We all know that couple: The one that bickers at dinner parties and makes snide remarks behind each others’ backs. The one that prompts the question: Why are they still together?
But contemptuous couples don’t get that way overnight. To help you and your partner avoid the same fate, we asked relationship experts to share some of the biggest mistakes people in unhappy relationships make — and how to course-correct if you’ve made them. See what they had to say below.
1. They compare their behavior now to their behavior when they dated.
Couples are never more romantic (or PDA-inclined) than in the early days of a relationship. It’s inevitable that some of the romance will fade over time — and while it’s important to address it, bringing up the past rarely helps the matter, said Anne Crowley, an Austin, Texas-based psychologist.
“A spouse in an unhappy marriage might complain ‘you used to be so romantic!'” she said. “Unfortunately, the other partner’s response is often a defensive one — ‘Hey, that was before we had three kids!'”
Instead of getting bogged down in the past, “see what happens when you tell your spouse you miss him or her,” Crowley said. “Oftentimes it is intimacy that we are seeking with our spouse and anger only serves to push him or her away. Communication is the bridge to intimacy. When we feel connected with our spouse, we feel loved and valued.”
2. They’re pros at passive aggression.
The road to divorce is paved with passive aggressive digs and eye rolls, said Marina Sbrochi, a relationship expert and the author of Stop Looking for a Husband: Find the Love of Your Life.
“If your partner models contemptuous behavior, you’ll most likely pick up that vibe and escalate the issue,” she said. “You’ll both walk away silently cursing each other.”
To put an end to the silent treatment, you need to get smarter with your argument style, Sbrochi suggested.
“The next time you argue, take note of how one person’s attitude is contagious,” she said. “Instead of matching attitude, stop the bad-attitude train. Listen respectively and try to figure out what exactly your partner is trying to say to you.”
3. They can’t agree on who’s right and who’s wrong.
It’s exhausting to be in a relationship with someone who has to have the final say in everything. Partners who need to be right at the expense of their loved one’s feelings push each other away, said LiYana Silver, a San Francisco-based relationship expert and coach.
“They try to get the other person to submit by shaming them, bullying them, out-smarting them or shutting them out,” she said. “If you’re a partner who constantly needs to be right, ask yourself: ‘What’s so important to my S.O. about this issue? What about it am I not seeing?’ This will shift the dynamic from adversarial to allied — and genuine curiosity in a relationship is disarming and heart-opening. It will put you back on the same team.”
4. They put in phone time instead of face time.
We’re all guilty of glancing at our phones when we should be engaging with our partners. But do it too often and you send a powerful non-verbal message to your S.O., Crowley said: Whatever I’m doing on my phone is far more important than you.
A starting place to move beyond the behavior “could just be turning off, muting or putting your phone out of reach at dinner,” she said. “This allows your partner your full attention and sends the nonverbal message that time together is important.”
5. They allow their relationship to grow stale.
If you want a long-term relationship to last, making an effort to share new and exciting experiences is essential. When couples fall into ruts and routines, they stop growing together and run the risk of growing apart, said Alicia H. Clark, a Washington, DC-based psychologist.
“Too much passive disconnected activity — watching TV, surfing Internet, reading — can erode a sense of connection and lure couples into a cycle of disengagement,” she said.
If you find yourself bored by your partner, Clark recommends trying something new together: tackle that recipe you found on Pinterest, go for a hike or schedule date nights again.
“Novelty has been shown to boost relationship connection via the reward circuitry in our brain that stimulates feelings of pleasure, desire and motivation,” Clark explained.
6. They lose sight of their partnership.
Your partner should be your ride-or-die bestie, your partner in crime. One thing unhappy couples have in common is losing sight of that unbreakable partnership, said Crowley.
“Life changes when we marry or get serious,” she said. “Maybe the wife’s focus is the children and the husband feels left out or the husband works long, late hours and the wife feels alone. We start to go through the motions and we don’t feel bonded or connected anymore.”
To regain that sense of partnership, try to actively show your partner how much you appreciate him or her, Crowley said.
“Tell and show you care,” she said. “Pause for a moment when your partner comes home to welcome and embrace him or her. Be affectionate. It helps forge connection and closeness. It’s a reminder that he or she is your one and only.”
7. They don’t touch.
Don’t underestimate the power of playful pinches on the bum and hand-holding in public. Couples on the fritz tend to put physical contact and the intimacy on the back burner, said Clark.
“Human touch is a cornerstone of bonding and has been shown to drive up oxytocin – dubbed the cuddle hormone – that in turn facilitates attachment,” she explained. “If you’re in a relationship, make sure to do the little things: kiss each other when you say goodbye, hug more frequently or just hold hands while driving or watching TV. It will make a difference.”
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