Tuesday, August 27, 2013

5 Relationship Destroying Behaviors To Stop Right Now

"Rome Visit," used under CC license.
Hover for attribution.
In my practice, I tend to see couples engaging in the same destructive behaviors over and over again.
Some of these behaviors are not even identified as being destructive by the people doing them. I made a list of what I believe are five common destructive relationship behaviors that people are not aware they are doing. If you could remove these from your interactions, you will likely go a long way towards developing a satisfying relationship.

1. Stop bringing up the past.

Two people will start trying to work out a conflict, and one of them will bring up something that happened two weeks ago. Then, the other will bring up something that happened a year ago. Then, the first person brings up something that happened 3 years ago, and so on and so on forever.

Some therapists call this “kitchen sinking,” because you're bringing up “everything and the kitchen sink.” Some therapists call this “keeping score,” for a obvious reasons. Whatever you call it, stop it.

Why it hurts the relationship:

First, it never solves anything. Bringing up past behaviors does not actually create behavior change in the present. But as bad as that is, there is actually a much more damaging effect to this kind of behavior.

Love is built on time together and memory. When people review the bad memories, the times when they felt that their partner was hurting them or taking advantage of them, then they are reliving the bad memories and the bad times. They are reminding themselves of all the hurts in the past. They are constantly repeating a litany of all the reasons the relationship is not working. They are making negative associations with their relationship.

So in essence, when you review all the hurts your partner has inflicted on you again and again, you are, quite literally, killing your love for you partner.

What would be better:

Forgive and move on. It's classic advice, going back thousands of years and found in cultures all around the world. And it's classic advice because it's good advice. Forgiveness is good for mental health of the individual, the couple, and the community.

If you cannot forgive, then pretend you have forgiven. I really mean that: Act as though you have forgiven your partner, and remind yourself that you are choosing to forgive. While you're at it, remind yourself that you are not forgiving them because they deserve it, you are forgiving them because you deserve it. You deserve to have a life in which you do not revisit the hurts of the past again and again. (Also, please remember that we never forgive anyone because they deserve it—that's kind of what forgiveness is, right? Choosing to overlook another person's bad actions as an extension of our own benevolence?)

When something comes up in the present, address it in the present. If your partner starts to reflect on the past, gently remind her/him/zer to stay focused on the present moment. Focus on what can change, what can be addressed, and avoid revisiting all the bad things that have ever happened.

2. Stop expecting your partner to read your mind.

Have you ever said anything like this: “I thought my husband would just know how I wanted to spend my birthday.” Or, “We've been together for so long, doesn't she just understand what I want?”

If that sounds familiar, you're expecting your partner to read your mind. Your partner is not psychic. (Or, with respect to the psychics out there, your partner is not that psychic.) Your partner needs you to tell him/her/zer what is going on with you.

Sometimes this expectation of mind-reading looks like “dropping hints” for your partner to pick up. Instead of just expecting the other person to know what you are thinking or want, now you want them to play along and read your clues. But your partner may not understand your code, or even know that you are trying to communicate something.

Why it hurts the relationship:

Simply put, your partner cannot read your mind, and cannot predict what you want.

Sometimes clients will tell me that they believe it is a sign of a healthy relationship to be able to anticipate the other person's needs. That sounds good, but that kind of sentiment is better suited to romantic movies than to real life. Yes, in a healthy relationship the partners take time to get to know one another, express interest in the other person, learn about their hopes and fears and dreams and so on. But to expect them to be 100% accurate (or even 50% accurate, really) with your moods and needs is to set them up for failure. There is a difference between being able to pick out a birthday gift because you know you partner's hobbies and taste, and being able to understand how to interpret their silence when they come home from work.

What would be better:

Honesty and communication would be better, for a start. One of my friends and colleagues says, “If you have a need, say it out loud.” If you say what it is you want or need, you at least have a chance of having that want or need met. And, you have a chance to try and come to terms with why your needs might not be met, which could be just as important. But if you keep it to yourself and expect something, you will be disappointed.

3. Stop expecting your partner to make you happy. (Or make you fulfilled, or heal your childhood wounds, or anything like that.)

I had a couple in my office years ago, and I asked them what brought them in to see me. The wife said, “I'm not happy with my life.” I got some details about what she meant, and then I asked her what made her seek couples' therapy, rather than individual therapy. She said, “I think it's my wife's job to make me happy.” I was taken aback a bit by that, I admit. I may have even lost my poker face for a second or two. So I challenged her by asking, “What if I said that it's not your wife's job to make you happy? What if I said that it's your job to make yourself happy?” She replied, “Well, you don't understand marriage.”

That's a pretty stark example, but it's not an uncommon thought. I hear many clients say things like, “My partner makes me happy,” or “My partner keeps me anchored.” This is a clue that you are relying on someone else for your emotional fulfillment and stability.

Why it hurts the relationship:

It's too much stress to put on a relationship. Your partner has his/her/zer own personal needs, wants, dreams, values, traumas, challenges, triumphs and so on. Adding personal responsibility for your difficulties in life is going to be too much.

Further, if you rely on your partner for your basic emotional needs and you're not likely to get your needs met. That's not good for you or the relationship.

One very popular model of couples' therapy is premised on the idea that each person in a relationship is responsible to “heal the emotional wounds of childhood” for the other person. This is a lovely idea, and some couples may agree to do this for each other. If that is what you and your partner mutually agree to do for each other, that's great. But please recognize that you are entering into that as a conscious choice, and that this sort of an agreement is by no means a necessary part of a healthy relationship. And, even if you and your partner agree to help each other out, you are still responsible for your own individual emotional wellness at the end of the day.

What would be better:

You are responsible for your own emotional health. Period.

Yes, you want to be supportive of your partner. But there is a big difference between being supportive of your partner and being responsible for your partner, and it is essential to learn the difference.

The best thing you can do for your relationship is to be your own best self. If you're not happy, or if you're afraid of getting older, or if you feel chronically unloved, or whatever your difficulty may be, take care of yourself. Get some individual therapy. Get a self-help book and actually work through it. (I have no data here, but I'm sure the bookshelves of the world are full of self-help books purchased with great intentions, but never completed.) Talk to someone you trust. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself together. Taking care of your own emotional needs is the greatest gift you can give to yourself, and to the people in your life.

4. Stop being a martyr.

Suppose your partner does something that hurts you, and that it's something BIG. It may be hard to forgive. So, you choose to hold onto the grudge, and to continue to bring it up. You choose to view the relationship in the light of the thing that was done. You may reject your partner's attempts at connecting with you by reminding him/her/zer of the painful thing that was done.

This is a common pattern of behavior in relationships. It's a way of manipulating the relationship, and it often occurs when one partner feels a loss of trust or control in the relationship. In essence, it can be a way to try and take back control through emotional manipulation.

Why it hurts the relationship:

Your partner may have done something to hurt you. He/she/ze might have done something truly awful and painful. And now you have a choice between three paths. One, you can move on and repair your relationship. Two, you can decide the relationship is beyond repair, and you can leave. Three, you can continue in the relationship and be a martyr—you can make every little slight a reminder of thing your partner did; you can bring it up repeatedly; you can use it as leverage and as a way of trying to hurt your partner as payback.

Of those three options, common sense tells us that being a martyr going to lead to misery for everyone involved. And yet it happens all the time: People perpetuate a narrative in which they are the victim of their partner's bad actions.

What would be better:

If something really bad has happened, ask for your needs to be met. And if you need, take some time to recover. Sometimes “time to recover” is measured in months or years, not hours or days. Don't rush your process—and don't make it your partner's responsibility to heal your wound, either. Get some professional help if you need it.

Then, when you feel that you have moved through some of the feelings, you have a decision to make about the future of the relationship. You are not obligated to stay in any relationship. If you really feel that you are being victimized, then you may need to figure out if you want to stay or go. Make the decision, go through the emotional consequences of your decision, and move on.

5. Stop defending your bad actions.

When your partner confronts you on something that you did, do you immediately rush to your own defense? Do you start to think of reasons why your behavior was justified? It may seem really important to explain your bad actions to your partner. After all, isn't mutual understanding a big part of relationship harmony?

Well, in some ways, yes. But not in this case. We want to be understood by our partners—but we also want to know that our partner is listening to us, and taking the things we say seriously.

Further, justifying your actions is not productive in any way. Let's take an example:

Person A: I was hurt that you came home last last night and didn't call first; I was worried about you.
Person B: Well, I wasn't that late.
Person A: But I was still worried.
Person B: I don't know what to say about that. I got held up at work, and I couldn't call you. I guess I shouldn't go to work?

And so on, and so on. One person makes a confrontation, and the other person explains it. I've heard this variations on this script hundreds of times, and it's never helpful.

Why it hurts the relationship:

If you have done something that hurt your partner in some way, and you defend that action or justify that action, you are sending the message that your partner's feelings are wrong. Even if you have a very good reason for doing what you did, you still hurt your partner's feelings. And that's the point—the hurt is more important than the explanation.

What would be better:

Acknowledge that you made a mistake. Say you're sorry. And move on. Let's revisit the example from above:

Person A: I was hurt that you came home last last night and didn't call first; I was worried about you.
Person B: I am sorry that you were worried. I'll try and call next time I'm going to be late.

In this example, the couple can now move on.

Of course, they can choose to continue the argument, and many couples would still work their way into an argument. What do you do then? Well, in my experience, couples that continue to argue over the issue probably have already established a culture in which arguing is accepted as a norm. If you want to stop the arguing (and almost every couple says they do), then you have to change the culture of your relationship so that arguments are not the default way that conflicts are resolved. Acknowledging the reality of what was done, rather than adopting a defensive posture, is a great first step in this culture change.  

1 comment:

  1. The book "Beyond Blame: Stopping the most toxic form of emotional bullsh*t" really addresses the last behavior quite nicely. Love your work, Matt!