As a marriage therapist, one of the questions I get asked most by family and friends is What should I do so we don’t end up in couples therapy? As a wife, I get it: you want to know what goes wrong in other relationships so you can avoid it in yours.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic checklist that will guarantee marital bliss. But I’ve seen enough couples in my professional life that I can offer an insider’s look at the three bad habits that I see often in the unhappy couples who find themselves on my couch.
1. Avoiding confrontation and conflict.
Culturally we've embraced this idea that happy couples don’t fight. I’m not suggesting that couples need screaming matches to stay close, but honest communication of your needs and thoughts is crucial.
No two human beings alive will agree on everything and always meet each other’s needs and expectations; and that’s part of the excitement of being together. The danger is not in conflict but in avoiding difficult topics and ignoring your feelings.
Too often couples think that conflict is a sign that the relationship is falling apart. I like to remind everyone that anger and frustration is not the opposite of love; indifference is. When you stop talking, you stop connecting and that’s the real danger. Struggling to have productive conflict? There are numerous books, classes, and qualified professionals to help you develop better skills.
2. Turning to friends and family in times of crisis instead of each other.
If you disagree on a major issue, it's so much easier to turn to a friend or family member who shares your position rather than facing the conflict with your partner. The problem is that a lasting relationship is about partnership and partnership means TWO people, not a committee.
Friends and family can be amazing support systems and a necessary source of love and encouragement for your relationship, but when times are tough, they can’t become your go-to for comfort.
In order to establish a deep and meaningful connection, you must learn how to weather storms as a team, relying on one another first. This requires honest communication and a willingness to be vulnerable with each other. It won’t always go smoothly, but if you want to steer clear of major marital strife, you need to establish clear boundaries around your relationship.
3. Being too busy to play.
Play is the most underrated activity in adulthood! Too often couples settle into a regular routine that saps the fun out of being together. Date night becomes routine and predictable or non-existent (a big no-no in my book).
We are hard-wired to be attracted to what’s new and exciting, so if you want your relationship to stay healthy, you have to be deliberate about making fun a consistent part of the equation.
One of the easiest ways to make your relationship vulnerable to infidelity is to stop playing together. If you aren’t having fun with each other, it won’t take long to start noticing how much fun everyone else seems to have and want that for yourself. Most of us are very bad at realizing when something is a function of our habits rather than a flaw in our partner.
If you're missing the fun side of your significant other, plan some fun activities to do together before you decide that he or she is the problem. You’ll be surprised at how quickly a little playfulness can turn things around.
So, there you have it! Three patterns of behavior to avoid so you can nurture your relationship. Of course, a variety of other issues can arise in relationships, but in my experience, couples who avoid these patterns of behavior are well on their way to a happy and fulfilling life together.
These questions are not a magic wand. They will not take you from stagnancy to living your dream life overnight, but they offer a new way of seeing yourself and your situation. And sometimes a new perspective is exactly what you need to get unstuck and start changing your life.
Esther Boykin, LMFT, wants to live in a world where everyone has at least one amazing relationship in their life. The kind of relationship where they feel safe to be themselves and know that they are loved wholeheartedly because of it.
When she’s not working with couples and individuals to create more joyful and connected lives, she can be found drinking coffee, writing blog posts, or working on her next big idea for her private practice, Group Therapy Associates, in Northern Virginia.
Learn more about how you can work with her at www.estherboykin.com.