I’ve worked with hundreds of couples as a marriage and family therapist and so I have been witness to the things that men do, and the things that women do, that screw up a relationship. While each gender has some particular behaviors and attitudes to pay attention to, there are things that both folks in a relationship are responsible for, regardless of gender.
First let me get a few basic principles of relationships clear. And, even though I’m using the she/he pronouns, these are relevant to ALL relationships.
1. All relationships have two people in them and so are composed of patterns, or circles of behavior. He does this, and she does that. Some of these patterns work and are effective and some of them are negative and destructive. The key is to identify the negative pattern and change it.
An example of a pattern that works well: the couple’s agreement is that one cooks dinner and the other cleans up. She cooks one night and so he, without fuss, gets up after dinner and cleans the kitchen. She says thank you (even if there’s still crumbs on the counter).
An example of a pattern that is not working: he cleans up after dinner, but leaves a pot soaking and the counter unwashed. She comes in and has a hissy fit about the pot and the counter and berates him for a job undone. He becomes defensive and retaliates with things she hasn’t done well lately and says he just won’t clean the kitchen any more. And on, and on.
2. Each partner is responsible for keeping the ineffective pattern going, so consequently either person has the ability to make it different. The goal is not to be right or to blame, but to change something that’s not working to something that will work better.
3. The only part of the pattern you have control over is your side. Trying to control the other person’s side of the circle is fruitless, frustrating, and causes harm in the relationship. If you take nothing else away from this article, this is the gem to keep.
Alright, now that the basics are out of the way, here’s what you need to pay attention to, and if you’re doing any of these things, take a good long look at yourself and make a change.
1. You’re pointing the finger of blame at your partner and expecting him or her to make a change so you feel better
I know that your partner does things that annoy you, frustrate you, and that you would really like to make different. However, you have no power or control over making your partner change. The only place you have power is creating change in yourself.
To Do: Take a good long look at what you’re doing to keep a negative pattern going. Determine what you could do differently that might work better and do that instead. This actually offers the opportunity for your partner to act differently as well. You making a change doesn’t guarantee that your partner will change also, but it at least offers a chance for him/her to do so. And, you’ve taken back your personal power and control.
2. You act like everything that’s wrong in your relationship is your partner’s fault
This relates to #1, and essentially this means that you are taking no responsibility for the success and satisfaction of your relationship. This is a precarious position and leads to eventual destruction of your connection. When you avoid taking responsibility for your part of the relationship you give up your power to make anything different (since you’ve given it all to your partner), and you occupy the position that your partner is there not for their own fulfillment, but only for yours. Disaster!
To Do: Stop being a victim and take responsibility for what you’re doing that’s not working. There’s two of you in this relationship and what you do has impact on the success and happiness of both of you. You’re way more powerful than you think. Remember Gandhi said ‘Be the change you seek.’ Well Gandhi’s right. Whatever change you are asking for in your partner, be that yourself.
3. You say mean things to your partner that you wouldn’t say to a friend, or even a stranger
This one doesn’t need much explaining, right?
To Do: Respect, and follow the golden rule. It’s that simple. I know you want to unload your frustration and anger on your partner sometimes, but think ahead and put yourself in his or her position. You know how that feels when someone does it to you. Sucks, right? So show some grown up self-control of your emotions and use your words for good rather than evil.
4. You discount what’s important to your partner
Your partner asks you to do, or not do, something. It doesn’t make sense to you, you don’t really see the importance of it, and so you blow it off. When your partner gets angry you say, ‘it’s not a big deal’. And then one of those fights (or cold shoulder sessions) ensue. Do you resemble that?
To Do: Take your partner’s wishes seriously, even if they are little things that don’t seem to you to mean much. The issue is not about the particular request, like putting the clothes in the laundry basket instead of dropping them on the floor, but about showing respect to your partner. When there is respect in a relationship, your connection is stronger, and everything goes better.
5. You criticize your partner rather than focusing on the problem
When you criticize you make your partner wrong or bad as a person, which is shaming. Criticism usually starts with, ‘You…’ and when your partner hears this (s)he hears an attack. And, what do we do when we’re attacked? Defend or attack back! Criticism leads to a fight, not to a resolution. And honestly, no one makes long lasting positive changes as a result of being shamed.
To Do: Determine what the problem is and talk about that, rather than the person. For example, the lawn is growing up around your knees and your partner has agreed that this is his chore. The problem is getting the lawn mowed, not that he is lazy. Your partner will be more likely to listen when you focus on the problem and both of you are a team.
6. You have a railroad track relationship
Think of a railroad track going off into the distance. Two rails side by side, but never touching, meeting, or crossing over. This is the result when you let #7 and #8 happen. Your relationship is focused on the logistics of your life together, but the connection between you is lost. Disconnection = disaster.
To Do: Connect, connect, connect. All relationships go through periods of distance. The trick is to know when that’s happening and do whatever it takes to connect emotionally, physically, and spiritually with your partner. Talk about dreams, talk about thoughts and opinions, talk about the future together – and listen. Make time and do something together that is new and fun. Laugh, play, get saucy.
7. You let work, kids, and other stuff get in the way
You’ve heard that relationships take effort right? If you focus on all the other important parts of life and leave your relationship to the bottom of the list you will create distance that grows and grows. Work is important, kids are important, many things are important, but my guess is that you are doing these other important things for and because of your relationship. Are you willing to lose your relationship because it breaks as a result of the distance between you?
To Do: Make time for your partner. Research shows that couples in healthy satisfying relationships take at least 20 minutes a day to catch up with each other and have at least one kid free date per week. I know you may have to juggle a busy life to make that work, but the connection is a payoff.
8. You stop dating and let the romance slide
You are putting forth your best self when you are dating and trying to win your partner’s affection. Once you’re securely together then you let it go. You dress in sweatpants every day, you fart with abandon, you think that surprise gifts aren’t important anymore, you let habit and routine take over. This is the fastest way into a relationship rut and eventual disconnection.
To Do: Whatever you did when you were dating to attract your partner, do some of that. This means time together on a regular basis. However, it’s not all about time. It’s also about letting your partner know that you’re thinking of him or her. Leave notes, send a saucy text, bring something home you know she would like, do a household chore you know he would appreciate. Your job in a relationship is to know your partner so that you can communicate your love in a way that he or she can receive it. That creates and maintains connection.
9. You expect all your needs to be met by your partner
If you are expecting your partner to fulfill all your needs, even if (s)he is your best friend, then you are putting undue strain on that person and maybe asking more of him or her than your partner can give. Remember, it’s your job to make yourself happy and it’s not OK for you to expect your partner to change for you to feel better. For example, if you’re a super talker and your partner isn’t, it’s frustrating for both of you for you to try and make your partner talk more.
To Do: Cultivate appropriate friendships, connections, and fulfilling life outside your relationship. If you’re the super talker, then find friends who can do that with you. Then you can come home and have meaningful, but shorter conversations with your partner, and still feel like your needs are met.
10. You command or demand
Nobody likes to be told what to do. When you command or demand your partner the likely response is resistance or defensiveness because your command feels like being poked in the chest with a sharp stick. And, guess where that goes?
To Do: Make requests. Most people will say yes to a request because it conveys respect and choice. Asking your partner to do something, rather than telling him or her to do it honors the connection that you have and makes it even deeper.
There is no perfect relationship, because there is no perfect human. We are not striving for perfection in our connections, but it is important to strive for growth and effectiveness.
You are probably clear what is not working out well in your relationship. Take ownership of what part of that is yours and take control of making some changes. Your partner may come along with you and he or she may choose to keep things the same. Either way, you have a choice about how you want to respond.
I suggest that you share this with your partner and have some conversation about which of these items may be present in your relationship and make a plan for change. If you need some help to figure that out, then go find it.
Your relationship is important. You chose your partner because you love and trust this person more than anyone else. So act like it and make the changes that will strengthen and enliven your relationship so that it lasts for a long and happy time. I know you can!