When you’re in a relationship, you’re more often than not always trying to do what you can to keep it relatively healthy and happy. And of course, unless you’re a complete masochist, you’d never do anything to deliberately sabotage it. But it’s surprisingly easy to fall into bad habits that can slowly suck the life out of your relationship — and those can add up over time. “Relationships typically don’t end over one big thing, but rather lots of little things that slowly bleed it to death,” says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Since little issues don’t seem as important as bigger problems, it’s easy to let them go until they pile up into something toxic that feels too big to change. “In some ways, the bad habits weaken the foundation of a relationship, leave people feeling more vulnerable, less invested, more full of self-doubt and more likely to surrender or less able to collaborate when under stress,” Durvasula says.
We all slip up sometimes, but to avoid unintentionally trashing your relationship or falling into habits that are going to do more harm than good — it’s important to keep these little bad habits on your radar and do your absolute best not to make them a regular thing.
Being on your phone all the time
Sure, sometimes work stuff can’t wait, but regularly being glued to your phone or checking it when you’re having a conversation with your S.O. sends a subconscious message that they’re not your priority. “It can help to either be all present with your partner or let them know that you can talk once you are off your phone,” says licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago. “Splitting your attention often leaves the other person feeling neglected and less valued.”
Instead, take time to put other distractions aside as much as you can when you’re together, even if it’s for a short time. And if you have to take a call or answer a text during quality-time together, make sure to say something like, “I have to take this, but our time together is really important to me. Please give me a couple of minutes, and then you’ll have my full attention.”
Making public jokes at your partner’s expense
You know your S.O.’s insecurities, and the two of you may even laugh about them in private. But doing it in public is an entirely different story, Durvasula says, even if it’s phrased as a joke. So while your partner may think it’s funny when you say their new haircut makes them look like a less cool version of Conan O’Brien, they’re probably going to be hurt when you say it in front of your friends.
Keeping score, even in your head
Obviously, you know your history as a couple, and you’ve both inevitably done some things that have ticked each other off. But it’s so important to address that stuff in the moment and then let it go — otherwise, it’s going to make you both miserable. “Counting the rights and wrongs that each person does can cause pettiness and resentment,” Klow says. “Instead of paying attention to the score, it can help to take a longer view and see that over time, the give and take may balance itself out.”
If you find yourself pissed off that your S.O. is taking forever to text you back during the workday, which seems to be a habit lately, it might help to remind yourself of your own texting habits when you were last swamped on the job. The same is true when you feel like you’re always letting them pick the restaurant you go to or having to empty the dishwasher — there was probably a time when they did the same for you. “Perhaps you’re giving more this week, month or even year,” Klow says. “Yet if you track the overall course of the relationship, you’ll probably find that things are ultimately pretty even and balanced.”
You know this is bad. Pretty much everyone on the planet knows this is bad — but it still happens a lot. “This is a relationship killer,” Durvasula says. “This reflects indirect communication and usually a fair amount of unhappiness and challenges with self-esteem and insecurity on the past of the passive-aggressive person.” Basically, it doesn’t make you look good and it only serves to piss off your partner. When you find yourself slipping into passive aggression (it happens), try to take a minute and think about what you really want say, even if it’s opening up about something you’ve been dreading talking about or frustrations you’ve been letting fester. Doing that instead of resorting to snark or sarcasm will get you so much farther than you think.
Starting fights over text
Text messages leave so much open to interpretation, and when you start an argument over text, you’re just asking for more issues. “Fighting via text is a setup for a mess — all the emojis in the world cannot substitute for the warmth in your eyes, a smile or seriousness when talking to your partner about something frustrating or upsetting,” Durvasula says. If you have a problem and you need to discuss it, ask them to save some time for a one-on-one later. And if it really can’t wait, call them — it’s not ideal, but hearing each other’s voices is still way better than a text.
Criticizing their family
While you probably wouldn’t start railing on your partner’s mom out of the blue, family issues can come up. “If they bring it up, then you can reinforce their opinions if you agree, but don’t fall into a trap that could come back to bite you,” Durvasula says. Instead, try be diplomatic and keep in mind how you’d feel if they said the same thing about your family.
If you have serious issues with their family’s behavior — whether it’s how they’re treating your partner or you — then approach your S.O. gently and using I-statements so they don’t feel attacked. After all, blood ties are some of the strongest ones out there, so even if your partner’s normally super-level-headed, he or she might get defensive if they feel their family’s being attacked. Let your loved one know that you just wanted to share how their behavior made you feel, citing specific examples, and chances are they’ll be much more receptive to the feedback.
You don’t show regular acts of love
Acts of love — those sweet little things you do for your S.O. — are important for letting your partner know they matter to you and that you’re just as into them now as you were during the honeymoon phase. These can be bigger things, like taking them to a surprise dinner, or little gestures, like making coffee in the morning when they usually do it. There’s no formula for how often you should do this, but you should definitely try to show acts of love on a daily basis. “This really highlights the critical issue of mindfulness in relationships,” Durvasula says. “If you’re mindful, you will do the act of love each day without thinking about it.” But if you can’t remember the last time you did something loving for your partner, you’ll want to start making up for lost time ASAP (or if you don’t want to do these acts of love, it’s time to ask yourself why).
A version of this story was published July 2017.
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