Therapists get an up-close look at a wide array of romantic relationships: the healthy ones, the unhealthy ones and the somewhere-in-between ones.
In sessions with their coupled-up clients, certain negative patterns pop again and again. We asked therapists to reveal the bad relationship habits they commonly see and share some tips on how to work through them
1. They spend all their time before bed watching TV.
Watching a few episodes of “Schitt’s Creek” together may be one of your favourite ways to unwind after a long day — and that’s perfectly OK. But your Netflix habit becomes an issue when all of that sacred time before bed is spent zoning out in front of the TV (or staring at your smartphone), instead of doing something that allows you to actually be present and connect with each other.
“Couples will spend more time watching TV rather than having sex or spending quality time together while not distracted,” said Los Angeles psychologist and sex therapist Shannon Chavez. “It leads to prioritising TV rather than each other or sex.”
The fix: “I recommend that couples turn the TV off and replace it with listening to music, giving each other a massage or other forms of sensual touch,” Chavez said. “Both have better effects on stress and relaxation.”
2. They constantly interrupt each other.
In the heat of an argument or spirited conversation, you may end up talking over your partner from time to time. But if you’re routinely cutting your partner off mid-sentence just to make your point, beware: “A regular habit of this will leave your partner feeling unimportant, irrelevant and unloved,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who specialises in counselling men.
The fix: To break this pattern, bring more conscious awareness to your communication habits, Smith said. Practise letting your partner finish their thought before you jump in with your two cents.
“A good way to practise this is to begin to always wait until there is a pause before speaking, and then ask, ‘Can I share what I’m thinking?’” Smith added.
3. They lose themselves in the relationship.
“In the early days of a relationship, it feels good to dive in, even at the expense of individual hobbies, relationships and routines,” said Nicole Saunders, a therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s not uncommon for one or both partners to abandon too much of themselves early on.”
But what happens once the honeymoon phase is over? While you were so preoccupied with the relationship, you ended up distancing yourself from your friends, falling behind on your work goals, losing interest in your hobbies and not making time for your own self-care.
“It’s a recipe for burnout and resentment,” Saunders said.
“Oftentimes we aren’t taught that it’s OK to even have a need, let alone voice it. It’s vulnerable to share how you’re feeling, to ask for help, or to say, ‘I’m feeling down, can I have a hug?’”
The fix: First, acknowledge that your priorities as a couple are out of whack and that you want to set some new boundaries.
“Frequent and clear communication is very important so that the reprioritisation of time and energy doesn’t come across as a loss of interest in the relationship,” Saunders said. “Initially, it may feel uncomfortable to invest less, which may create an insecurity spike, but using communication can be validating along with making the most of the time that is allocated to the relationship.”
4. They expect their partner to be a mind-reader.
“It feels so good when our partners can anticipate our needs,” said marriage and family therapist Lynsie Seely of Wellspace SF in San Francisco. “Being seen, understood and met by others are basic human needs, and oftentimes it is our romantic partners who show up to offer that care.”
However, Seely noted that some clients place unfair expectations on their partners, expecting them to read their minds and magically know what they need or how they’re feeling. When their partner is unable to do this, they start to draw their own conclusions.
They think, “If my partner doesn’t know what I need or show up in a particular way, it means XYZ — e.g. they don’t care about me or I’m not important,” Seely said. “We fill in the gap with a negative assumption about our partner and how they feel about us.” Over time, this can drive a wedge between the couple.
The fix: Instead of relying on your partner to decode your innermost thoughts, practise asking for what you need. And know that it might take some getting used to.
“We live in a very independent-focused culture where oftentimes we aren’t taught that it’s OK to even have a need, let alone voice it,” Seely said. “It’s vulnerable to share how you’re feeling, to ask for help, or to say, ‘I’m feeling down, can I have a hug?’ If you’re in a safe and trusting relationship, practicing opening up in this way builds connection, understanding and support.”
5. They’re obsessed with being “right.”
It’s difficult to have a productive argument when both partners are more concerned with winning than they are with resolving the problem at hand.
“Couples become gridlocked in issues because they feel the need to be right,” said Jess Davis, an associate marriage and family therapist at WellSpace SF. “Looking for a ‘win’ in an argument can feed a feeling of being stuck, and frustrations become hurdles. Understanding that you’re a team and can work as a unit can allow the couple to tackle the problem and not each other.”
The fix: Sometimes what appears to be a need to be right is really just a desire to be heard and understood, Davis noted. Practise active listening: Focus on what your partner is saying and then reflect back what you heard to show you see their position. If you’re not sure, ask questions that demonstrate a desire to understand.
When it’s your turn to speak, try a “soft startup” like: “I feel ______ about ______ , and I need ______” that keeps the focus on your feelings instead of accusing or criticising your partner.
6. They don’t carve out “we” time.
With work, kids and other life obligations pulling us in a million different directions, it’s hard for couples to find time to spend together by themselves.
“It can be really hard to have the same kind of quality time together we had when first dating,” Smith said.
The fix: If you’re just waiting around for the perfect distraction-free window to arise, you could be waiting quite a while. The key is to be intentional about setting aside the time, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day.
“It can be as simple as taking a regular chore, such as walking the dog, and turning it also into an opportunity to also spend some time together as a couple connecting with each other,” Smith said. ”This is one of the things my wife and I do.”
7. They avoid vulnerable conversations.
It feels easier to steer clear of certain subjects because we’re scared of how our partner might react if we honestly express our feelings: Will we be judged? Hurt? Rejected?
“When couples don’t choose to lean in to their vulnerability and have hard, emotional conversations early on, they fail to develop the communication skills that are necessary for building a secure and healthy relationship future,” Saunders said.
One common example: One partner might be ready to get married or have kids. But since the couple has never talked about their future together, it seems too delicate a subject to broach.
“The result is they bottle up their feelings and only ever bring up the topic after a night of drinks. The conversation always devolves into an argument,” Saunders said. “They wake up the next day anxious about the fight and that much more uncomfortable with the overall subject so they sweep it under the rug yet again.”
The fix: Practise bringing up deeper topics in regular conversation. Start small and work your way up to the heavier stuff as you get more comfortable.
“The gradual exposure to vulnerability gives the couple a chance to increase their distress tolerance and build the communication skills to make these talks successful,” Saunders said. “If a couple can get through a hard conversation, the success begins to build on itself and the emotional connection becomes stronger.”