out — either because the problems you’re ignoring really don’t go away just because you think they should. or because the problems you’re cultivating are a constant drag on your energy. A relationship that’s too much work might be suffering from one of the attitudes above, but a relationship that doesn’t seem to need any work isn’t any better.
There isn’t any one answer to any of the problems above. There are choices though: you can either seek out an answer, something that addresses why you are hurting your relationship, or you can resign yourself to the failure of your relationship (and maybe the next one, and the next one, and…). Failure doesn’t always mean you break up — many people aren’t that lucky. But people can live quite unhappily in failed relationships for years and even decades because they’re afraid they won’t find anything better, or worse, they’re afraid they deserve it. Don’t you be one of them — if you suffer from any of these problems, figure out how to fix it, whether that means therapy, a solo mountain retreat, or just talking to your partner and committing yourselves to change.
Dustin M. Wax is a contributing editor and project manager at lifehack.org. He is also an anthropology and women's studies professor in Las Vegas, NV where he lives with his partner and three children. His personal site can be found at dwax.org.
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