20 years of marriage is not long enough to know everything. But it is long enough to learn a whole lot of things about relationships and family–including many things NOT to do (often learned in the hardest of ways). When I look at the rough patches of my shared marital relationship, I can see there are eight habits that bring discord to my marriage.
Here are eight relationship-damaging habits:
Not ‘fessing up when I’m upset
I often leaned into a toxic belief that I should just “man up” and deal with my emotions on my own. I believed my problems were my problems and I should work them through to solution on my own. What happened, though, is that little emotional wounds often festered into larger issues. Sometimes they compounded with other little frustrations or wounds–making two minor issues into something major. When I tried to bury my emotions, I became frustrated and hyper-critical of the people around me. (OK, I still do this.)
The best practice is to either bring up my feelings or genuinely let them go (not just hide them). I found a useful tactic in bringing up my feelings: I use “I feel…” statements.
“I feel anxious because I’ve had little time to concentrate on one thing today.”
“I feel grumpy because I had expectations I’d work out more this week.”
“I feel frustrated because I wasn’t as disciplined this week as I hoped.”
“I feel hurt by your criticism.”
Giving up my boundaries
It is perfectly healthy to have friendships and hobbies apart from your partner. Being in a committed relationship does not mean forgoing your individuality. There should still be room for both you and your partner to pursue individual interests.
Put boundaries around those interests. You’ll need those boundaries for two reasons. The first is that you’ll make time to do them. The second is that by having dedicated, bounded time for your interests, they become less likely to negatively interfere with your marriage.
A personal example is at work right now: I am interested in content creation–posting online articles and producing a podcast. This pursuit takes time. I make that time by getting up very early each day. The first couple hours of most of my days are used for feeding my content-creation interest. Because I have that time each day, I don’t allow the content creation to interfere with family time later in the day.
In order to do this, boundaries need to be named. A number of years ago, my wife and I took part in a therapy session where we wrote out our boundaries and then shared them with each other. It was an amazing experience–because it cleared the air regarding our expectations for ourselves and our relationship. It’s beneficial to do this in a supervised environment, but it certainly could be done individually, as well.
The next relationship-killing habit is an antithesis to this practice:
Holding on to unspoken expectations
We all do it. We all hoist expectations onto our partners that they don’t know about. We expect they’ll do something super nice for our birthdays–but we don’t tell them that. We expect they’ll do the dishes while we’re having a busy day–but we don’t express that expectation. It’s likely that most of the strife in our marriages come about because one of us is holding the other to an expectation they don’t know about.
It’s a work in progress: naming expectations or letting them go. When I find myself frustrated with my wife, I often need to address if I’m frustrated for a reason she’s aware of. It may seem obvious to me. But she’s not in my head–it’s not obvious to her. I’ll either need to name my expectation of her or accept that she has no idea what’s going on inside of me.
Not taking care of myself
Do you often feel critical of your partner? Do you sometimes find yourself concentrating on all the things they do wrong, or the things that annoy you, or the things they leave undone?
The problem may actually be your relationship with yourself. For most of us, if we’re not feeling good about ourselves, we find it incredibly hard to feel good about the people around us. So those critical feelings we have towards our partners may be grounded in some disappointment we’re feeling about ourselves.
When feeling heavily critical of your loved ones, it pays to turn the critical eye towards yourself: what have you left undone that is making you frustrated? What about you is frustrating you? Have you been indulging in bad habits? Is an unfinished task hanging over you? Addressing those personal frustration points will likely lead to warmer feelings about your partner.
This amounts to devoting some attention to self-care. But this is not self-care in the vein of pampering oneself. Rather, it is practicing self-care by doing something that makes you feel good about yourself. That may require some work. However, when you do the work that gets you feeling good about you, you’re going to feel great about your partner, too.
Both my wife and I have a talent for sarcasm. Sarcasm is our default language when we are frustrated. And when we get rolling, we can really craft some choice barbs and jabs. But for all our talent in naturally dealing out clever remarks, the sarcasm never helps.
In fact, sarcasm only feeds the negativity of the situation. Despite our talent for sarcasm, we’ve found that nothing productive ever comes from the sarcasm. It only reinforces our negative feelings, piles on hurt, and pours on more frustration. Sarcasm is not a means towards a good end.
So sarcasm needs to be edited. Leave it out of relationship conversations. Sarcasm is a power that should only be used for fun–and, even then, never at the expense of your most loved people.
Saying things I wouldn’t want my spouse to hear
Have a buddy who you sometimes unload on with all the things bothering you about your marriage? I’m just going to say it: that shit doesn’t fly.
I’ve decided that my spouse is, in the least, the one person on Earth I should speak plainly with. Unless asking a buddy for specific advice, it is ultimately unproductive for me to unload on somebody else with frustrations I’m feeling towards my wife. Doing so only creates an echo chamber of negativity. And I find that when I name my frustrations to someone other than my spouse, I somehow still expect my spouse to react to those frustrations–as if she were a fly on the wall during our conversation.
I’ve given up saying things about my spouse that I wouldn’t say to my spouse. She deserves that respect. And I find it’s much more productive to have the tough conversation with her about what’s bothering me than it is to unload on a friend who ultimately has zero influence on the situation.
Really, it’s a respect thing. Respect the spouse enough to discuss issues with them.
Not admitting my weak spots
This blew up for me this past weekend. We were hiking together, and my wife said something that triggered a sore spot for me–she hit one of those festering frustrations that I hadn’t confessed was bothering me. In this situation, I blew up. I gave her the old “I’m done trying to do these things together” guilt trip. That was an immature reaction. What made the issue worse was that I had totally misinterpreted what my wife was talking about at the time.
She went to go find a place to rest and I continued to hike, which gave me some time to think. At first, my thoughts went to justification, centered on all the reasons I was right for acting the way I did. I spent a lot of time making a list of reasons why my reaction was justified. I spent too much time looking for justification. Actions that need complicated justifications are likely weak actions.
Once I realized I was trying too hard to give credence to my emotional reaction, I calmed down and realized I could bring closure to the whole situation by talking with my wife. Instead of defending my actions, I told her why I responded the way I did and admitted it wasn’t a good (or in this case, proper) response.
Blaming my spouse for how I react
What I remembered in the above story is that my wife is not responsible for my reactions. In fact, she really doesn’t make me do anything. I am in control of my reactions. So when she says something I take offense to (which happens), I may get angry, but she is not responsible for how I react to my anger. I control how I react to the offense.
We hammer this into our kids all the time, don’t we? Whenever they’re dealing with another kid who’s bossy, or emotional, or a tattler, we remind them that they can’t control other people. But they can control how they react. It’s a simple lesson in learning to take responsibility for ourselves.
But it’s a lesson we often forget in the confines of a long-term relationship. We often have a bit of a tendency to scapegoat our partners–they’re the reason we’re feeling edgy, tense, and grumpy.
But that’s bogus. Our partners aren’t responsible for our emotional responses; we are.
The fact is this: you can’t control your partner (so stop trying). You can control who you react to your partner.
In harmful or dangerous situations, that may mean reacting by getting the heck away from your partner. You’re not going to love that person into being a less volatile person. You control the situation by removing yourself from it.
On the flip side, if you’re prone to flying into scary anger rants, spewing hateful words, or becoming physically intimidating, hear this: the problem isn’t your partner, it’s you. The only way you’re going to become a happier person is by getting help in dealing with yourself and your reactions.
I’ve been in this marriage for 20 years and I’m still learning how to do it better. There’s an important lesson in that, too: our relationships are not locked into place. What our marriage was 10 years ago is not what it is today. Relationships change as life circumstances change.
This probably goes without saying… but I’ll say it anyway: Your marriage may feel stuck, but it isn’t stuck. It’s dynamic, even now. I hope that by sharing my bad relationship habits and how I compensate that you can see how you can keep your marriage (or relationship) moving forward for the better, too.