Some unhealthy behaviours in a relationship are obvious — things like lying, cheating, yelling and name-calling. But there are also more insidious habits couples develop without realising how damaging they can be in the long run.
We asked therapists to pinpoint the seemingly inconsequential things couples do all the time that are secretly hurting the relationship.
1. You ignore your partner’s interests
It’s normal — healthy even! — to have interests that differ from your partner’s. Just because your significant other loves country music doesn’t mean you have to throw on a cowboy hat and hightail it to the Luke Bryan concert. But you can still find little ways to support your partner’s passions, even if they aren’t necessarily your cup of (sweet) tea.
“For example, if your partner wants to share a song with you, it is important to show interest in what they enjoy about it or to listen to it, even if you might not have a taste for that genre of music,” Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace told HuffPost. “Otherwise, a lack of acknowledgment of your partner’s interests can eventually add up to a feeling that their passions — or that they themselves — are unaccepted in your relationship.”
“You do not have to enjoy the song, but simply listening or conversing about what your partner might enjoy about it provides necessary support,” she added.
2. You don’t say thank you for the small things
You voice your appreciation when your partner buys you a gift, plans a weekend trip or books you a massage. But you may forget to acknowledge them for the small day-to-day ways they lighten your load. Neglecting to recognise these efforts can breed resentment over time.
“Good relationships are not about the grand gestures. They are built and maintained through the small, everyday moments,” said therapist Nicole Saunders of Charlotte, North Carolina. “Failing to notice and validate your partner for all the work they put into the relationship ― even if it is something they ‘should’ do, like unload the dishwasher ― is a lost opportunity to build positive connection.”
Don’t take these small acts for granted. Whatever your partner is doing to make your life easier deserves recognition.
“Good relationships are not about the grand gestures. They are built and maintained through the small, everyday moments.”
“This may be getting your favourite snack at the store, making the bed the way you like it, or greeting you with a hug because they know physical touch is your love language,” Saunders said. “Then give them a genuine thank you! Bonus — it’s also a good way to reinforce behaviours you want to keep seeing.”
3. You’ve gotten lax about your personal hygiene
Skipping the occasional shower isn’t a big deal, but when forgoing basic grooming becomes a habit, it can get in the way of intimacy and become a source of conflict in the relationship.
“Not brushing teeth, showering, shaving, etc. can be inconsiderate of our partners, especially when we know that it bothers them and we’re still not intentional about handling it better,” said Northern California therapist Kurt Smith, who specialises in counselling men.
It’s worth mentioning that poor hygiene can sometimes be an outward manifestation of a mental health condition like depression. If you’re struggling with motivation in other areas of your life, experiencing feelings of worthlessness or withdrawing socially, talk to your partner and consider making an appointment with a mental health professional, too.
4. You criticise your partner instead of asking for what you need
For example, you might snap at your partner and say something like, “You’re always late for dinner. Why can’t you ever be on time? You’re so inconsiderate.”
When we resort to criticism, we put our partner on the defensive, which often leads to an argument — not the positive change we hope to see, Makepeace said. Over time, these harsh words can hurt our partner’s self-esteem and create emotional distance between the two of you.
“If we want our partners to do something differently, we should make a specific request for a change in their actions, versus stating a negative judgment,” Makepeace said.
So in the example above, you could try saying, “I feel disregarded when you don’t tell me you’re running late. I need you to call ahead of time so I can plan dinner accordingly.”
5. You don’t maintain a life outside the relationship
When you first start dating someone, it’s not uncommon to go through a honeymoon period where you’re spending most of your time together. But after a while, if you’re still focusing all of your energy on your partner while letting your friends, family and other interests fall by the wayside, it could be a bad sign of things to come.
“When couples become too enmeshed, it puts a lot of pressure on the relationship,” Saunders said. “Maintaining the relationship at all costs can become the objective because neither partner has a separate life or support system to fall back on. It can feel like life will end if the relationship does.
To avoid this toxic pitfall, make sure you continue to nurture your identity, interests and meaningful connections outside your romantic relationship.
“It’s important to have time apart on the regular, whether that is time going out doing different things with different people, or simply having weeknights enjoying separate shows or in different rooms involved in different hobbies,” Saunders said.
6. You check your partner’s phone without asking
Sneaking a peek at your partner’s texts or Instagram DMs might seem innocent enough, but it’s actually a violation of their privacy and a sign of underlying issues between you.
“If you’re reliant on accessing your partner’s phone to confirm their faithfulness, it’s a reflection of a large lack of trust within the relationship,” Makepeace said.
It’s reasonable — not suspicious or dishonest — for people in relationships to want to maintain some privacy and autonomy from their partner.
“Many people in relationships desire a bit of their own benign independence,” psychologist Ryan Howes previously told HuffPost. “This isn’t to say they want to separate. They often love their relationships and want them to endure, but they also want a little bit of their lives to themselves ― and this isn’t necessarily a problem.”
Resist the urge to check each other’s devices. Instead, be vulnerable enough to talk about the insecurities that are driving you to snoop in the first place.
7. You make promises you can’t keep
Keeping your word — even when it comes to small things — goes a long way toward building trust and making your partner feel loved and appreciated. Conversely, when you have a habit of saying you’re going to do something and then blowing it off, whether consciously or unconsciously, it can drive a wedge between you and your partner over time.
“This can take any number of forms, from following through on and taking care of the lease expiration on their car, to finishing installing the baseboards in the family room, to emptying the dishwasher daily as promised, to not being ready to go somewhere at the pre-agreed time,” Smith said.
Try setting reminders to complete important tasks in your phone or writing them down in a planner so you don’t forget. Only commit to tasks you know you’ll be able to tackle and give yourself realistic time frames to do so. (In other words, don’t overpromise to try to please your partner.) And if it looks like you’re not going to be able to get it done, then let your partner know as soon as you can.
“Explain exactly why you’re unable to follow through,” relationship writer Sheri Stritof wrote for Verywell Mind. “Make this sort of situation the exception, not the rule, especially as you’re working to build trust.”