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Five Bad Habits
And how they can undermine a loving relationship
We tend to think it's the big issues that drive a wedge between partners – like financial problems, infidelity, or whether to have children.
However, I've spent three decades helping couples in crisis and while we might retrospectively put relationship breakdowns down to major events, what I see over and over again is that it’s the accumulation of little things that destroys love.
It might be endlessly working late because you think it’s more important to be financially secure than to spend evenings with your spouse, or it might be something as mundane as shouting requests to each other from different rooms. And who hasn’t done that?!
This week I look at five habits that seem harmless but have the power to undo even the strongest bonds. Your relationship will survive one of these bad habits without too many ill effects, maybe even two, but once you reach three you're building up-long term problems.
1. Keeping score
If you think you’re in a fairly happy marriage you're unlikely to own up to this one, but in my experience everybody has a secret score card in their head.
It can sound something like this: 'I earn the majority of the money that pays for everything, I do plenty of housework, and I'm a really involved parent, but what thanks do I get?' Or: 'I work part time, I run the house, know the children's teacher's names and make their costumes for Victorian Day at school. I even buy birthday presents for their mother and what do they do in return?’
We understand our position so well and know all our close friends would back us up. We have a kind of twisted enjoyment of the feeling we’re so very much in the right - but, we are mentally putting our partner in the wrong.
Break the habit: look at the division of tasks with fresh eyes. I ask my clients to make a list of everything they do and then swap over - it can make very sobering reading as both sides underestimate what the other does.
Discuss what in particular makes you feel overloaded and listen to your partner's problem areas. If you can agree to take one thing of your partner's list and give them one off yours, you will clear the air and start to be a team again.
If you’re in London and looking for face-to-face couples counselling, we have an opening on Thursday evenings at our practice in Snow Hill. Just email Tricia (email@example.com) or use this contact form.
2. Zoning out
Technology has fractured our attention spans and made it incredibly hard to give anyone our full focus, even our beloved.
Does this sound familiar? You sit on your phone, telling yourself you’re being productive: 'it will only take a minute to finish this email' or 'I just need to look this up' and, ‘after all, we have the whole evening together'… but by not paying attention you give a clear message: 'I'm not that interested' or 'other people are more important than you'.
This is a far cry from when you fell in love and every waking moment seemed to revolve around one another.
Break the habit: It sounds easy but actually this tip is really hard to follow through: always be in the same room when you speak to each other.
You'll find you want to shout up the stairs – which sounds like a command rather than a request. Or you'll want to say something from the door rather than going into the room where your partner is working.
But by entering and waiting until your partner notices and looks up, you will feel truly heard and they will know that you care enough to give your full attention.
3. Having to be right all the time
It's really easy to spot when your partner is falling into this trap. For example, you can't even mention a little problem – like leaving the kitchen in a mess after cooking - because your partner will fly off the handle and claim: 'I was just about to clear it up'.
However, you are just as likely to be guilty yourself. When your partner pulls you up on something, how often do you say 'yes but…'?
This goes right back to childhood and our reaction when our parents got angry or told us off. They didn't mean to give the message 'if you're naughty I won't love you' but to immature brains that's the conclusion we jump to.
So even though, as adults, we intellectually know that our partner will still love us even if we make a mistake, we tend to become overcome by shame and cover up these uncomfortable feelings by claiming to be right.
Break the habit: couples in my practice will sometimes turn round their whole relationship with one simple change: apologising when they've slipped up.
Don't lesson the power by explaining why– because this sounds like an excuse for bad behaviour, just say 'I'm sorry that I left the kitchen in a mess' and leave it at that. If it still feels important twenty-four later, you can give your partner all the background. However, in my experience, you won't remember why you were bent out of shape!
If you struggle to articulate your needs in your relationships, you may enjoy my conversation with marital therapist Tonya Lester on How to Have Healthy Conflict.
4. Tiptoeing round your partner
You are so determined to keep the peace that if your partner gets cranky when you want to go out with your friends, rather than challenging them – and getting everything out in the open – you turn down invitations.
This doesn’t just apply to large issues either, but seemingly petty domestic rules. Take how the towels are folded in the bathroom. Your partner may insist on them being done in a particular way, and while you either don't really care or are irritated by their obsessive standards -you say nothing and go along with them.
Nobody likes arguments and disagreeing with your partner makes you feel uncomfortable. But you do have the right to give your opinion. This passive behaviour is usually learned from the way parents interacted. Either you had a front row seat while your parents ripped each other apart, or they never argued and you don't know how to do it. So for you, the only way to keep things running smoothly is to turn off any annoyance.
The problem is that once you start shutting feelings down, eventually you shut down the positive ones, like love, too.
Break the habit: start with something small – like your partner slurping his tea – which you'd normally let go or tell yourself 'it's no big deal' even though it irritates the hell out of you. Experiment and tell your partner – when it's happening and something can be done about it – and see what happens.
So how do you tell them? If you go round the houses and build up to it gradually, your partner will think something terrible is about to be said. Don't make a joke of it either, as this lessens the impact and your complaint might not be taken seriously.
Just say: would you mind drinking your tea more quietly? My guess is that they will not be too upset – especially if it is something small – but you will feel really great.
Many of my clients say it's like a weight lifted off their shoulders because they hadn't realised how angry small things made them. They also start feeling empowered and confident about tackling bigger issues.
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5. Always putting the children first
Children need a lot – especially when they're babies – but they grow up and somehow everything in the house still seems to revolve around them.
It’s not in doubt that you both want what's best for your offspring. However, you got married because you had fun together, not to spend weeks on end when the only meaningful conversation is about when to pick up your son or daughter.
Lots of people think this is a trap that only women fall into and it is men who feel resentful. However, I have just as many women who feel shut out sometimes by their husbands or resentful at always being the disciplinarian, as Dad raises his eyebrows to the kids when Mum tells to stop playing football with him and do their homework.
There might be lots of family time but have you been so busy being mum and dad that you've forgotten to be lovers too?
Break the habit: our culture is so child centred – and we're so terrified of making a mistake – that when I suggested the following tip on a daytime TV programme I had both hosts and the other guests screaming at me!
So what is it? Greet your partner first when you come home and don't let the kids interrupt when you're talking to each other. If I've made you angry too, it probably means that I've hit a nerve, but many couples tell me these simple rules have helped them refocus on each other.Don't forget your children are just passing through while marriage is forever.