Most of us dream of having a wonderful relationship and yet it seems that it is one of the hardest things to achieve. It is easy to look outward and blame our partners or feel unlucky in love. It is much harder to look at ourselves and see how we are contributing towards our failed relationships. It is, however, much more rewarding and beneficial. So is it time to figure out how you, often unknowingly, contribute towards your relationship distress?
‘If you behave in a manner that poisons your relationship, don’t be surprised when it dies.’
Dr. Steve Maraboli
When we first get together with our new partner, we are full of hope, excitement and positivity. We feel that we have finally found the one we want to share our life with, the one we want to go on new adventures with. There are lots of positive intentions. There are lots of loving thoughts and behaviours. We feel great, they feel great, life seems great. Until our conditioning comes through and we repeat damaging behaviours of the past …
Some of us were lucky enough to have been born into families with good relationship role models. They knew how to create a loving, supportive and safe relationship. They knew how to resolve conflict and to go back to the default setting of ‘love and respect’. They knew how to communicate with each other and how to express themselves with authenticity and honesty while remaining considerate and respectful. They knew how to forgive and how to focus on each other’s strengths and positive attributes.
Some of us were not so lucky and grew up witnessing a myriad of dysfunctional relationship patterns involving power imbalances, the blame game, codependency or abuse of some kind. Even though we may now know that these ways of relating are hurtful and usually end in relationship breakdown, we still fall into the patterns of dysfunctional relating and sabotage any chance we have of creating a healthy a happy relationship. These patterns are deeply entrenched but with growing self-awareness and willingness to change, we can escape the misery we are creating for ourselves and others. Change is possible. We just have to step out of our mould.
‘You are only ever one thought away from a new experience.’
Destructive Relationship Behaviours
When we get caught up in difficult states of mind and don’t give ourselves space to come back to a more loving way of being, we easily fall into traps of harmful relating. Look out for the following to prevent your relationship from deteriorating:
Being critical of our partners is seen as one of the four behaviours that guarantees an unhappy ending to our relationship (Gottman, The Four Horsemen). Why? Criticising our partners of the purest form of character assassination. Criticism is a direct attack on our partner, who will then naturally become defensive and either fight back or withdraw, both actions that further damage the bond of trust that should be protected and nurtured. Criticism also comes from a place of superiority and contempt for our partners so we create a power imbalance that is difficult to escape from. Once you know your partner looks down on you, you know …
In a healthy relationship, both partners are accepting, kind, respectful and thoughtful to establish emotional safety. Without emotional safety, we struggle to feel safe enough to authentically be ourselves, open up and connect in the relationship as we are awaiting the next ‘attack’. Criticism instantly destabilises emotional safety in the relationship. Frequent criticism chips away at it until there is no basis for safety, trust or connection.
This does not mean that no harsh word is ever spoken. It does not mean that we are naive to our negative perceptions about our partner. It does not mean that we cannot express ourselves, our preferences or dislikes with honesty and consideration. It is not realistic to assume there will never be disagreements or other forms of conflict – it is all about the way we express ourselves without hurting the other.
It means that we have matured enough to hold on to our positive perception of our partner while noticing that we may have different preferences or desires. We have come to realise that we do not own our partner and can shape them into whoever we want them to be. We have learned to accept, value and respect them as their own person – and one that is equal to us.
Before you speak, ask yourself:
Is it kind?
Is it true?
Is it helpful?
Is it necessary?
The blame game is a not so fun game that will bring out the worst in people and keep them stuck in emotional immaturity. The blame game stops a healthy adult relationship from developing as no partner is willing to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. It is much easier to find fault in the other and make them responsible for everything we perceive as ‘not good enough’. We basically make another human responsible for our thoughts, perceptions, judgements and resulting feelings when all of those are created by ourselves and no one else. When we see it for what it is, it makes no sense at all.
When we blame our partner, we make ourselves right, while they are ‘wrong’. In this dynamic one partner is devalued. When we feel devalued, we are overwhelmed with urges to defend ourselves, fight back, earn our status and prove our worth. We tend to do that by also devaluing our partner and so the vicious cycle begins … criticism is usually the fuel in the fire of the blame game.
In a loving relationship, partners don’t devalue each other. We do not have to make anyone wrong, to accept that we have a different preference or a different way of doing or being. There are a million different versions of right and we simply do not have to insist on ours being the one right one.
‘Stop pointing blame and placing blame on others. Your life can only change to the degree that you accept responsibility for it.’
Dr. Steve Maraboli
We all have a natural tendency to complain. However, complaining rarely ever leads to any significant improvements. When we complain about our daily woes or life in general, we focus on our negative perceptions and we become a source of negativity ourselves. This creates a barrier to connection in our relationship because as humans we automatically move away from anything we experience as harmful, negative, threatening or damaging.
When we complain about our partner, it will be perceived as criticism. Criticising our partner sends them the immediate message that they are not accepted by us, which will lead to them closing down and disconnecting. Complaints also make our partners feel overwhelmed, unappreciated, rejected and controlled, all of which decreases loving and supportive co-operation with each other.
Constant complaining also results in the following:
- We become a negative influence in our and everyone else’s life.
- It is emotionally exhausting for us and those around us.
- Our partner will begin to feel unworthy.
- Our partner will begin to feel that nothing is ever good enough for us.
- We will eventually be met with less understanding and compassion.
- People will begin to avoid us.
- People feel drained by us.
- We grow a very negative mindset and notice more and more things to complain about.
When we notice ourselves or our partners complaining, we can adopt a compassionate mind to stop ourselves from entering a negative mindset. It is easy for our mind to start complaining about our partner for complaining. What we can do is try and understand what our partner is indirectly asking for, what needs might temporarily go unmet, or what worries or fears are expressed as complaints. If we are the complainers, we need to take some time to let our minds slow down. Afterwards, we can ask ourselves what it is we feel we are missing or are unhappy about and consider taking action to create the change we are craving.
“You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind.”
Comparing your relationship to others or comparing your current partner to a past partner will undermine your relationship stability and decrease your commitment to your current relationship. If done overtly, it will also affect our partner negatively as they are given the message that they are ‘not good enough’.
‘To love is to stop comparing.’
Past partners are in the past for a reason and no two relationships are alike. Nurturing a relationship means appreciating its uniqueness and its differences. It means staying in the present and committing ourselves to creating the most supportive, loving and appreciative relationship now. Letting our minds wander into the past removes us from the present.
Comparing usually stems from having unrealistic expectations. When we compare the reality of our relationship to the highlight reel of our friends’ relationships on social media, we compare two different realities. It is an unfair comparison that removes us from living our relationship. It is an unfair comparison that creates a mindset that communicates ‘not good enough’.
When we stop comparing, we move towards accepting our present partner and our relationship. We move towards choosing appreciation of what we do have over dissatisfaction about the lack of what our mind tells us we should have.
‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Some of us have a tendency to minimise problems and avoid uncomfortable experiences. When conflict arises, we tend to emotionally withdraw from our partners. We may change the topic to something superficial and impersonal, create physical distance, start a different activity, work or give them the silent treatment. Regardless of our choice of withdrawing, our partner will feel hurt and angry.
We remove our attention and our presence, which can feel punitive and rejecting to our partner. This often fuels their anger, which makes us withdraw even more. We feel threatened so we withdraw but then our action of withdrawing is what actually creates the very result we were trying to avoid.
In order to deal with withdrawing, we need to learn self-soothing. We need to understand that in the present we are safe and that uncomfortable feelings cannot hurt us. We can learn to open up to our experiences without shame and fear. We can learn to not take everything personally and to create a healthy detachment from our partner’s moods. We can learn to finally be there for ourselves and our partner instead of shutting down and withdrawing.
‘Love exists in presence.’
I hope that these descriptions will help you gain more awareness of your own behaviours. They are easy to spot in others, especially our partner, but we cannot change others. So keep your power and look towards yourself. Become the person you wish you were in a relationship with and watch your life flourish.