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7 False Beliefs That Damage Relationships

Some of what you think you know about relationships may actually be wrong.

Key points

  • People are often confident about their relationship knowledge, but research gives us much better information than our own experience.
  • Common myths may harm relationships. For example, opposites may attract but only at first, and distance can actually strengthen relationships.
  • Other common myths include that being sad is bad for relationships and that mismatched sex drives are a relationship killer.
Dragon Images/Shutterstock
Source: Dragon Images/Shutterstock

At this point in your life, you’ve likely accumulated your fair share of relationship experience. You’ve spent some time in the dating trenches, tolerated awkward pick-up attempts, navigated things getting serious, and weathered your fair share of heartbreak. First-hand experience is tricky because it makes you feel knowledgeable, almost like love is common sense. Yet, relationships are complicated and routinely fail. When it comes to love, simplicity is an illusion.

But that’s hard to see in your own love life. You’re so familiar with your relationship track record (as well as your friends’) that it’s easy to feel confident about your relationship insights. Unfortunately, certainty about a conclusion isn’t a great indicator of its accuracy. The fact is, confidence comes a lot easier when you have less information. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.[1] Part of the problem is that we don’t fully realize the limitations of our own experiences.

Your relationship past, no matter how vast, pales in comparison to the number of relationships scientists can study. It is an important difference because when you have more information, you get a better idea of what’s most likely to happen. When you have limited information, what‘s “true” is much more tenuous. Better data produces better conclusions.

If you want your relationship to do better, you need better information. But when you think about it, where did you learn about relationships? Is that information accurate? You could be working from well-established facts or well-intentioned fiction and never know the difference. To help set the record straight, here are seven myths that show being knowledgeable about relationships isn’t as easy as you’d think.

1. Do Opposites Attract?

Opposites may attract at first, but eventually, they attack. Why? Those opposite traits that are initially new and interesting become difficult to tolerate. Take, for example, the “Precarious Couple Effect,” which pairs a timid inhibited male with an assertive and critical female.[2] True opposites. Early on, the contrast is appealing because their communication styles mesh. But as the relationship matures, this contradictory pairing becomes unsustainable and results in poorer relationship quality.[3]

2. Does Distance Destroy Relationships?

Because we enjoy being physically close to our partners, we assume distance damages relationship quality. However, physical distance can make couples closer because partners must communicate more and make their time together count by doing fun and interesting things.[4] In fact, nearly one thousand people in long-distance relationships from a national sample reported more love, fun, better conversations, more dedication, less hostility, feeling less trapped and less likely to break up than couples who regularly spent time together.[5] A little space can strengthen the relationship.

3. Are Partners’ Mismatched Sex Drives a Relationship Killer?

Pairing a perpetually frisky partner with a prudish counterpart seems like a recipe for disaster. However, research from 2020 finds that mismatched sexual desire isn’t as problematic as you might expect.[6] If discrepancies didn’t matter, what did? Couples’ overall desire. Couples who had more sexual desire between them also had higher sexual and relationship satisfaction, even if partners weren’t on the same page all the time.

4. Is Feeling Sad Bad for My Relationship?

Not always. Some negativity may not only be innocuous but helpful, according to research. First, there are a few different ways to feel bad in your relationship. You can experience negative emotions that are hard (e.g., anger), soft (e.g., hurt or sad), or fear-based (e.g., anxiety or threatened).[7] Although we don’t like the idea of feeling sad or hurt, those soft emotions are associated with better relationships that have less conflict and more satisfaction. That said, fear-based and hard negative emotions are predictably problematic. But this research shows that some bad feelings aren’t red flags that always signal a failing relationship and in some cases may actually help.

5. Will Being More Positive Save My Relationship?

When your relationship has problems, as all relationships do, it’s easy to put your faith in the power of positive thinking. Seems logical, but that approach can backfire.[8] Positivity helps when a relationship has small occasional problems. But those relationships with only minor issues don’t need saving. When couples had bigger or more frequent problems, having positive expectations and making positive explanations was associated with less satisfaction. Looking too favorably on a relationship with real problems discourages partners from dealing with the underlying issues. If you don’t acknowledge what’s wrong, it’s impossible to get things right.

6. Shouldn’t My Partner Always Have My Back?

When our partner feels bad, it’s natural to want to help them feel better. However, strategies aimed to make your partner feel good in the moment can have negative long-term implications.[9] Instead of being super nice, sometimes what your partner really needs is honesty (#realtalk). They need you to be that person who tells the truth, without sugarcoating it. Think about it. You don't want your partner hyping you up — “That outfit looks amazing”; “You’re perfect just the way you are” — only to wonder why you’re getting odd stares as you go out in the world rocking your socks in crocs. Your partner has a unique perspective on your weaknesses. When they let you know about them, it gives you a chance to improve.

7. Should I Forgive My Partner?

When the person we love messes up, forgiveness seems like the best response. But it can backfire. Forgiving a partner who makes no attempt to atone or apologize is counterproductive because it erodes the forgiver’s self-respect and makes them less clear and certain about who they are as a person.[10] Not only that, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily put our partner on their best behavior. A study of newlyweds found that after being forgiven, partners started more arguments, nagged more, were more critical and moody.[11] Being overly forgiving doesn’t necessarily solve problems but actually may make things worse.

Just think: If you’ve been wrong about any of these, what else have you been wrong about? Though the errors may seem small, they accumulate.

“A failure is a collection of small mistakes that haven’t been identified or corrected along the way.” — Strauss Zelnick

No one wants their relationship to fail, but breakdowns don’t happen all at once. There’s no single moment that undoes everything. Rather, it’s a collection of small cracks, unfounded assumptions, poor decisions, and misguided beliefs that erode what had been a strong foundation. You need to see those for what they are before these blind spots steal your relationship’s future.

Facebook image: Dragon Images/Shutterstock


[1] Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121–1134.

[2] Swann, W. B., Sellers, J. G., & McClarty, K. L. (2006). Tempting today, troubling tomorrow: The roots of the Precarious Couple Effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(1), 93–103.

[3] Swann, W. B., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The precarious couple effect: verbally inhibited men + critical, disinhibited women = bad chemistry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1095–1106.

[4] Jiang, L.C., & Hancock, J. T. (2013). Absence makes the communication grow fonder: geographic separation, interpersonal media, and intimacy in dating relationships. Journal of Communication, 63, 556–577.

[5] Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long‐distance relationships. Family Process, 52(2), 257-270.

[6] Kim, J. J., Muise, A., Barranti, M., Mark, K. P., Rosen, N. O., Harasymchuk, C., & Impett, E. (2020). Are couples more satisfied when they match in sexual desire?: New insights from response surface analyses. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

[7] Sanford, K., & Rowatt, W. C. (2004). When is negative emotion positive for relationships? An investigation of married couples and roommates. Personal Relationships, 11(3), 329–354.

[8] McNulty, J. K. (2010). When positive processes hurt relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(3), 167–171.

[9] Lemay, E. P., Ryan, J. E., Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M. J. (2020). Validation of negativity: Drawbacks of interpersonal responsiveness during conflicts with outsiders. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(1), 104–135.

[10] Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., McNulty, J. K., & Kumashiro, M. (2010). The doormat effect: When forgiving erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), 734–749.

[11] McNulty, J. K. (2010). Forgiveness increases the likelihood of subsequent partner transgressions in marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 787–790.

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