Our happiness in life doesn't depend entirely on having a close relationship, but it is definitely enhanced by having bonds that are both healthy and close. If it seems as though yours aren't working as well as you'd like them to, it's possible that with some minor adjustments you can get things back on track.
Research in the area of close relationships and well-being is one of the fastest-growing fields in psychology. We even know that close relationships matter for health, as my University of Massachusetts colleague Paula Pietromonaco has shown in a recent publication with Bert Uchino and Christine Dunkel-Schetter (2013). With the benefit of several long-term studies that have followed both successful and unsuccessful couples over time, we now know about some of the most common challenges that people face. By catching problems early enough, you can overcome these challenges before they take on insurmountable proportions.
1. Taking your partner for granted to an unhealthy degree. As relationships mature, there’s a tendency to assume that it’s fine to let the normal niceties of life slip and slide. Some of this is normal, appropriate, and even relationship-building. However, from time to time it doesn’t hurt to reflect on what life would be like without your partner. What would this mean for your everyday existence, your overall well-being, and your thoughts about your future happiness? Once you start to formulate a picture of yourself without your partner, this image might help you take the extra step to show your partner affection, interest, and concern, if only for a moment. It’s too easy to dismiss the people you’re closest to because you expect them to be there no matter what. By doing so, they may very well seek out people who will give them the attention they’re not getting from you.
2. Taking your partner too little for granted. It’s not a good idea to ignore your partner, but it’s also not productive for the relationship if you constantly worry about whether he or she really cares about you. People who are anxiously attached become so clingy and dependent that they can drive their partners away through their excessive need for affection and reassurance. After you and your partner establish your commitment to each other, it shouldn’t be necessary for you to keep questioning and wondering whether your partner honestly cares. Even if you haven’t reached the commitment stage, you should be able to tell from “behavioral” data whether he or she cares about you. Such data can include not forgetting to call or text you, being courteous and doing you favors, and being nice to the people you care about. If not these signs, there may very well be others specific to your relationship that, if you notice carefully, indicate how much he or she does care for you, which in turn should help you become less anxious about the relationship.
3. Letting the boundaries slip around your relationship. Within a close relationship of any type, there are bound to be secrets. Letting others into your private world, even if seems perfectly harmless, can erode your partner’s feelings of trust in you and your relationship. If your partner finds out, he or she will feel betrayed or even humiliated. For example, let’s suppose you tell a relative that your partner doesn’t care for his boss. Now let’s say also that it’s unlikely that your relative and your partner’s boss would ever meet. But there’s always a random chance. In addition, what if your relative forgets that this is a secret and mentions it in conversation? Or, even worse case scenario, what if the secret leaks out on Facebook through someone’s oversharing? It will be clear that you were the source of the information. Your partner may never even find out that you’ve been tattling, but the fact that you’ve done so can put your relationship in jeopardy nevertheless. You might start to worry about having opened your mouth and over time start to feel guilty and anxious, emotions that can become troubling and problematic over time.
4. Complaining about your partner to everyone except your partner. We all can imagine ways to remake our long-term partners. Rather than let your partner know, however, you might mistakenly share your unhappiness with anyone who will listen. Apart from leaking secrets in the relationships (#3 above), such tendencies can become counter-productive on their own. Most obviously, by not telling your partner directly what’s bothering you, it’s unlikely that your partner would know that you’d like to see some changes made in his or her behavior. Less obvious is the fact that by constantly focusing on what’s bothering you, it will be harder for you to see the good in your partner. Those negative ideas about your partner’s minor annoyances can gather momentum over time, and before long, even prevent you from seeing your partner’s other admirable and endearing qualities.
5. Turning on the passive-aggressive switch. There are innumerable ways to be passive-aggressive in a close relationship. Everything from “forgetting” to do something you’d rather not, to agreeing with a suggestion that you never follow…the list is virtually endless. You may think it’s safer not to object outwardly to a request or disagree with something your partner says but once again, by not letting your partner know how you really feel, you’re closing off a route of communication. Not all passive-aggressive behaviors are conscious, of course. Your forgetting to do your partner a favor, such as setting the bedroom alarm in time for an early morning appointment, could be due to the fact that you’d rather sleep in than have to wake up at the crack of dawn. However, it might mean that you’re upset over the reason your partner has to get up so early, whether it’s to catch an early plane or to go take the ex’s children to day care. If you’re engaging in behavior like this, and it’s not typical of you (i.e. you’re usually very organized), you might take some time to reflect on what’s really bothering you and then discuss it honestly with your partner.
6. Constantly questioning your relationship. Do you sit around wondering whether you and your partner will still be together next week, next month, or next year? Are you afraid to jinx your relationship by doing or thinking the wrong thing? Do you take signs of preoccupation expressed by your partner as evidence of his or her disinterest in you? As I discussed above, it’s good to take your partner for granted somewhat. However, this is a slightly different twist on that point. Questioning your relationship means that you doubt it will last, and therefore may be less likely to feel comfortable about commitments you make about the future. If you’re always looking for a “Plan B,” your partner may sense this and the relationship's future demise could then become a likely prospect.
7. Not taking your partner seriously enough. When you think about the important people and aspects to your life, what rank would you give your partner? Do your children come first? How about your work buddies or your job in general? It may be very logical and understandable to put your children first, for example, because depending on their age and stage in life, they need you. There are also different qualities to our romantic relationship compared to our relationships with children or other family members (parents, siblings, and so on). In reality, there’s no need to decide who’s more important. By playing this thought experiment, though, you can gain insight into where your partner fits into your overall life goals. If there’s a huge mental gap between your kids, job, friends, or other people and involvements, it’s likely your partner experiences this undervaluing. Again, looking toward those behavioral signs, if you’re at a social gathering, see if you drop your partner in favor of others, leaving at the end of the evening without having exchanged more than a word or two. Even if your partner doesn’t admit to feeling snubbed, this lack of attentiveness will be experienced as rejection and over time, detract from your partner’s feelings toward you.
8. Giving up on your partner. Everyone goes through challenges, whether it’s losing a job, suffering from health problems, or dealing with an addiction. It’s at those difficult times that your partner needs your good cheer and support, but it’s also at those times when you may be feeling the most stressed. Without having to cover up your concern and feign a Pollyana-ish optimism, it’s more important than ever at those times that you hang in there and allow your partner to feel that he or she will come out of this trying time. Your confidence and support not only will can help ease your partner’s pain, but may be just what’s needed to help your partner summon up the resources to overcome the challenge.
9. Feeling hopeless. Apart from individual challenges that your partner may be confronting, couples also face their own sets of difficulties. The list of possible reasons to feel hopeless can range from someone’s infidelity, differences in personalities, lifestyles, and values, or just simple misunderstandings that mushroom into out-and-out warfare. If you allow yourself to give up on the situation, you’ll be far less likely to put the emotional investment into the steps you’ll need to follow for relationship repair. People develop hopelessness toward their relationship through a set of cognitive distortions, such as believing what’s bad now will always be bad, that life “should” be worry-free, and that minor disagreements reflect basic underlying flaws in the couple’s prospects for true intimacy. Catch yourself before these cognitive distortions take hold, and you’ll be more likely to focus on what’s good rather than bad about your relationship.
There are many factors that go into building long-term relationships to ensure that they remain long-term. Avoiding these common nine traps are a great way to start keeping yours healthy for years into the future.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Pietromonaco, P. R., Uchino, B., & Dunkel Schetter, C. (2013). Close relationship processes and health: Implications of attachment theory for health and disease. Health Psychology, 32, 499-513. doi: 10.1037/a0029349