I often hear people justifying relationship-sabotaging behavior as “normal” as a way to make themselves feel better about the situation: My husband and I haven’t had sex in six months, but that’s normal for married couples...right? Maybe for some, but what is also normal is for most relationships to end: That’s a fact. On average, people have about three-to-five significant relationships before they get married, and nearly half of all marriages still end in divorce. If you want your relationship to last, "normal" isn’t what you want to aim for. If you genuinely love your partner, don’t set the bar at normal; set it at great. When something feels off, don’t ask if the behavior is normal, ask if it still feels like a great relationship. You are likely to give yourself a very different answer.
Following are three “normal” relationship behaviors that can kill the connection between two people, and what to do instead to improve the quality of your relationship.
It always makes me cringe when I hear people say fighting is good for a relationship. Fighting, the way most people do it, usually involves an exchange of angry, pent-up emotions, which often get expressed in a negative, sometimes disrespectful way, where at least one person is made to be wrong, and there are lots of hurt feelings. Nothing about that is good for a relationship. The reason fighting can feel good is that during this process, toxic, pent-up emotions often get released, and much needed communication happens, but there is a high cost to the relationship when you communicate this way. No matter how good the post-fight make-up may feel, no one completely forgets the negative emotions and the insults that were hurled, and they continue to exist as cracks in the foundation of your relationship.
Disagreements are inevitable between two people who are sharing a life together. Fighting is a lazy way to deal with disagreements. Healthy communication to navigate disagreements, which involves not holding back resentful emotions and learning how to express your wants and desires, while being able to appropriately compromise, is what is good for a relationship. Most people aren’t very good at doing this, because they’ve never really learned how. Also, fighting from a place of anger often feels much less vulnerable than expressing yourself and asking for what you want in a calm way. It isn’t surprising that it is normal for people to default to fighting as a way to communicate; however, if you want your relationship to be great, not normal, then making the extra effort to learn how to communicate in a healthier way is well worth it. Spending a few sessions working with a couples therapist, reading books on communication, and attending a couples workshop are all great ways to learn how to express yourself in a relationship. Even if your partner isn’t up to doing these things, you can improve your communication in the relationship just by working on your own ability to self-express in a healthy way.
2. Infrequent Sex.
While everyone has a different sex drive and knows for themselves how much sex they need to feel satisfied, changes to the frequency of sex in a relationship can often be a measure of the strength of connection in the relationship. While sex is a physical act, it is far more psychological and emotional than many people realize. There are also some gender differences around sex that can easily lead to miscommunication. Many women report needing to feel the emotional connection with their partner before they feel sexual desire, whereas many men report they need the sexual desire and physical relationship to feel the emotional connection. What’s important to be aware of here is that shifts in the frequency of sex can be an indication of shifts in the emotional closeness within the relationship. Couples who report more frequent sex generally also report more of an emotional connection or satisfaction with the relationship.
When the demands of everyday life drain you emotionally and take a toll on your physical energy, not making the effort to connect with your partner on a physical level might feel like the normal thing to do. Instead of simply accepting a decrease in sex as a normal part of any relationship, take a step back and ask yourself if you have been feeling less emotionally connected to your partner in other ways. If you are holding on to any kind of resentments or are feeling distance, try seeing if you can communicate about those things. Even if you don’t know what the problem is, a simple statement, such as “I’ve been feeling disconnected lately,” can open up a dialogue between the two of you. Reconnecting on an emotional level is the quickest way to heat up the physical connection.
3. Taking your partner for granted.
I’m often bemused by the fact that it is quite normal for people to treat strangers better than the people they are closest to. What is most puzzling, though, is that people who do this seem unaware that being rude and disrespectful to their partner has a negative impact on their relationship. People often put forth their best behavior during the first few months of a relationship, and not surprisingly, this has the positive effect of bringing two people closer together. However, at a certain point some people develop a certain level of comfort, and, whether they are aware of it or not, they simply stop trying as hard. When that happens, a relationship starts to deteriorate. No matter how long you have been together, it takes effort to maintain your emotional and physical connection. If you feel you are not trying as hard as you did when you first met, whether in the way you treat them or the way you take care of yourself, you can be assured that your partner has noticed.
Having a great relationship — and not a normal one — takes effort and commitment every day. Setting a daily intention to be a good partner and to do one thing that day that will benefit and improve your relationship will bring the great back to your relationship.
Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., is a Clinical Faculty member at Emory University, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life. She also has a teletherapy practice in the states of CA, GA, and NY.