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10 Ways We Hurt Our Romantic Relationships

10 Ways We Hurt Our Romantic Relationships
It’s not easy to have a great relationship with your boy/girlfriend, partner, or spouse. But it’s not impossible, either — it takes some work, of course, but it’s good work, work that’s a joy when everything comes together.

A lot of times, though, the work isn’t enough. We get in our own way with ideas and attitudes about relationships that are not only wrong, but often work to undermine our relationships no matter how hard we work at it.

I’ve watched a lot of breakups (some of them my own). I’ve seen dramatic flare-ups and drawn-out slow fades, and I’ve tried to pay attention to what seems to be going on. Here are a few of the things I’ve seen that cause people to destroy their own relationships.

1. You’re playing to win

One of the deadliest killers of relationships is the competitive urge. I don’t mean competition in the sense that you can’t stand to lose at tennis, I mean the attitude that the relationship itself is a kind of game that you’re tying to win. People in competitive relationships are always looking for an advantage, the upper hand, some edge they can hold over their partner’s head. If you feel that there are things you can’t tell your partner because she or he will use it against you, you’re in a competitive relationship — but not for long.

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2. You don’t trust

There are two aspects of trust that are important in relationships. One is trusting your partner enough to know that s/he won’t cheat on you or otherwise hurt you — and to know that he or she trusts you that way, too. The other is trusting them enough to know they won’t leave you or stop loving you no matter what you do or say. The second that level of trust is gone, whether because one of you takes advantage of that trust and does something horrible or because one of you thinks the other has, the relationship is over — even if it takes 10 more years for you to break up.

3. You don’t talk

Too many people hold their tongues about things that bother or upset them in their relationship, either because they don’t want to hurt their partner, or because they’re trying to win. (See #1 above; example: “If you don’t know why I’m mad, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”) While this might make things easier in the short term, in the long run it gradually erodes the foundation of the relationship away. Little issues grow into bigger and bigger problems — problems that don’t get fixed because your partner is blissfully unaware, or worse, is totally aware of them but thinks they don’t really bother you. Ultimately, keeping quiet reflects a lack of trust — and, as I said that’s the death of a relationship.

4. You don’t listen

Listening — really listening — is hard. It’s normal to want to defend ourselves when we hear something that seems like criticism, so instead of really hearing someone out, we interrupt to explain or excuse ourselves, or we turn inward to prepare our defense. But your partner deserves your active listening. S/he even deserves you to hear the between-the-lines content of daily chit-chat, to suss out his/her dreams and desires when even s/he doesn’t even know exactly what they are. If you can’t listen that way, at least to the person you love, there’s a problem.

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5. You spend like a single person

This was a hard lesson for me to learn — until it broke up a 7-year relationship. When you’re single, you can buy whatever you want, whenever you want, with little regard for the future. It’s not necessarily wise, but you’re the only one who has to pay the consequences. When you are with someone in a long-term relationship, that is no longer a possibility. Your partner — and your children, if there are or will be any — will have to bear the brunt of your spending, so you’d better get in the habit of taking care of household necessities first and then, if there’s anything left over, of discussing with your partner the best way to use it.

This is an increasing problem these days, because more and more people are opting to keep their finances separate, even when they’re married. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of arrangement in and of itself, but it demands more communication and involvement between the partners, not less. If you’re spending money as if it was your money and nobody else has a right to tell you what to do with it, your relationship is doomed.

6. You’re afraid of breaking up

Nobody in a truly happy partnership is afraid of breaking up. If you are, that’s a big warning sign that something’s wrong. But often, what’s wrong is the fear itself. Not only does it betray a lack of trust, but it shows a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem — you’re afraid that there’s no good reason for someone to want to be with you, and that sooner or later your partner will “wise up” and take off. So you pour more energy into keeping up the appearance of a happy relationships than you do into building yourself up as a person. Quite frankly, this isn’t going to be very satisfying for you, and it also isn’t going to be very satisfying for your partner.

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7. You’re dependent

There’s a thin line between companionship and support and dependency. If you depend on your partner — that is, if you absolutely cannot live without her or him — you’ve crossed that line. The pressure is now on your partner to fill whatever’s missing in you — a pressure s/he will learn to resent. If you expect your partner to bring everything while you bring nothing to your relationship — and I’m talking finances as well as emotional support, here — you’re in trouble. (Note: I’m not saying that you need to contribute equally to household finances — what I’m saying is that if you’re not contributing to the household budget, and you’re not contributing anywhere else, things are out of whack and that’s never good.)

8. You expect happiness

A sign of a bad relationship is that one or both partners expect either to make the other happy or for their partner to make them happy. This is not only an unrealistic expectation to lay on yourself or on them — nobody can “make” you happy, except you — but it’s an unrealistic expectation to lay on your relationship. Relationships aren’t only about being happy, and there’s lots of times when you won’t and even shouldn’t be. Being able to rely on someone even when you’re upset, miserable, depressed, or grieving is a lot more important than being happy all the time. If you expect your partner to make you happy — or worse, you’re frustrated because you aren’t able to make your partner happy — your relationship isn’t going to fare well when it hits a rough spot.

9. You never fight

A good argument is essential, every now and then. In part, arguing helps bring out the little stuff before it becomes major, but also, fighting expresses anger which is a perfectly normal part of a human’s emotional make-up. Your relationship has to be strong enough to hold all of who you are, not just the sunny stuff.

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One reason couples don’t fight is that they fear conflict — which reflects a lack of trust and a foundation of fear. That’s bad. Another reason couples avoid arguments is that they’ve learned that anger is unreasonable and unproductive. They’ve learned that arguing represents a breakdown rather than a natural part of a relationship’s development. While an argument isn’t pleasant, it can help both partners to articulate issues they may not have even known they had — and help keep them from simmering until you cross a line you can’t come back from.

10. You expect it to be easy/you expect it to be hard

There are two deeply problematic attitudes about relationships I hear often. One is that a relationship should be easy, that if you really love each other and are meant to be together, it will work itself out. The other is that anything worth having is going to be hard — and that therefore if it’s hard, it must be worth having.

The outcome of both views is that you don’t work at your relationship. You don’t work because it’s supposed to be easy and therefore not need any work, or you don’t work because it’s supposed to be hard and it wouldn’t be hard if you worked at it. In both cases, you quickly get burnt out — either because the problems you’re ignoring really don’t go away just because you think they should. or because the problems you’re cultivating are a constant drag on your energy. A relationship that’s too much work might be suffering from one of the attitudes above, but a relationship that doesn’t seem to need any work isn’t any better.

Your choices

There isn’t any one answer to any of the problems above. There are choices though: you can either seek out an answer, something that addresses why you are hurting your relationship, or you can resign yourself to the failure of your relationship (and maybe the next one, and the next one, and…). Failure doesn’t always mean you break up — many people aren’t that lucky. But people can live quite unhappily in failed relationships for years and even decades because they’re afraid they won’t find anything better, or worse, they’re afraid they deserve it. Don’t you be one of them — if you suffer from any of these problems, figure out how to fix it, whether that means therapy, a solo mountain retreat, or just talking to your partner and committing yourselves to change.

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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