When you’re with someone, it makes sense that you would do everything you can to keep your relationship happy and healthy. But of course, nobody is perfect, and sometimes you may end up doing things that sabotage your relationship — and you don’t even realize you’re doing them.
“Dysfunction in romantic relationships can take many forms and can look very different with different couples,” says Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona. That’s why we got top relationship experts to weigh in on the most common ways people unintentionally undermine their relationship. Here are the biggies to look out for.
You badmouth your partner to others
Sure, it makes sense that you’d want to vent to a girlfriend after you have a bad fight, but repeatedly complaining about your partner to other people isn’t a good thing, says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Not only would your partner be hurt if they knew, regularly saying bad things about your S.O. paints a negative picture in the minds of your friends and family that may not be accurate — and that can come back to haunt you in the future.
You can’t get over the past
“One of the most common ways people accidentally sabotage romantic relationships is by projecting past experiences in romantic relationships onto a current relationship and new person,” says Cilona. “Hurt and betrayal from a past relationship can be particularly impactful and can often influence new relationships through things like faulty and unfair assumptions and extreme or inappropriate emotional reactions.” Reactions that are rooted in the past and related to a past relationship, but triggered by an event or behavior in a new relationship almost always cause trouble and dysfunction, he says.
You get defensive
Disagreements happen, and if your partner raises an issue with you, it’s important to at least hear them out. Being defensive, on the other hand, is the opposite of that. “Defensiveness sabotages the relationship because it does not allow your partner to feel heard,” says licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago. And, if your partner doesn’t feel like they’re being heard, it’s probably going to lead to more fighting.
Criticisms outweigh praise
It’s an easy trap to fall into: You only speak up when you disagree with something your partner says or does, but forget to do the same when they do something great. This can be a dangerous cycle to fall into. “If you are constantly critical of your partner, then it deteriorates the relationship,” Klow says. Durvasula agrees, noting that “not letting your partner know you are grateful for small things” can cause issues.
You brush off partner’s vulnerabilities
Everyone feels vulnerable on some level and sensitive about particular topics. But not understanding your partner's preferences, vulnerabilities and sensitive spots — chronically pushing those buttons — is a recipe for disaster, Durvasula says.
You check your partner’s phone
Even if they don’t know you’re doing a quick perusal of their texts or glancing at their emails, that’s a sign of a lack of trust, which is “almost ubiquitous to troubled and dysfunctional relationships,” Cilona says. The lack of trust may be due to something that happened in your past or perhaps something in your current relationship is causing it. Whatever it is, it needs to be addressed — before you get caught red-handed.
If you realize you’re accidentally sabotaging your relationship, it’s time to do something about it. Durvasula recommends taking stock of the situation: Do you actually want to be in the relationship or are you doing all of these things because you don’t want to stay with your partner and aren’t sure how to end it? “If you want out, then get out,” she says. But if you want to maintain your relationship, it’s important to stop these behaviors. “If your sabotage has actually taken a toll on the relationship, then communicate your awareness of your behavior to your partner and apologize,” she says. “That can go a long way.“
But if you know you’re inviting dysfunction into your relationship and can’t pinpoint why, Klow says it’s probably a good idea to look into counseling for yourself. “Individual therapy can help with this process of self-reflection,” he says.
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