Lessons learned the hard way.
There’s no shortage of relationship advice out there; the Internet is overflowing with articles (a number of them courtesy of yours truly), bookstores and libraries are bursting with relationship self-help books, and TV talk shows are full of experts telling people how to have successful relationships.
Some of the advice out there is good, and some is bad, but much of it is remarkably similar. I bet most people could easily rattle off the top ten things not to do in their relationships: don’t be too clingy, don’t lose your identity, don’t let your sex life fade away, don’t settle for less than you deserve, don’t do all the work, but don’t expect it to be easy – and on and on and on.
I’m not a therapist, but as someone who’s made a mess of many a romantic relationship in my life, I feel uniquely qualified to talk about some of the less-mentioned ways you can screw up a perfectly good relationship. I’ve been guilty of some of these, and some of them have been done to me. But I can personally attest that all of the following are great ways to torpedo a promising love affair…
1. Get caught up in short-term thinking
It’s so easy to get carried away when you’re upset about something – some way in which your partner has hurt your feelings, or irritated you, or just been inconsiderate – and lash out over it. And there are circumstances that might make life suck at the moment, which you might feel like are going to last forever, but which are actually finite. Don’t lose sight of what you’re really working towards. Is this the person you really want to be your forever person? Then take a breath, and take the long view. Don’t treat the person you love above all others in a way you could end up regretting forever.
2. Air your complaints on social media
When it comes to relationships, social media is poison. No one wants to be the subject of an angry, sarcastic, or even teasing Facebook status update – and none of your friends want to read it, either, unless it’s in the same way they might slow down to watch a horrific car crash. Keep your relationship firmly grounded in real life, and off the Internet.
If you’re tempted to look through your partner’s phone, read his email, or go through his stuff when he’s out of the house, check in with yourself about why. Chances are, you don’t trust him – and you might have every reason not to! But beware: snooping is almost always its own punishment. If you do it, you’re almost certain to see something that upsets you, and then what are you going to do? If you confront him, you’re going to have to confess how you found out about whatever it is you saw. And if you don’t, it’s going to eat away at you forever. A better option is to talk to your partner about whatever it is that makes you uneasy enough to want to snoop in the first place. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but it’s far better than the alternative.
4. Look for things to be mad about
Relationship guru John Gottman, PhD, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says that for every negative interaction you have in your relationship, you need five positive interactions to balance it out. So instead of fixating on the things that annoy you about your partner, shift your focus to the things you love about them, and the things they’re doing right.
5. Point out your partner’s shortcomings
No matter how confident anyone appears, most of us are painfully aware of our failings. We’re self-conscious about the weight we’ve gained, we feel bad about not being more successful in our careers, we know we have a bad temper, or that we have a bad habit of bending the truth in order to avoid conflict. Being called on these things, and especially by the person we count on to love and adore us, feels terrible. So next time you’re tempted to rub your partner’s face in his faults, just stop. Remind yourself that he’s no doubt already aware of whatever it is, and feels bad about it. Have some compassion, and try just being kind.
6. Don’t include them in certain parts of your life
Maybe you’re afraid your partner won’t approve of your friends, or vice versa. Or you prefer to keep your crazy family far away from your partner, for fear he’ll get scared off. There are plenty of reasons that people might keep their partner away from certain parts of their lives. But if someone is truly your partner, that means it should be the two of you, together, a team that sticks together in the face of disapproving friends and crazy family members. If you keep them at arm’s length, you’re missing out on the joy of having a true partnership – not to mention, stoking resentment and hurt in your partner, who is most likely painfully aware of being kept on the outside of your life.
7. Be mean
Dr Gottman says being mean is the absolute worst thing you can do in a relationship. It’s worse than cheating, even. Nothing kills warm feelings quicker than negativity and contempt; if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of it, you know the feeling. If you’re being mean to your partner, it’s probably because you have simmering resentments, unmet needs, and hurt feelings fueling that unkindness. This is what couple’s therapy was made for; get yourself a good counselor before it’s too late.
8. Don’t take care of yourself
If you don’t feel good about yourself, how can you feel good about your partner? You’ll inevitably spread those bad feelings to your loved one. The toxic train of thought goes something like this: why would your partner love someone like you, who is (an addict, overweight, anxious, depressed, a loser – take your pick)? There must be something wrong with them, to be with you. If you’re struggling, you owe it to your relationship to take good care of yourself. Get therapy, kick your addictions, start exercising, get your mental illness under control with medication if necessary. Do it for yourself, because you deserve it – and your relationship will improve, too.
9. Keep your needs to yourself and just hope your partner magically comes through
I get it – having a conversation about what you need from your relationship, and aren’t getting, can be scary. After all, if your partner isn’t willing to meet those needs, where does that leave you? Maybe you really want to get married, and he isn’t even sure he ever wants to live with anyone. Once you have that conversation, you’ll have to make a choice: break up and find someone who can meet your needs, or hang on and try to not want what you want anymore? Or stick around and hope he’ll change his mind? But not having the conversation is only going to make you feel worse in the end. As Oprah once said (I think), those who don’t ask, don’t get. So be brave and speak up for what you need, or be prepared to go without it forever.
Images via weheartit.com, tvland.com, ruinedchildhood.com, imgur.com, giphy.com, tumblr.com, mtv.com, twitter.com.
Comment: What’s the worst thing you ever did to ruin a relationship?
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Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.