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6 Common mistakes that can ruin your relationship

[ 44 ] April 20, 2011 |
Two tense people having it out

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

“You see it all around you: good lovin’ gone bad.” — .38 Special

Tolstoy famously said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But in my experience, that’s not really true. Actually, most people are unhappy in the same ways, and it’s mostly due to making the same few mistakes.

I’ve made them all in my own relationships, and I couldn’t figure out why I kept having the same bad relationship over and over. Was I picking losers? Was there something wrong with me? The guys all seemed fine when we started dating–maybe I was taking perfectly sound guys and ruining them one by one!

Luckily, I hit bottom and realized something had to change. After several gajillion dollars of therapy (worth every penny!), a complete self-reinvention, and a lot of practice, everything has changed. I’m shaping my own destiny, building my ideal life. And, I have the best romantic relationship I’ve ever had.

I don’t believe a romantic relationship is necessary to having a happy, full life. Let’s face it, being single is far more peaceful and pleasant than being in a relationship with a lot of strife.

But if you’re going to have a relationship, you might as well avoid all the mistakes you can and make it the best it can be. So, here’s my top list of what not to do.

Start with the love potion

You know the heady rush of new love? You can do anything, you don’t even need sleep, and the whole world is beautiful and magical! It feels like you and this person were predestined for each other, like if you hadn’t met, the fabric of the universe would have been torn.

Feels great, doesn’t it? Too bad it wears off. It’s caused by happy chemicals in your brain and your projection of your idealized self onto the other person. We have a tendency to fill in everything we don’t know about a person with exactly what we want to see. That’s why it often seems like a few months later, the spell wears off, and you realize the other person isn’t who you thought they were at all.

I’ve fallen for this so many times! Each time, I thought it was the end of the world if I didn’t get together with this person immediately, so I did, and then we had a relationship of two or three years, which got worse as it went on, until I couldn’t stand it any more and ended it.

But when it took over a year for my divorce to come through, I had an eye-opening experience. For the first time, I felt these feelings but did not act on them. I was still technically married, so I couldn’t in good conscience get involved with anyone. To my amazement, each soul-mate end-of-the-world OMG high dissipated in two or three weeks.

Loneliness, boredom, wanting attention, and chemicals all make bad foundations for a relationship.

Care only about yourself

A lot of people think that, in a relationship, their romantic partner is responsible for making them happy. I certainly thought that, especially in my first marriage. If I was unhappy or anything went wrong, I blamed my husband. He should be protecting me from things like that and making everything perfect! He should want me to be happy, and thus be willing to do everything my way! Moreover, he should inherently know what I want and need, and automatically provide those things without my having to ask.

It sounds completely stupid written out this way, but I think it’s an easy trap to fall into.

We hear so much nonsense about “happily ever after”–even those of us who don’t watch princess movies any more get it all the time. How many happy-ending romantic comedies manage not to end with a wedding? As if that’s the only possible happy ending. As if it’s a happy ending at all, when really it’s a beginning that might be happy or might not.

Plus, this person is around all the time, they put up with your crap, and they love you. It’s easy to get lazy and take your frustrations out on them or just expect them to pick up your slack. What’s more insidious, if you expect your partner to make you happy, then you can always blame him or her if you’re not. That way, you never have to do anything about it. You may never be happy, but you don’t have to make those hard, scary changes, either.

Care only about the other person

In my second marriage, I made the opposite mistake. With much encouragement from the church, I put my husband’s needs ahead of my own and avoided selfishness at all costs. This is also a recipe for disaster.

If you constantly choose the other person over yourself, you make it highly unlikely that your needs will be met. You set yourself up for ever-increasing exhaustion and resentment.

The problem with this approach is that if you’re not taking care of yourself and meeting your own needs, you won’t have anything to give. If you keep giving anyway, you just become more and more depleted. Any time you’re doing something for someone and find yourself resenting it, take a hard look. If you’re doing it out of fear or guilt, it’s not a true gift.

People can tell the difference. The things you do out of fear, guilt, and resentment do not increase the positive energy in the relationship. The things that cost you the most don’t even count as gifts!

I had that all backwards and thought any real gift had to be a sacrifice on my part, so I thought I was doing great things with all of my suffering. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was the opposite! If you don’t believe me, try it both ways. You may be surprised to find that the things you’re suffering the most to give others aren’t even things they want. What a waste of effort!

Don’t listen

One of the surest ways to a bad relationship is to stop paying attention to the other person. Most people think we’re good listeners, but if you’re checking your email, looking something up, or even just thinking about something else while the other person is talking, you’re not fully listening.

When someone–anyone in your life–talks to you or does something to get your attention, there are three ways you can respond: positively, negatively, or nothing. Obviously it’s a continuum, but what’s surprising is that not responding is actually more deadly to a relationship than responding negatively.

Not responding doesn’t just mean flat-out ignoring the other person. It can also include dismissing what they say or arguing that their perceptions are invalid. The most classic example of this was when I complained to my husband that instead of listening to what I said, if he felt threatened, he tended to argue with me and try to talk me out of my perceptions. Immediately, he started arguing with me and insisting he never did that! Sadly, he didn’t even see any irony in the situation.

When you don’t listen, or listen only from your perspective without getting what it means to the other person, it erodes the connection between you.

Don’t talk

I used to think hurting someone’s feelings was one of the worst things I could possibly do and should be avoided at all costs. So I never said anything I thought the other person would not want to hear. What a disaster!

Obviously I’m not saying it would be good to go around hurting people’s feelings on purpose for no reason, but in a functional relationship, each person has two responsibilities:

  • to express his or her needs and make sure they get met (with or without the other person’s help), and
  • to tell the other person when he or she is on the wrong track.

You can’t have a good relationship if you don’t take care of yourself. You do the other person a disservice if don’t call him or her on misguided thinking (or spinach between the teeth). Possibly hardest of all, you can’t have a deep relationship if you don’t let the other person see your real self.

It can be hard and scary to say those things–what if the other person gets mad or doesn’t like me any more?–but it makes the difference between an empty shell and a relationship both parties can count on.

Deny reality

Don’t like how things are going? It’s much easier to pretend everything is fine than to change anything.

Unfortunately, problems rarely solve themselves or go away on their own if you ignore them long enough. I used to spend a lot of energy trying to convince myself things didn’t bother me, usually because I thought it was unreasonable to be bothered by them. But, no matter how many times I recited “love is patient, love is kind” to myself through gritted teeth, I just couldn’t wrestle myself into feeling any more patient or kind, and whatever it was still bothered me.

In reality, if something bothers you, it is a problem. You don’t need any more criteria than that.

That doesn’t mean you can impose your will on the other person and demand they do exactly as you say, but it does mean you have the duty to say or do something about it before it gets to the point where you want to wring the other person’s neck.

The bigger the problem, the more crucial it is for you to face it before things get worse.

Relationship redux

I know from experience how miserable these mistakes can make a relationship, and most of them come from the best of intentions. Go along to get along, don’t rock the boat, and most of all, relationships take work!

I think some of the worse advice ever is to work on your relationship. You can labor away ’til the cows come home, but does it help? Most relationship “work” doesn’t work at all!

Great relationships are easy, fun, and joyful–almost effortless. It’s bad relationships that require all that struggle. If you think about the other person, and your reflex reaction is to be delighted and grateful for the relationship, you’re on the right track. If it’s more like, “ugh, what will I have to do today to make this work?” you’re in trouble!

If your relationship isn’t what you’d like and you could use some in-depth answers for how to transform it, check out my latest book on Amazon: Reclaim Your Love: How to Fix your Relationship. It will show you how to stop doing the work that doesn’t work and start creating an easy, loving, intimate relationship that just gets better over time.

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (44)

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  1. Very interesting post! I’ve been married for 5 years (in December) and there have been ups and downs. I think, I probably made all of those mistakes at one point or another, but we managed to fix them and are now better than ever.
    I’ll tell my friend the one about ‘being realistic’, she really needs to hear it!

    • Cara Stein says:

      That’s awesome! A lot of times the problems get so out of hand everyone just gives up, or lives with them. I’m glad you fixed yours! Here’s to a happy marriage!

      As for your friend, I hope she finds the advice helpful. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear the truth, but when it comes at the right time, it can kick off so much action!

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  3. Hey Cara!

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I’m also fascinated by what either dooms or makes a relationship work.

    My husband and I celebrated our 13th anniversary last week (and 18 years of being together), and we’ve covered a lot of rough road. A little over 10 years ago we were at a nadir and I read the book Should You Leave? by Peter Kramer and his clear message was, No (unless there was some form of abuse involved).

    Interestingly he said that people who consider divorce are often depressed and if you could alleviate the depression you could save the marriage.

    He also made the argument that if a person divorces and a future relationship is successful, it’s probably because they were more likely to compromise than they were in the past. So the take-home message was: try to talk things out and compromise more in your current relationship.

    From your experience would you say the second point was true for you?

    Thanks again for this post! I will be sharing it with all of my friends!

    • Cara Stein says:

      Hi Stacey! Thanks for your insights. I would say an unwillingness to compromise was definitely a factor in my first marriage. We did the polarization dance a lot (you like making a mess, I like having the house clean, you feel like I’m trying to run your life so you rebel by making a bigger mess, I get more worked up and demand more rigorous order than I’d normally want, etc.).

      But for my second marriage, I tried my butt off and compromised in every way possible. We talked everything to death, with counseling, without counseling, in the morning, in the evening, on the roller blading path, every way I could think of. In the end, a lot of nice words (and many painful ones) were said, but nothing changed.

      On the other hand, depression was a factor for both of us. Cure the depression, cure the relationship? Maybe. I don’t know. For me, starting to pull out of the depression gave me the strength to end the relationship, and once the relationship ended, the rest of the depression went away. It took a few months, but the progress was pretty dramatic.

      Honestly, I think some relationships aren’t worth saving, even if there isn’t abuse. The decision to end my second marriage was one I struggled with in a big way because I had made the vows, and it was my second time, so I should have known what I was getting into, and it wasn’t like he was out getting drunk and beating me or whatever… But I was miserable, and the struggle to try to make it work was sucking the life out of me. Life is too short to live like that, and I finally gave myself permission to acknowledge that we weren’t meeting each other’s needs, were apparently incapable of doing so, and let it go.

      I’m not saying we should all just quit as soon as the going gets tough. I think it’s a mistake to give up too easily without trying to understand each other better and help each other more. Sometimes things are hopeless, but more often, a change of approach or getting rid of a false assumption can make everything better than ever. There really is an amazing difference between a relationship with the mistakes I mentioned in this post vs. one without! I’m glad I didn’t give up on love altogether, because it can be great! 🙂

      Congratulations on your anniversary! 13 (or 18!) years, that’s really awesome!

      • Hey Cara!

        Thanks so much for your awesome, thoughtful reply.

        I really appreciate your candor in looking at your relationships.

        Looking at my relationship with my husband I would say the “keys to our success” are:

        1) Shared sense of humor: We laugh A LOT. Even after a blow-out fight I usually think, “Yes, this is hard, but I know we’ll be laughing again soon.” (This is one of the gifts of longevity: you’ve been through many, many rough patches, and you just *know* you get through them.)

        2) Shared willingness to do the work (from seeing things from the “other side” and choosing to be kind over being right, to household chores).

        Thanks again, Cara, for this great discussion!

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  37. diana says:

    Hi Cara

    Ifeel like i am constantly bashing my head against a brick wall. I really love my husband of 10 years. We don’t see each other very often as he works in another town. When we do see each other it seems to be lright for a couple of hours and then turns bad. I don’t feel confident to voice my idea’s with him for fear of an opioin against them…so then I get down because I feel rejected. Then he starts to get annoyed because he doesn’t feel that he can voice his opinion without me taking offense. It goes round in circles. He says its always about me and what I want and never him. It’s at a point where our relationship is fragile and the more I think I am trying to make it better it seems the more I am loosing the relationship…. How to make this work?

  38. Lovely Web-site, Keep up the beneficial work. Thanks a lot.

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