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Where Couples Go Wrong

Much of the work that I have done in the past twenty-five years has been working with couples.  I thought that this would be as good a time as any to list those areas where couples seem to experience the most difficulty.  This list is not meant to be comprehensive; it simply reflects my experience in this field.

  1. Having unrealistic expectations of the other.  Often we come into relationships expecting that our partner will see things and do things as we have.  Often we have learned these “rules to live by” in our own families of origin or from other relationships.  Partners in couples sometimes assume that just because they see and do things in a particular way that that way is the correct and only way to see and do things.  Partners are often disappointed and even annoyed when they find that their partners see and do things differently.  I have seen couples have incredible arguments over seemingly innocuous things such as the “right” way to load a dishwasher.  In general, I would encourage potential partners to avoid having any expectations of the other except for being respectful.
  2. Avoiding discussing difficult issues.  When couples avoid discussing what needs to be discussed, they cannot resolve their issues.  Unfortunately, this can sow the seeds of discontent and resentment and ultimately be used as “ammunition” in other arguments further down the line.
  3. Not establishing ground rules for arguments and discussions.  That couples argue is not news, but how many couples decide in advance how they will conduct these arguments and discussions?  Couples need to be able to confront the most difficult issues including values, child-rearing, sex, money, etc.  If they can establish some rules to make these discussions safe then it is far more likely that each partner will feel comfortable in coming forward with issues and disagreements.
  4. Being certain of one’s “rightness” and taking the moral high ground.  Standing on principle can sometimes be a good thing but if one is inflexible and unyielding in maintaining that he or she is “right”, and the other is “wrong”, the result can be that one party feels unheard and shut down.  Anger and resentment can build from a simmer to an explosion.
  5. Not fully listening to the other.  Often partners are so invested in putting forth their own point of view (and their own “rightness”) that they cannot hear what the other has to say.  This is a particular complaint of women who often feel unheard, minimized, patronized or discounted.  They might retreat in silence, but the resentment and anger does not go away.
  6. Being overly-defended.  This is related to #5 but the not listening to the other is driven by the need to defend oneself.  It seems very human, even instinctual to defend ourselves when we are attacked (even verbally).  Unfortunately, a need to immediately defend one’s self means that one is not listening to the other.  It is sometimes very difficult to hear what we think are unpleasant and even untrue things being said about us but if we can somehow manage to hold on until the partner is finished, we increase the likelihood that the other feels heard and “burns off” some of the anger.  This can make resolution easier.
  7. Taking issues outside the relationship.  When partners feel unheard, they will often turn to third parties who will listen to them and give advice.  There is nothing wrong with wanting support but one needs to be careful about how this is achieved.  Friends and family are usually not relationship experts, often take sides in a dispute making everyone feel uncomfortable.  The situation might then become more complicated.  Also, there is the issue of confidentiality.  Partners sometimes feel betrayed if they are spoken about behind their backs.  Finally, taking an issue to friends and family does not promote discussion between the two partners and can delay resolution.
  8. Arguing in front of children.  To some degree it is healthy for children to see that there can be conflicts in a healthy and loving relationship especially if the couple avoids discussing the most incendiary accusations in front of the children, uses respectful language and are able to come to resolution in a timely manner.  Unfortunately, many conflicts are played out in front of the children and the children do not know who (if anyone they should side with).  Children brought up in this kind of environment can feel anxious and unsafe.  It can also send the message that loving relationships are laced with animosity.
  9. Blaming and shaming.  Nothing can be more destructive to a relationship than blaming and/or shaming one’s partner.  This is guaranteed to provoke the defences of the other partner and the language and emotions can quickly escalate.  In most instances, when couples disagree, there is shared responsibility as opposed to “fault”.  A more constructive approach is to look for solutions rather than to lay blame or humiliate the other.
  10. Not spending enough time with each other.  I compare relationships to gardens which need to be tended lest they go to weed or dry up and blow away.  It is important to take time with one’s partner and to talk about how each is experiencing the other.  I believe that it is a good idea that we continually check in with each other (Are you okay with me?  Am I okay with you?  Why?  Why not?).  Like tending a garden, relationships need time and nurturing to grow and thrive.

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