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Silly Relationship Mistakes Smart People Make
How could I have been so blind?' or 'Why did nobody tell me?' These are just two of the most common reactions from people who thought they were doing the best for their marriage, but discovered they'd actually been undermining their own efforts.
On the surface, these strategies seem sensible but thirty plus years of helping people understand relationships has taught me that they could easily be the biggest mistake of your life.
Organising their social life
Why it seems a good idea: by being guardian of your partner’s diary, you get the social life YOU want. Not only do you weed out their friends who are boring or a bad influence, but you enjoy time with “couple friends” (who perhaps if you’re really honest, are actually your friends).
Why it's really damaging: Having to check if they can go for a drink or game of tennis with their mates will leave your partner feeling controlled, resentful and isolated. The more this becomes a pattern, the weaker your connection will become.
Plus, going out into the world and having your own separate friendships gives you new energy to bring back to your relationship. If you see the same friends, always together, you’re robbing yourself of a unique form of relaxation - hanging out with your own best friends - and you’re robbing your relationship of the spark and fire that your independent experiences can bring.
Turn it around: don't expect your partner’s friends to be interesting or entertaining to you. Look for a middle ground where you both have separate and shared friends and check with them before fixing joint activities.
Pointing Out Their Mistakes
Why it seems a good idea: surely you shouldn't bite your tongue all the time, and doesn’t your partner want to be their best self?
Why it's really damaging: it is often the case that women are very interested in personal development and self-improvement; but men interpret their wives’ advice as harsh criticism they don’t feel equipped to respond to.
In addition, you can easily sound like your partner’s mother, and if you start behaving like a critical parent ( 'Why must you always....' or 'Do you never stop and think....') then your partner will indeed behave like a sulky child or a stroppy teenager.
Alternatively, to keep the peace, they will agree with you to your face and then do their own thing or subtly undermine your plans.
Either way, it leaves both of you angry and resentful.
Turn it around: break out of the parent and child trap by using your adult problem solving skills:
'What seems to be the problem?' and 'How could we resolve this?' Keep focused on this particular incident and don't get drawn into past issues. It also helps to avoid words that up the stakes – like 'always' and 'never ' (because they will immediately remind you of the one time he did empty the washing machine).
Best if all, if you talk to your partner like they’re an adult, they will respond like one too.
Assuming You Both Think the Same Way
Why it seems a good idea: you've been together for years, so surely you must agree on the basics.
Why it's really damaging: there are five ways of expressing love and intimacy:
Quality time together (from lying in each other's arms on the sofa up to an exotic holiday)
Caring actions (cooking a three-course meal or taking your sister to the airport at 3am),
Appreciative words (complements and 'I love you'),
Affectionate physical affection (back rubs and a passing kiss),
Present giving (an expensive birthday gift or a little something picked up on the way home).
When we first fall in love, we use all five languages but, over time, we retreat into one or maybe two. Unfortunately, you might be expressing intimacy in your way but your partner feels unloved because they value something else.
Turn it around: the way your partner expresses their love is what they’re longing to hear from you. What could you do that would make him truly feel appreciated? This will not only bring you closer together but give you the confidence to ask for what makes you feel special too.
Letting Yourself Be Persuaded into Sex
Why it seems a good idea: isn't it kinder and easier to respond to their desire for sex rather than waiting until you feel truly turned on yourself?
Why it's really damaging: unfortunately if you seldom make the first move, they will start to feel that you don't really fancy them (however much you tell them you do ). Worse still you lose touch with what makes you feel truly sexy because you never reach the point of aching to make love.
In the worst cases, sex becomes something for your partner, rather than something you enjoy together.
Turn it around: experiment and, for a month, you're in complete charge of sex. They can ask for a cuddle (and make it a long and sensual one) but only you can move your lovemaking onto the next phase. I find it takes the average man three days after making love to feel truly passionate again but the average woman needs five. If he can wait that little bit longer, without pestering, you will both be amazed by the results.
Always Putting the Children First
Why it seems a good idea: the culture tells us we need to spend most of our time nurturing our children: maximising their chances at a good university place, making them socially confident, ensuring they’re well-rounded, protecting them from the myriad dangers constantly flagged on social media.
Yet when their youngest goes off to university, many couples discover they are strangers with nothing much in common. That's why one of the main problems first-year university students take to welfare officers is their parents splitting up.
Why it's really damaging: you can easily confuse family intimacy for couple intimacy and not realise that you're both going your own way – often with one parent burying themself at work and the other doing more and more for the children.
Moreover, kids are happiest when their parents are happy and relaxed. They’d rather be part of a family where everyone’s individual needs are reasonably well met, than be the stressed-out epicentre of an adult universe. When you’re responsive and loving to your partner, you’re also modelling to your kids what a good relationship looks like (and I know SO many adults who’d give the world to have had this in their lives).
Turn it around: even if it’s just ten minutes, spend time together every day. It could be a glass of wine after the kids go to bed, where you ensure to ask about each other’s days.
If your sex life is suffering, try scheduling intimate time together (most couples hate the idea, but if you wait for spontaneous passion, you could be waiting a while). And don’t feel bad about putting a lock on your bedroom door. It sends a signal that you are lovers as well as parents.
These days, babysitters are a big expense and “date night” can feel stressful and tiring - instead, why not try grabbing a cheap but cheerful lunch together? Or going for a run together while the kids are at their grandparents’ house?
For more ideas, my discussion with family therapist Dr Anita Cleare on Being a Positive Parent is great on juggling your different roles (parent, employee, spouse) more effectively.
I hope you all enjoyed a restful holiday period, and are coping with the return to the realities of January!
I’ve just released my New Year roundup podcast episode - in which I talk with sex therapist and first-ever The Meaningful Life guest Tracey Cox about our favourite guests from last year. Listen here.
If you’d also like to share your favourite guests or ideas for new episodes, please do leave a comment here!
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (email@example.com) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.