The Big Relationship Mistake You’re Making Right Now

March 9, 2018

Are you dooming your relationship by dreaming of greener pastures? Perhaps it’s time to start watering your own grass…

I’ve read a lot of relationship self-help books in my time.

I’ve talked to numerous couples therapists, written dozens of articles on how to  have a successful relationship, and researched different theories about what makes a relationship work. And still, the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard comes from the Justin Bieber song, As Long As You Love Me, when Big Sean raps the following wisdom:

The grass ain’t always greener on the other side,
It’s green where you water it
So I know we got issues baby true true true
But I’d rather work on this with you
Than go ahead and start with someone new.

And so, stumbling on this YouTube video of Duke University psychology professor Dan Ariely talking about dating and relationships, my ears perked up when I realized he was saying essentially this same thing – that we doom our relationships by imagining that other yards are greener, and failing to water our own grass.

Let’s face it: we do lots of things to screw up our relationships. We get scared and close ourselves off, refusing to be vulnerable with our partners. We have the same toxic fights over and over, rather than going to counseling and learning to fight fair. We’re blinded by chemistry and pick people who aren’t good for us. But the biggest thing we do – and probably the saddest – is that we never give our relationships a fighting chance, because we don’t invest in them.

One foot in, one foot out

Ariely says the big mistake most people make in relationships is thinking there’s something better out there for them, and therefore, failing to fully invest in the relationship with they’re actually in. It’s FOMO (fear of missing out) combined with the fact that once you’ve been with someone for a while, the bloom inevitably comes off the rose. The partner who seemed so wonderful in the beginning – the perfect person for you – turns out to have not only a plethora of annoying little habits, but quite likely, some major personality flaws as well.

That’s because all of us (All. Of. Us.) are basically deeply flawed and terrible, and therefore, we’re all the wrong people for each other. That’s just life. In a successful relationship, we learn to love each other anyway, even with all our awfulness.

But when your phone is right there in your hand and your imperfect and annoying partner is drooling and snoring next to you, it’s tempting to log into Tinder, Ok Cupid, Bumble, or a dozen other apps that offer up shiny new partners, all hiding their flaws and putting their best foot forward.

According to Ariely, it’s feet that are the problem. Specifically, our reluctance to jump into a relationship with both of them. “When we are in a relationship, but continuously with one foot out, it’s not a good recipe for investing in a relationship,” says Ariely.

The short-term lease

Ariely offers up the scenario of renting an apartment with a one-day-at-a-time lease. Every day, both you and the landlord have the option of ending the lease, or extending it for one more day. So you’d wake up every morning not knowing if your landlord was going to kick you out that day, and also having the option yourself of deciding to leave.

Every day, you’d ask yourself, will I still be in this apartment tomorrow, or am I going to move? You’d never settle in and make it homey. You wouldn’t spackle the cracks in the walls and paint them a nicer color, or hang pictures, or even unpack all the way. You might have some friends over for pizza and have a good time, but you’d be stupid to invest in the apartment in any meaningful way, to make it inhabitable and comfortable for the long term.

And this is how so many of us conduct our relationships. We’re ready to jump ship at any moment, always wondering, should I stick with this, or grab my phone and start swiping again? We wonder if there’s a better option out there; we’re reluctant to settle down and make the effort in this relationship. “The moment you think in the short-term horizon,” says Ariely, “the odds that you will invest in the relationship are much, much lower.” And investing is what makes it good. “[A relationship is] not a zero-sum game,” explains Ariely. “It gets better when you invest in it.”

All the other fish in the sea

Of course, with online dating, there’s no question that there are other options out there, and lots of them. One popular app is actually called “Plenty of Fish.” (I’m waiting for one called “Next Bus,” to capitalize on my mother’s favorite saying: men are like buses; another one comes along every 15 minutes.)

But are these other people really any better than the person you’re with? Sure, it’s easy to find a date these days. But finding someone you really click with, someone you fall head-over-heels for, is another story. When I was online dating, I went out with lots of guys who were perfectly fine: smart, funny, handsome, kind, and polite. They paid for dinner, and were even decent in bed. But there was no spark. Nothing special. I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me; if I’d gone emotionally numb, or aged out of the ability to fall crazy in love like I had in my younger years.

Then I met someone who literally made my heart beat faster, who made me smile so much my cheeks hurt, who seemed to have been made especially for me and sent directly into my path by a higher power. It was rare and special: we felt like the luckiest people on this whole big planet. Or at least, I did. I was ready to sign a lifetime lease, unpack, decorate, and settle in. I didn’t realize he was operating under a one-day-at-a-time lease. Relationships, no matter how magical and meant-to-be, take work. And, as Ariely says, “If you don’t think you’re there for a long time, the likelihood of investment is just not that high.”

These days, I’m not too hopeful that I’ll meet someone who’s interested in a long-term lease; no one seems interested in investing in a relationship anymore. But, as my wisest and kindest friend said to me recently, you don’t actually have to have hope in order for something good to happen.

In the meantime, I’ll keep listening to Justin Bieber and Big Sean. Those two know the score. (And hey, if Justin and Selena got back together, who knows what could happen for the rest of us?) Hope springs eternal.

Images via shutterstock.com and giphy.com.

Comment: Are you fully committed to your relationship, or are you behaving as if you’re on a one-day-at-a-time lease?

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