Relationships are like gardens. You have to tend to them or destructive weeds will grow. Of course, everyone is familiar with the by factors that will kill a marriage — infidelity, abusive behavior and financial irresponsibility — but many of the things that end up destroying a couple are so subtle that they creep up unnoticed by both parties until the damage has been done.
However, paying attention to the behaviors and circumstances that slowly strangle relationships can help you address and repair problems before they fester and become too overwhelming. With that in mind, here are five things you need to look for in order to keep the bond between you and your significant other strong, healthy and flourishing.
1. Mutuality and reciprocity
When people first fall in love, they tend to adore their partners. Psychologists refer to this phenomena as a form of idealization where you project idealized traits onto the object of your affections.
Reality — and your real-life partner — however, can never live up to your fairy tale expectations. When that happens, disillusion can set in. For example, does the renaissance man of your dreams pick his nose, leave the toilet seat up and forget to clean up after himself?
When disappointment sets in and the person you put on a pedestal falls several notches, then it’s very likely that the respect you held them in will diminish. Almost inevitably, you’ll send signals that you hold your partner in much lower esteem.
For instance, if the tone of your voice conveys disgust, then your significant other will pick up on it and feel wounded. This can put you in a vicious cycle because this pattern is almost certainly working both ways. If you find yourself at this point, it’s important to be aware of negative forms of projection, which occur when you disown personal traits you find uncomfortable about yourself by projecting them onto your partner.
Navigating this stage involves recognizing that each of you is a flawed and down-to earth person in need of love and support. Feeling superior — or being made to feel inferior — is symptomatic of a toxic dynamic. Recognizing and discussing this phase can be critical to re-establishing mutual respect.
2. Going through the motions
Falling head over heels in love can feel wonderful, but sooner or later work routines, family responsibilities and the daily grind take their toll. It’s all too easy to get worn down to the point where you simply end up going through the motions. Being stuck in a rut, however, is certain to feel stifling and even oppressive.
Healthy relationships, no doubt, require a little novelty. After all, that’s part of what makes them exciting and enlivening. Relationship expert Jo Hemmings believes a little “planned spontaneity” it’s just what couples need to get themselves out of a rut. As she puts it, “It just injects some life and happiness back into a relationship and connecting in the way you did when you first met. Life can sometimes overwhelm us and we don’t make the same sort of effort any more than we did in the very early days.”
3. Communication breakdown
Good communication is key to any relationship. Unfortunately, too many partners find that they talk past each other. According to psychologist John Gottman, there are four barriers that inhibit the kind of healthy dialogue that couples need. He describes these factors with a colorful expression, calling them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” because they are highly reliable indicators of dire marital strife:
Extremely personal criticism
It’s certainly healthy to vent frustrations, but criticism can become toxic when it takes the form of personal attacks on a partner’s character. For example, there’s a world of difference between, “I’m really disappointed you forgot to pick up X at the supermarket” and “You are an extremely selfish and thoughtless person because you forgot to pick up X at the supermarket.” Over time, criticisms that zero in on a partner’s supposed defects can be very counterproductive and even fatal to a relationship.
Partners often get defensive when they want to avoid conflict. However, this strategy usually postpones problems until they become even larger ones.
Like defensiveness, this is a form of emotional withdrawal. Once again, conflict is postponed, but this usually means that difficulties and differences fester until they become even harder to resolve.
According to Gottman, this attitude is the biggest threat to a relationship. As he puts it, “[Contempt] is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her.”
4. Parallel lives
Some people call it roommate syndrome. It refers to couples that live together, but without the spark and intimacy that brought them together in the first place. Psychologists often refer to this as a silent relationship killer because neither partner seems to notice how far they have drifted apart (until it’s too late). If you and your partner appear to be inhabiting parallel universes, then planning together time involving novel activities can be so critical to repairing your bonds.
5. Lack of daily affection
According to therapist Debra Campbell, daily displays of mutual affection are essential for couples. As she explains, “You don’t have to be having sex every day, but some kind of near-daily sexual or erotic acknowledgment is important in relationships. It might be the slightest touch; it’s not always about orgasms and getting hot and sweaty.” Conversely, the lack of regular affection sends a message that your partner is not important.
Don’t ignore the warning signs
It can be all too easy to ignore the silent killers that tend to stalk relationships. Most people tend to avoid conflict and the difficult discussions, yet they are often necessary to deepen and renew the love between the two of you. Paying attention to these risk factors can help ensure that they don’t sabotage your connection.
— Scott O’Reilly