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4 Subtle Patterns That Can Sink Long-Term Relationships

Watch out for these pitfalls for long-term couples.

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There are some obvious behaviors that can have a catastrophic impact on long-term romantic relationships (like affairs, violence, or constant criticism), but there are also subtler patterns that erode relationship happiness. Once you're aware of these, you can do something about them, but let's cover some essential background info first.

An incredibly important principle to understand is that when good relationships go bad, positive interactions tend to decrease before arguments and other negative communications increase. I cover this point in a lot more detail in my book The Healthy Mind Toolkit) but, briefly, how it works is this: When you've lost a sense of connection, you'll typically have a sense of hurt about that, and over time you bury this hurt. Then this squished-down hurt tends to emerge as nagging, criticism, jabs, getting under the person's skin on purpose, etc.

The following four patterns can lead to decreasing positive interactions and increasing negative ruminations about the relationship.

1. You don't need each other anymore.

In good relationships, partners go to each other for support. There can be various reasons why this stops happening in long-term relationships. For example:

  • Couples who leaned on each other when they were young sometimes feel less need for each other when they gain life experiences or resources and add to their individual coping skills. For instance, a shy individual may have gravitated towards an outgoing partner who would take the lead when they attended social events together. When that person gains skills and confidence with social events themselves, they may feel less need for their partner.
  • Sometimes sources of stress for individuals in the relationship go away. For example, you might have valued a stable ("boring") partner while you where at medical school or launching a company, but once you've succeeded, you feel you don't have as much need for an emotional rock in your life. Perhaps the partner you once saw as wonderfully steady now just seems stagnant, resistant to new experiences, and disinterested in challenges. They haven't changed, but your perception of them has.
  • It's helpful to have division of labor in a relationship, so each person can relax in the knowledge they don't have to be good at everything. If you gain the financial resources to just pay for outside help, your partner's skills may seem less valuable. Likewise, as your children age, help with childcare may not be such a big plus of being in a relationship.

The mental and behavioral shifts I've mentioned above don't tend to be intentional or malicious, and many times people aren't even aware of them until they're pointed out.

Try: Give your partner opportunities to emotionally support you. Turn to your partner instead of coping on your own or talking about problems to friends or other family. If you're out of the habit of leaning on your partner, this might not feel like it comes naturally to you or your loved one. If you think your partner intends to be helpful, keep trying even if the conversations are clunky.

2. Your hobbies don't include or interest your partner.

It's natural that, as we go through life, we pick up new hobbies and interests. Sometimes people will develop a very strong or obsessional interest that their partner doesn't share (e.g., the person becomes obsessed with working out). While it can be a good thing for partners to have their own interests, it can become a problem if there starts to be very little overlap in how the members of the couple want to spend their spare time or money.

Try: Find some new challenges you can attempt together. This should ideally be activities where both of you are beginners.

3. You make incorrect assumptions about what your partner thinks and feels.

My spouse recently mentioned how much it bothers her that I don't say hello when she's video-chatting with her parents, who live in New Zealand. My view of this is that I don't want to intrude — her parents have mostly called to talk to her and our 2 year old, not me. Why would they want me to butt in? In fact, I don't like it when she butts in on my video calls to my family! This is a very typical example of what happens in long-term relationships. The partners are so comfortable with each other that they assume they know what the other person thinks and what's important to them, without actually ever checking it out. Likewise, when someone is annoyed with their partner or feeling hurt, they assume their partner must know they're being irritating or hurtful and are doing it anyway.

Try: If there's something your partner does that you find yourself annoyed with and ruminating about, check out their view of the situation.

4. You blame your partner for ways you're holding yourself back.

Humans are fantastic at finding ways to hold themselves back. We think "I can't... I shouldn't..." etc. In long-term relationships, people can end up blaming their partner for why they're not doing whatever it is they want to do. For instance, you might think:

  • "I'd like to be tidier, but my partner is such a slob."
  • "I'd like to aggressively invest for retirement, but I can't unless my partner is onboard."
  • "I'd like to go to India, but my partner isn't interested in exotic travel."
  • "I'd like to do more socializing, but my partner just wants to stay home."

The things we blame our partners for are often just excuses. There might be an element of truth, but typically your partner isn't literally stopping you from moving ahead. In many cases, it's more accurate to say they're just not as actively supportive of your wants as you'd ideally like.

Try: Identify one area in which you're unfairly blaming your partner for holding you back.

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