Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Although, sometimes we can't help but look around at some of those super cute couples out there and wonder what it is they know that we don't.
The truth is, every couple disagrees, argues, and runs into challenges. Sometimes this happens more often than we want it to. But a relationship that has regular disagreements is not necessarily an unhealthy one. It’s how challenges are handled that determines the health and sustainability of a partnership.
That being said, if we choose to focus on what really happy couples are doing right, it might be more helpful to focus on behaviors that healthy couples, maybe not never, but rarely do.
Here are seven things happy, healthy couples rarely do and how you can avoid them, too.
01. React Defensively
We are all wired to protect ourselves—so most of us get defensive at least sometimes. But if you find that either you or your partner is always on guard, it can be deeply harmful to the relationship.
Defensiveness is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, described by marriage researcher and author, Dr. John Gottman. The Four Horsemen are a set of behaviors that have been identified as toxic to a relationship. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further.
If you feel yourself become defensive, try to see if you can simply acknowledge it, and work through the conflict as honestly and generously as possible. If your partner is giving you criticism that is making you feel defensive, can you express why? The more we can understand this self-protecting impulse (especially when it gets precarious), we can learn to dismantle it as a habit, and begin engaging more compassionately and openly in our relationships.
02. Fight to Win Instead of Fight to Fix
Healthy relationships recognize that the main goal of an argument is to identify the problem, process feelings, and work towards solutions. But sometimes when couples fight, they forget these goals and hang out in a state of reactivity and blame. Healthy couples keep their eye on the prize (conflict resolution) during arguments and stay on their side of the net. Healthy couples do not get mean, blame, or belittle.
So, if during an argument you feel tempted to go after your partners Achilles' heal, remember that is the equivalent to emotionally poisoning the relationship. When we fight to be right it escalates conflict and deteriorates trust in the relationship. The next time your argument is going in a negative loop try to take a five minute break. In those 5 minutes work on calming yourself down and thinking about what you need for the conflict to be resolved. Wrap that need into a request and share it with your partner.
03. Focus on What’s Wrong
Research by Dr. John Gottman suggests that what really separates the happy couples from the miserable is a healthy balance between their positive and negative interactions. After working with thousands of couples Gottman and his team developed the “5:1 ratio.” This means that couples who have five times more positive interactions as negative ones have a more stable relationship. Which means healthy couples rarely focus on what is wrong.
If you find yourself hyper focusing on negativity in your relationship, check in on the health of your relationship. It might be that things really aren't that bad and the primary thing that needs fixing is your attitude. If this is the case, start a gratitude practice to help move you out of the negativity funk. You can also load up on positivity by investing in lots of words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, affectionate touch, and little gifts to your partner throughout the day.
04. Expect Their Partner to Be a Mind Reader
I hear it all the time:
“If he loved me, he would know what I want.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask.”
“He should know what he did wrong.”
It's tempting to believe that your partner should know what you're thinking and how you are feeling. It sure would make life a lot easier if that were the case! But the truth is people are different. They see the world differently; have different expectations, and different experiences. We are doing our self and our relationship a disservice when we assume that our partner, or any person for that matter, should know what we are experiencing. Healthy couples share how they feel with one another and do not expect their partner to know what they feel.
05. Avoid Hard Topics
We have two options when confronted with hard relationship topics—we can avoid them and hope that they magically disappear, or we can lean into them, practice being authentic, and deal with what happens. Healthy couples rarely avoid hard topics. Instead, they make the time to discuss them. It’s not always easy, but it is necessary.
When we avoid problems in our relationships we provide for them the opportunity to grow, and leak out in other ways. If you and your partner have a difficult time addressing the hard stuff, couples therapy can be an excellent resource and support. It can be helpful to have a professional in the room guiding the conversation in a safe and supportive way. At least until you can safely discuss topics on your own. Healthy couples recognize when they need outside support and they aren’t afraid to get it.
06. Lack Boundaries
You will rarely see a healthy relationship that lacks boundaries. Boundaries are what set the space between where you end and another person begins. Depending on your upbringing and past experiences, setting boundaries in relationships may be easier or more difficult for you.
Healthy couples talk about and respect each other’s boundaries as a way to ensure that their needs are being met and to feel safe in their relationship. Topics might include emotional boundaries (i.e., how much time to spend together vs. apart), physical boundaries (i.e., physical touch, sex) and even digital boundaries (i.e., how often to check in, posting about the relationship, following each others friends on social media, etc.). Boundaries are also helpful to have around your relationship, protecting it from outside influence.
07. Withhold Forgiveness
Being human is hard. We experience betrayal, hurt, loss and so much more. As a result we sometimes develop unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way to deal with our pain and as away to protect themselves from future pain. Withholding forgiveness is a common way to cope, but it is not effective in the long run and it's something healthy couples rarely do.
When we choose to forgive we make ourself vulnerable to the possibility of getting hurt again. And it’s true, you might. Healthy couples recognize that their relationship runs on forgiveness, it can’t survive without it. Learning to forgive is simply crucial for a peaceful existence and healthy relationship. As vulnerability expert and author Brené Brown says, forgiveness is not forgetting or walking away from accountability or condoning a hurtful act; it’s the process of taking back and healing our lives so we can truly live.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Chung Photography