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9 Rules for Recovering from Relationship Mistakes

These nine ideas are critical to returning to a healthy relationship.

Relationship mistakes—we all make them at one time or another. But you can pick yourself back up and recover from even the biggest failures if you keep a few simple ideas in mind:

1. Your partner is your equal.

People who tell their partner what they should be doing, or when, have forgotten this deceptively simple idea. Who says your way is the right way? Instead of dictating, organizing or educating your partner, focus on collaborating. Ask your partner’s opinion. Invite him or her into your thoughts and ideas. Be co-conspirators in creating the future you want to live together.

2. No matter what you have to say, you can say it respectfully.

We all feel anger, resentment, hurt and other difficult emotions at times in our relationship. We should. Living with another person is hard! But no matter how painful the emotion, your partner still deserves to hear about your feelings in a way that is respectful. According to relationship expert John Gottman, couples who bounce back from fights are those who learn how to fight respectfully, and how to give and accept "bids for repair."

3. People are more important than things.

When you were dating, you focused on each other. Now that you have more responsibilities—children, a home, and more—it’s quite possible that you spend more energy on getting things done than you do on each other. To recover from relationship problems, it’s critical to set aside time to attend only to each other in a way that reinforces how much you care. Doing this might range from little rituals you create (bringing coffee to your partner in bed each morning) to spending a great deal of time learning how to do something new together. Make sure you focus on each other, and what you choose should make you feel positive, make you laugh, or reinforce your love.

4. It takes two to have a relationship.

Sadly, one go-to strategy for dealing with escalating relationship problems is to hide from them. Particularly for men, avoiding conflict or touchy topics can feel better than addressing them. This is a mistake that often leads to an increase in pursuit from the other partner, who doesn’t appreciate the lack of participation in solving the problem at hand. To recover, couples must re-engage. A relationship counselor can help you do this.

5. Good communication is not a given, but a skill that must be practiced.

Inconsequential conversations are easy to have. It’s the interactions around difficult emotions that are so hard. There is no short-cut to learning how to have these conversations. You must learn how to express what you think constructively and without aggression, learn how to listen carefully and non-defensively, and use tools to verify that you are both talking about the same thing. This takes time and practice, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

6. There is such a thing as a bad apology. Don't make one.

Repairing your relationship after some sort of mistake or hurt is one of the best things you can do. But too many people unwittingly try to do this with a bad apology. Here’s an example: “I’m so sorry I got mad at you, but you really triggered me.” That’s not an apology—that’s blame! You can recognize a bad apology because it almost always includes the words "but" or "because." Instead, apologize by owning your mistake or behavior and putting forward a plan to help prevent the same thing from happening again in the future.

7. You are responsible for your own happiness.

Committing to another is not the same as relying on that person to make you happy. Yes, being with your partner can be a happy experience, but seeking out your own satisfaction is your job and yours alone. Couples who merge too closely tend to be less happy than those who understand that they are differentiated individuals who complement each other. Don't hand responsibility for your happiness over to anyone else.

8. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.

One of the most useful tools in relationship repair is forgiveness. If you can find the empathy to forgive yourself for mistakes you made, or forgive your partner for his, you clear the way for being able to constructively figure out how not to make that mistake again. Conversely, if you hold onto anger or resentment, these will be impediments to moving forward.

9. Sex is the canary in the mine.

Desire is mysterious, but one thing is for sure—it’s highly sensitive to the state of your union. If your sex life is struggling, chances are that there are larger issues to uncover and heal. Don’t panic, but seek help to understand what those problems are early on, before they become too entrenched.

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