Falling in love can be easy. The sudden flush of excitement. Frequent smiles and laughs. Joyfully envisioning the future together. On the other hand, figuring out how to stay close, navigate conflict, and maintain effective communication despite personality differences, fluctuating emotions, and the inevitable hurts and misunderstandings that occur in relationships can be much more difficult. While love might determine whether couples get together, there are some mistakes couples make that can tear them apart.
As a psychologist that offers couples therapy and communication workshops in Colorado Springs and virtually, I’ve observed five mistakes couples make that can push them off their path to long-term happiness.
Ignoring the Friendship
Friendship is a foundational part of most successful long-term relationships.
In long-term romantic relationships, maintaining the friendship can be difficult. The time and energy needed to maintain a friendship can become lost in a sea of other roles and demands. As the relationship progresses, we often become roommates, financial partners, parenting partners, business partners and life partners. These other roles can take priority or create conflict which can pull time and energy away from friendship. It can become too easy to forget about, ignore, or turn away from the friendship with our significant other. Some people might not even think about having to “work on” (I prefer the word nurture) the friendship in the context of a long-term romantic relationship.
However, the loss of friendship can have significant impacts on a romantic partnership. Think about it, you treat your friends differently than you treat people you don’t like. You give friends attention and positive energy. We might even treat our friends better than we treat ourselves. Most of us have friendships that have drifted apart for no other reason than we did not give appropriate attention to the friendship. Subsequently, we lose touch with who that person has become and who they are now. The friendship becomes diminished or cut off.
If we ignore the friendship with our partner, we simply do not give sufficient energy or attention to staying connected as friends. Perhaps we stop looking for ways to spend time or laugh together. Perhaps we stop chatting or communicating throughout the day. Ignoring the friendship might mean we begin to do more things apart or desire to spend less time with the other person. It might mean we spend more time trying to control the other person’s schedule than being interested in what they are doing. It also means we tend to stop giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. A bias toward interpreting the other person’s actions and words in a negative light can develop (see mistake #4 below).
Luckily, there are approaches and strategies that can help couples stay connected as friends. There are exercises you can practice with the aim of getting to know your partner as a friend again. Yes, this requires intention, time, and perhaps some awkward moments; however, the payoff in enriching the relationship and avoiding separation or divorce can be well worth the effort.
Turning away from comfort
One of the most wonderful aspects of a close relationship is the opportunity to seek and provide comfort from/to the other person. A long hug from a partner when we’re down can help us feel more grounded and settled. Reassuring words in times of uncertainty can help us move forward with more confidence. A compassionate presence in times of loss can help carry us through grief.
When we feel hurt by our significant other and do not resolve those hurt feelings we might consciously or unconsciously reject our partner’s efforts to comfort us. Similarly, when we feel angry and agitated at our significant other, we might be less likely to offer to provide comfort when they are hurting. When this happens, we begin to reject one of the most beneficial aspects of the relationship, comforting each other.
Turning away from comfort can move us toward disconnection and loneliness. When we reject comfort, we miss opportunities for closeness. And let’s face it, couples who feel less close and drift apart are often the couples whose relationships do not last. Couples who turn away from comfort are less likely to effectively work through conflict and hurt. Turning away from comfort can simultaneously be turning away from the other person and the relationship itself.
Choosing to allow for comfort and offer comfort throughout the relationship, even when we might be feeling hurt or angry, can simultaneously be turning toward a healthy and long-lasting relationship. For some of us, particularly those who did not experience much comfort during childhood, that might require learning how to give and receive comfort. For most of us, it requires learning how to manage emotions effectively enough to offer and receive comfort while also experiencing potentially conflicting feelings. For all of us, it requires working with our partners to learn how to provide comfort in a way that can help them feel comforted, and vice versa.
Leaving things unsaid
The longer I practice therapy the more I come to realize that things that are NOT said in a close relationship are often just as impactful, if not more so, than things that are said. There is a limit to this line of thinking, of course. If I’m consistently berating, insulting, or attacking my partner, that will have a significant negative impact. Such circumstances aside, the things left unsaid could have a larger negative impact on the relationship in a variety of ways.
Usually, things are left unsaid in a relationship due to fear, anxiety, or the avoidance of some other potential emotional discomfort or negative outcome. For example, we might not express that we feel bothered by something our partner does or has said because we fear we will hurt the other person’s feelings. Maybe we worry that the person will hate us or leave the relationship, or that we will have to have a long, drawn-out conversation about the matter. Perhaps we withhold information about something that happened that might impact our partner because we want to avoid feeling judged or ashamed. We might not even express that we are experiencing a positive feeling about the other person (which could have a potential positive impact on the relationship) because we think we might sound stupid or will feel embarrassed. There are many reasons things might be left unsaid in our relationship.
One potential consequence of leaving things unsaid is that we do not provide direct information about what is going on to our partner. Thus, we leave it up to the other person to interpret our body language, incomplete thoughts, or other behaviors. Their interpretation is easily influenced by their own perspective on themselves and the world, which can often lead them to a distorted conclusion of what we are thinking, feeling, or intending to do.
For example, suppose you have had a negative sexual experience with a previous partner that left you feeling rejected and insecure about your body or sexual attractiveness. To avoid having to relive negative memories or feeling embarrassed, you do not share with your partner the negative feelings you carry from that experience. To avoid feeling rejected, you hesitate to initiate sex or even engage in playful sexual banter with your partner. In turn, your partner might feel undesired and conclude that you are not physically attracted to them. If these feelings or patterns are left unspoken, it is easy to imagine how you might feel increasingly disconnected from your sexual partner.
Learning to say things that need to be said, even if they are difficult, can ultimately help us become closer, more understanding and more connected. While it certainly requires courage and the tolerance of negative emotion to say difficult things, saying the difficult or scary things in an effective and intentional way can help us avoid this relationship mistake.
Surrendering to negativity bias
Early in our romantic relationships we tend to think very highly of our romantic partner. Taken to an extreme we might “put them on a pedestal”, which can have its own negative consequences. Regardless, many things our partner does or says tend to be seen as positive, or at worst, neutral. Over time and particularly in instances where things are left unsaid or we have failed to nurture the friendship, we can develop a negativity bias. The same words or behaviors that would have been interpreted as positive or neutral in the past might now be seen as negative. A characteristic that we might have previously admired can become something we dislike and see as a character flaw.
As a simple example, imagine your partner asks for your help with a project or invites you to clean the house together. Early in the relationship you might see this as a reflection of your partner’s desire to spend time with you or their appreciation for your ideas and your willingness to help. Once negativity bias begins to set in, the same invitation might be interpreted as your partner trying to control you, dictate your time, or get out of doing work for themselves.
Similar situation, different interpretation.
The onset of negativity bias can go virtually unnoticed. Perhaps, we think, our different reaction to an invitation is a reflection of the bad mood we’re in that day. Maybe we explain away a negative interpretation as our partner having a bad day or experiencing a high degree of stress.
As with many biases, we might not be willing or able to notice that a negativity bias toward our partner is active. Instead, we might begin to think our partner has changed. Perhaps we think, or even say to our partner, that the stress is really getting to them, and they are treating us differently and need to treat us better. We can even start to develop a story in our head about what they really think, or who they really are.
The negativity bias can even trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, our negative interpretation of the other person can lead us to act or react in certain ways, which can then result in the other person treating us in line with how we negatively perceive them.
Certainly, people can change over time and in extreme cases this can directly lead to the breakdown of the relationship. Regardless, changes in our interpretation of the other person is a common process that can erode the relationship. A negativity bias can distort the way we experience our partner and push us out of love.
While it can take a lot of self-reflection and a willingness to recognize our own contribution to the problem, acknowledging and being aware of a potential negativity bias can hopefully pay dividends toward a happier, healthier relationship.
Failing to fine-tune communication
Even if other mistakes are made in your relationship, effective communication can help turn the ship around. Unfortunately, many couples struggle to adjust their communication and continue to engage in ineffective or even harmful patterns. Imagine communication as the main rudder of your (relation)ship; if it isn’t working, steering to a happy destination becomes almost impossible.
The biggest communication gap I see across couples is bridging communication across a torrent of emotions. As a general commentary, society does not teach us how to effectively deal with emotions well. In fact, I observe that society generally teaches us, intentionally or not, to NOT express negative emotions. Subsequently, many people do not learn how to understand their negative emotions much less how to effectively communicate them with a long-term partner.
At the same time, emotion is such a strong engine propelling the relationship. However, instead of addressing the emotion, which can sometimes become torrential, some couples tend to focus on the details of a situation or event. Because details are subject to perspective and reconstructed memories, these couples struggle to see eye-to-eye and get caught in a tug of war about whose version of events is the correct one.
When couples stay focused on the details, they often do not get to a deeper emotional understanding of each other or of the situation. Consequently, people often discontinue the conversation without feeling heard, understood, and without a plan about how to navigate similar situations more effectively in the future. The couple also does not take the opportunity to develop an understanding of how their communication style or patterns of communication affect their partner. Thus, hurtful and ineffective patterns like likely to recur.
Another common pattern that causes a communication gap is when couples begin to argue about arguing. This can occur when, in the midst of a difficult conversation or even simple interaction, one partner feels hurt or offended by the words the other person used or the tone in which they said the thing. The reaction to those hurt feelings or disagreement with what was said, how it was said, or what was meant, now becomes the focus of the argument.
One of the things that can make adjusting communication (or any pattern/habit in our lives) so difficult is that many aspects of communication are rooted in earlier periods of our lives. Untangling those roots, especially with another person who has their own tangled roots, is not easy. That is why many of the above patterns or mistake exist. You might experience a different pattern of ineffective communication in your relationship. Regardless, if we fail to fine-tune communication we can struggle to resolution or peace in our conflicts, understand and grow closer to each other, and walk together on a long road of fulfilling companionship.
Falling in love can be easy. Developing a lasting and effective partnership can be much harder. You can make it easier by avoiding common mistakes couples make. When couples make the mistakes of ignoring the friendship, turning away from comfort, leaving things unsaid, surrendering to negativity bias, and failing to fine-tune communication, they are steering the relationship toward disintegration. As a couples therapist, I see these mistakes over and over again in the couples that seek therapy.
The good news is that there are ways to correct each of these mistakes couples make. By nurturing the friendship, accepting and providing comfort, sharing difficult things with consideration, developing a positive lens, and engaging in metacommunication, couples can fix the broken rudders and steer themselves toward happiness and longevity in their relationship. Look for the next blog, detailing how to make those corrective actions in the relationship, coming soon.
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He recently moved to Colorado Springs, CO with his family. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call INC Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.
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