Recently, I interviewed a number of couples about what qualities make for a happy, enduring and successful marriage. Not surprisingly, trust and respect were two factors that consistently ranked high.
Of course, good communication, a sense of humor and empathy also got mentioned a lot too. When it comes to healthy relationships, some traits really are key. If partners get these matters right, then their prospects of building a durable bond are strong. Conversely, there are consistent reasons that couples break up. With that in mind, what are five typical relationship mistakes and how can you avoid and repair them?
1. Not establishing trust and respect
According to psychologist Melanie Greenberg, “Trust is the soil in which healthy relationships are grounded and the foundation for their growth.” Without honesty, you cannot feel safe and secure in a relationship, which is essential for both personal and interpersonal flourishing.
Lack of honesty is something that needs to be addressed because sooner or later dissembling and deception will undermine the foundations of almost any relationship. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that lies are like termites in that they erode the connective tissue between couples.
Building trust is a process. It requires creating a safe emotional space for you and your partner. It means listening to their concerns with an open mind and airing differences in a respectful way. Here are some principles that experts recommend when it comes to building emotional trust.
- Listen without interrupting your partner.
- Try to empathize with your partner instead of attacking them (even when you feel hurt or angry).
- Express your needs and expectations but in a non-accusatory way.
- Go out of your way to praise your partner.
- Apply the 5-to-1 rule. Say at least five positive things for every one negative comment or observation you make.
- Fight fair. Don’t call your spouse names or disparage their motives and character.
- Don’t avoid conflict. Agree to disagree in a respectful manner, but always aim to go to bed on a positive note.
2. Poor communication
Breakdowns in communication are one of the top predictors of a failing relationship. Of course, men and women have different ways of approaching and using language, which can create problems in itself.
To begin with, men like to fix problems whereas women often just want a shoulder to cry on. As a result, when it comes to communication, men can typically feel besieged while women think that their partner is unsympathetic.
Understanding the unique way each gender uses language can help alleviate the feeling that your partner doesn’t get you. In many ways, however, being a better communicator comes down to respect. That means:
- Be a better listener for your partner.
- Practice “no-fault” negotiations. Focus on solutions going forward instead of harping on past mistakes.
- Acknowledge your partner’s feelings. Make a real effort to understand where they are coming from instead of rushing to dismiss their point of view.
- Offer empathy, particularly when your partner reveals information that is painful or embarrassing.
Ideally, couples need to transition from a “me” standpoint to an outlook grounded in “we.” However, our innate tendency towards egoism is not something that’s easy to transcend. Indeed, most people instinctively measure “fairness” from a self-centered point-of-view. For example, they tend to overestimate their own contributions and sacrifices while discounting the efforts their partners make.
Both real and perceived imbalances (when it comes to what each partner contributes to the relationship) can tip things in the wrong direction. This certainly includes financial matters, household chores and parental duties. But it also extends to psychological factors, too, such as validation and emotional support.
When imbalances occur, then resentment is very likely to creep in. Frequently, partners needle each other to get what they want rather than ask one another directly. This passive aggressive behavior usually leads to a vicious cycle where one person feels compelled to nag while the other feels berated.
One of the best ways to avoid an unproductive spat over who is contributing more to a relationship is to acknowledge your own shortcomings while praising your partner for something good they do. After all, as soon as recriminations fly, defense mechanisms kick in and conversations tend to devolve into blame games where couples trade accusations, insults or excuses instead of finding common ground and solutions.
A very wise professor of mine — who was also a marriage therapist — once explained that everyone longs to bask in the glow of their beloved’s adoring eyes. To a very large extent, our self-worth and self-esteem depend on how admired, respected and valued our partners make us feel. But we must reciprocate those feelings.
Lack of validation is a huge stumbling block for couples. When one partner doesn’t believe they are getting the acknowledgment they deserve, feelings of rage and resentment invariably follow. Recognizing the dynamic that is at work and responding mindfully (instead of just reacting defensively) can be key to addressing and correcting imbalances in a relationship.
4. Anger management
Happiness is a sign of a healthy marriage. However, feelings of frustration, anger and even rage are bound to surface in any long-term relationship. Persistent negative emotions are not necessarily a symptom that things are over, but they are an indication that there is a conflict that needs to be resolved.
If your partner is consistently doing things that piss you off, then it’s important to acknowledge your emotions and inform your partner (constructively) about how their behavior is making you feel. However, there are certain things you shouldn’t do. These include sweeping matters under the rug, reacting with contempt or sarcasm, or simply boiling over.
Instead, couple’s therapist Ellyn Bader counsels that it’s better to adopt a “curious, not furious” attitude towards your partner. If a given behavior or trait is repeatedly making you mad, then try to understand why your partner acts that way and what steps the two of you might take to reduce the circumstances that push your buttons.
Many people mistakenly view conflict as symptomatic of a failing relationship. In fact, it is an opportunity to deepen your connection, but that involves a serious effort to understand your significant other. That means taking a deep breath so that you can respond with empathy rather than anger the next time your partner really ticks you off.
5. Not being faithful
Infidelity puts a major strain on any relationships. Feelings of betrayal, jealousy and insecurity are hard to endure for very long. No wonder more than 40 percent of couples where one spouse was unfaithful eventually break up.
If your spouse is cheating, then regaining and rebuilding trust will likely be a slow and laborious process. Psychologist Susan Heitler believes that betrayers need to acknowledge their wrongdoing, demonstrate empathy for the hurt they have caused and provide complete transparency going forward.
According to Heitler, wallowing in self-grief or trying to punish your spouse is usually counterproductive. Instead, you need to get to the stage where you can articulate the hurt you feel, but in a way that elicits a real transformation in your partner. Infidelity is deeply wounding and invariably requires a long healing process. Often, outside intervention — in the form of marriage counseling — is necessary.
Once trust is broken it is hard to restore, but it can be rebuilt. According to experts, transparency, accountability and a prolonged track record of accepting responsibility by demonstrating fidelity can heal the wounds caused by unfaithfulness.
Even the strongest relationships will get tested
Understanding how and why many relationships fail can provide insight that helps you and your partner navigate the challenges nearly every couple faces. Keep trust and respect foremost in mind and both of you will be aiming in the right direction.
— Scott O’Reilly