A committed, loving relationship is one of life’s greatest joys—and accomplishments. Loving relationships can be the foundation of a meaningful life, and our anchor amid life’s difficulties and uncertainties. Yet about 40 percent of marriages end in divorce, and breakups are even more frequent among unmarried couples.
What are we doing wrong?
The truth is that relationships don’t just take care of themselves—they require commitment, self-awareness, unselfishness, and willingness to change and grow. We have to learn to shift from “me” to “we” as the central focus of our lives. Committed relationships can survive ups and downs, but some patterns and behaviors can create more permanent damage. From my years as a therapist and knowledge of the research, I would identify four damaging patterns that raise red flags about the state of any relationship or marriage. If you recognize your relationship here, think about how to change course. (If the situation is more serious, you may want to seek couples counseling.)
1. Selfishness, Narcissism, and Unbalanced Ties
Selfishness is focusing on your own needs and not thinking about the other person when you make important decisions or in day-to-day interactions. If you don’t do your fair share of housework or childcare, your partner will begin to build resentment and feel uncared for. Narcissism is a personality disorder that can encompass many features, including superficial charm, a lack of empathy for others, and manipulating others for one's own ends.
When relationships are unbalanced, so that one partner’s extended family is always the priority, or one partner always decides how you spend the money, this fractures the ties that hold you together. Marriage and committed relationships are, above all, partnerships. When the sense of partnership is lacking—when your partner is oblivious to or inconsiderate of your needs, this weakens the ties that hold you together. When you demand things of a partner without regard to how they feel about it; when you berate a partner for not meeting your needs without considering their perspective or situation; and when you ignore a partner’s expressed needs for intimacy, understanding, and help, you begin to create wounds that are difficult to repair. If this sounds familiar, deliberately try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and think about how you would feel if they acted that way. Learn to feel grateful for your partner and begin to express it often in words and actions.
2. Not Making the Relationship a Priority
Not making your relationship a priority wears it down over time. Our education system doesn’t teach us that loving relationships take work and daily commitment. It’s easy for the relationship to take a back seat when kids come along. If you don’t make time for sexual intimacy, desire goes down. If you stop talking to your partner about your hopes and dreams, you start becoming more distant. If you don’t make time to do fun activities together and with the family, you can begin to lead separate lives. If one partner spends all day in the world of work and the other in the world of kids and chores, it can be a challenge to find common ground. With multiple kids, you may have to “divide and conquer,” with one partner heading for the soccer field and the other to dance practice.
For all these reasons, it’s important to make time for check-ins throughout the day, and to listen to your partner’s stories and concerns. Research shows that doing novel and fun activities together makes couples feel closer. Go hiking or take a bike ride, or sign up for a cooking or ballroom dance class.
Other factors that can take a toll on relationships are demanding in-laws, needy friends, efforts to keep up with the neighbors, working 80 hours a week, and frequent business travel. Stop every once in a while to take a inventory of how you’re spending your time—and make sure that time with your partner isn’t last on the list.
3. Angry Outbursts and Rage
Arguments that get resolved, and controlled expressions of anger, are normal parts of a healthy relationship. But enraged screaming at a partner can do damage both to them and the relationship. Couples in unhappy relationships can get into negative cycles, where any fight rapidly escalates into accusations and negative comments about the other person’s intent or character. There is truth in the saying that it’s easiest to hurt the people we most care about. We know just how to go for their jugular—to hit them where they are most vulnerable. And chronic stress makes it more difficult to maintain emotional control.
Couples today have a lot to juggle—traffic, bills, mortgages, retirement savings, demanding bosses, the responsibilities of a household and kids—and it's easy to get emotionally dysregulated and just stressed out. (If you add alcohol to the mix, it’s even easier for daily frustrations to spiral out of control if you catch your partner at just the wrong moment.) Your brain’s wiring goes into “fight or flight”—you start perceiving your partner as a threat and release a surge of brain chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol that drive you to act impulsively. To avoid damaging your relationship, it’s important to not speak about important issues when you’ve been drinking, to take a break if you or your partner are emotionally flooded, and to stick to the specific issue at hand, without throwing in the kitchen sink of past gripes. You want to communicate that a behavior is upsetting, but still convey that your partner is a beautiful person in your eyes.
Trust is the soil in which healthy relationships are grounded and the foundation for their growth. Breaking trust is like putting a big crack in that soil. The relationship may still survive but it will forever have a broken part. About 19 percent of men and 12.3 percent of women have reported that they've had had sex outside of their marriages, according to the 2012 General Social Survey. University of Denver researchers studied almost 1,000 unmarried couples in committed opposite-sex relationships and found that 14 percent had sex outside the relationship over a 21-month period and 43 percent of those couple's relationships had ended because of the infidelity.
These studies defined infidelity narrowly, as having sex with someone else, but “emotional affairs” and online dalliances can also damage relationships. Women, in particular, are disturbed when their partners have a close, ongoing emotional connection with another woman. Infidelity can act as a trauma to the betrayed partner, causing them to feel insecure and angry, and to obsess about what their partner is doing. Deceit, and lying to cover up infidelity, often register as another layer of betrayal. If you are part of a couple dealing with infidelity, it’s important to seek counseling. The partner who cheated needs to take responsibility for the impact of their actions, make amends, be affectionate and reassuring—and be willing to be open and transparent about all of their activities going forward.
To learn more about healing and repairing relationships:
To learn about the secrets of happy couples and building positive patterns:
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and expert on finding fulfillment in life and relationships. She provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples in person and via distance technologies. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert source in national media.
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