Throughout my professional experience, I’ve noticed certain qualities in relationships that are less than healthy, and others that can even be toxic. While any one of these unhealthy aspects may not spell doom, it makes sense to eliminate as many as possible in your relationship. Do any of the negative characteristics listed below describe what’s happening between you and your partner?
1. Lack of joy, or lack of positivity, in the relationship. This quality can be observed in those couples who simply “go through the motions” of everyday life. Often, there may be very little interaction and connectivity in the relationship. Or it may be a relationship made up of complaints, criticisms, and negativity.
If the foundation of your partnership consists mostly of unpleasant interactions, the health of your relationship will be dramatically, adversely affected. According to Dr. John Gottman, well-respected researcher and psychologist, the ratio of positive to negative interactions in a healthy relationship should be a minimum of 5 to 1. Without the “buffer” of positive interactions, partners tend to no longer give one another the benefit of the doubt in their relationship. This can easily cause an escalating pattern of seeing the worst in one another.
2. Intolerance of differences. In virtually every relationship there are qualities or behaviors that rub each partner the wrong way. It may be overly simplistic, but couples basically fall into two groups: Those in which the partners learn to focus on other (more positive) qualities of each other, and those in which the partners become more fixated or stuck on each others foibles. Couples who become increasingly intolerant of each other’s behaviors, personality traits, or character “flaws” can end up at great risk of breaking up in short order.
Related in part to #1, they’re focusing on the negative instead of the positive aspects of their partner, which is a recipe for disaster. To learn more about how intolerance affects relationships, go here.
3. Righteous conflict. When each partner is primarily concerned with who’s right and who’s wrong, the relationship always loses. This attitude is a result of very poor communication skills and an inability to understand and empathize with each other. When each partner is more concerned with being right than in finding a mutually-acceptable compromise, the couples’ connection is destroyed over time.
4. Sweeping issues “under the rug.” This is connected to what Dr. Gottman refers to as “stonewalling,” and occurs when one person avoids conflict and shuts down from his or her partner. It sets couples up for increasing distance in their relationship. When this happens with any frequency, it does predict a breakup or divorce.
5. Lack of shared interests, hobbies or time spent together. Without common activities in a relationship, it only makes sense that a couple will grow further apart and their connection will continue to fade.
6. One or both partners’ individual problems are being ignored. If a partner is super controlling, a people-pleaser, drug dependent, an alcoholic, or suffers from depression (to name only a few unfortunate possibilities), it can cause major disruption in a relationship if the problem remains untreated.
7. Distrust. If there is a lack of trust in a relationship, or one partner has not worked through any distrust experiences that occurred in the past, it can erode a couples’ connection rather quickly. Not trusting your significant other often creates jealousy and insecurity, among other negative emotions. If not addressed, perhaps in counseling, these unresolved feelings of distrust can spell doom to the relationship.
The good news is, if you recognize any of these characteristics or qualities in your relationship, they can be overcome. If you feel you need assistance in doing so, seek professional help from a qualified therapist or couples counselor. Living together in a healthy, happily-ever-after relationship is definitely a goal worth striving for.
Frequently, when couples come to a crossroads in their relationship, the idea of a separation does come up. It is often due to some negative event that causes an emotional disconnect between them, such as infidelity, job loss, a death in the family, or simply growing apart.
Challenging issues and events can really shake things up, and there are times when it is beneficial for a couple to temporarily live separately. A trial separation gives both partners some breathing room. It gives them a chance to take a step back and sort out their personal feelings about the issues at hand, as well as their relationship. It’s a time for thinking through possible solutions and planning ways to make the relationship stronger and healthier going forward.
Trial separations are meant to be temporary, and are always done with the intention of getting back together. Far too often, however, couples agree to a short-term separation for the wrong reasons.
Situations when a trial separation is doomed from the outset include:
1. One or both partners are interested in pursuing other people. If this is the case, time apart will likely not be focused on saving the current relationship. Inviting other partners (and physical and/or emotional complications) into your life is almost always an effective way of sabotaging your relationship.
2. One partner is angry at the other and this is a way of lashing out by using the separation as punishment. This is usually a knee-jerk impulsive decision that simply isn’t productive at all.
3. The real reason for proposing a split is to avoid serious relationship issues. Avoiding the discussion of troubling topics erodes your connection, and the “elephant in the room” will only intensify and increase your discomfort over time.
4. You’re trying to let your partner down easy, but you really want out of the relationship (or you’re 90% sure). This is the worst case scenario of #3, but, again, not dealing with differences upfront certainly won’t help your relationship be healthier down the road. Unfortunately, this situation occurs more often than you’d think.
5. One or both partners need space, yet have made no stipulations on the terms of their separation or how to move forward. Splitting up with only vague ideas (if any) of what the relationship timeout is intended to accomplish can spell disaster.
Trial separations can work and have proven to be beneficial for some couples, but it’s critical that these guidelines are followed:
1. Prior to initiation, each partner’s concerns regarding a trial separation should be discussed and processed. Discussing each partner’s concerns in advance can prevent misunderstandings during the separation.
2. Set clear boundaries and expectations for your time apart. Agree on the time length of your separation as well as the frequency and form of contact during this period. Will you remain sexually intimate? Are all visits to be scheduled, or is dropping in allowed?
3. Create and keep regular “dates” to stay connected and spend time together during the trial separation period. These dates should include pleasurable activities as well as time for serious discussions regarding the future.
4. Consistent couples counseling should definitely be part of the plan. If you and your partner are considering a trial separation, and the goal is to get back together for a healthier relationship, it’s important to get professional help to maximize the best possible outcome.
Coming to a crossroads in your relationship does not have to mean a permanent parting of ways. A trial separation can be an important step if it’s done for the right reasons and is set up properly. Don’t hesitate to seek the assistance you need to get your relationship back on track.
So you’ve survived the breakup (if not, see breakup survival tips here) and are now wondering if it’s time to look around for a new partner. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve checked out the dating scene and you’re struggling with how to go about it. You may also not be sure how quickly you should start to causally date, or when to focus your search for “the one.” The following list of guidelines can help you identify if you’re prepared for serious dating, and can ensure you’re in the optimal frame of mind before doing so:
1. Are you truly ready for a committed relationship again, and not on the rebound? Certainly a lot of people may have transitional relationships and casually date in the beginning. They’re not prepared for the “real” one just yet. Don’t let feelings of loneliness or neediness cause you to jump into a partnership prematurely. If you feel comfortable about dating casually, be honest with yourself about it. Perhaps you’d really be better off first growing as an individual. Are you simply fearful of being (or not being) in a lasting relationship?
2. Reevaluate what you’ve learned about yourself from, and since, your prior relationship. Do you really know what went wrong between the two of you? How did you contribute to the problems and the unraveling of the relationship? What were the strengths in the relationship? Think about the compatibility issues you had with your previous partner. This is truly a golden opportunity to learn things about yourself that you’ll likely benefit from for the rest of your life.
3. Have you learned to love yourself again? It’s not uncommon to feel despondent, angry, or suffer from very low self-esteem after a breakup. This is particularly true if you were the one who was rejected. Are you beating yourself up or questioning what you have to offer in a relationship? If so, it is important to get your confidence back and clearly see what positive qualities you have to offer in a future relationship. If not, you’re much more likely to make poor decisions and end up in an unhealthy situation. Those who feel they have little value end up with partners who value them (very) little!
4. Be prepared to be patient. Finding the right and “perfect” partner can take a while. Look out for red flags early on. Don’t compromise on the standards you set, and don’t just “settle” if something doesn’t feel right. Loving yourself and being content before embarking on a dating relationship is the best way to prevent settling for a partner you know is not healthy for you.
5. Stay truthful. In the long run, honesty will take you farther. You don’t need to disclose all the details of your past when in a new relationship, but honesty is always appreciated and facilitates more open communication. It encourages the other person to reciprocate in similar fashion and develops trust that can help build a deeper connection more quickly.
6. Pay attention to the phase of life you’re in and make sure the person you’re dating is truly compatible with your lifestyle. Are you retired or just starting a career? Are you still raising children, or perhaps grandchildren? You and your partner need to be in a compatible life stage and share similar goals to ensure long-term success.
7. What are you looking for in a partner? Compile a list of qualities most important to you and also a list of the “deal breaker” characteristics or situations that simply will not work for you. Pay attention to any warning signs and don’t lose sight of those qualities when it comes to deciding what next steps to take.
If any of these guidelines and steps are confusing or overwhelming, or if you’re still trying to process troublesome issues from your previous breakup, seek professional support to maximize your chances for healthy relationships in the future.
In my experience as a couples counselor and relationship specialist, I’ve noticed that the healthier and happier couples tend to share some common characteristics. The healthy habits listed below are by no means a comprehensive list, but are qualities that, when followed, will no doubt improve almost any relationship:
1. Respectful “Fighting”
The healthiest couples have mastered the ability to discuss almost any issue with mutual respect. Their goal in any discussion is to listen and understand one another as fully as possible. This is in stark contrast to the many (less healthy) couples who carry a score sheet, and focus on why they are “right,“ and their partner is “wrong.” The ability to maintain a respectful discussion necessitates that both partners have the skill set to self-soothe (calm themselves down), and the self-awareness to recognize when they are too upset to continue having a productive dialogue with their partner. These healthy couples often have an understanding that when either is too emotional to continue, they agree to postpone and reschedule the discussion in the near future. Establishing the ritual of choosing a regularly scheduled time to talk about important issues can be an important first step for many couples. Proper timing also fosters healthier conversations; it’s essential to know when to initiate a serious discussion and when not to (after a rough day at work, or when feeling too tired or otherwise stressed).
2. Timely Repair
There is little doubt that a strong correlation exists between happy couples and their ability to skillfully make repair attempts (see article for more information on repair attempts). Healthier couples are able to “repair” any damage to their connection with one another after a heated conversation or argument, and usually are able to do so in a timely way (without letting rifts last very long). These couples are also able to consistently accept each other’s repair attempts.
3. Love Language Fluency
Do you speak your partner’s love languages? Happy couples are typically familiar with how each other feels loved. The five ways people express and experience love, first described by Dr. Gary Chapman, are through: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. Connected couples are aware of their partner’s preferences, and make an effort to speak the languages that makes him or her feel most loved, even if they aren’t the ways that matter most personally.
4. Shared Activities
Couples who naturally, or with willing effort, are able to cultivate and develop shared interests and hobbies are more likely to feel connected and have a satisfying relationship. In fact, recent research shows that having shared activities contributes to the longevity of a relationship. Some couples may need to push themselves a bit in trying out activities that might not initially be very appealing to one or the other partner, in order to discover the shared activities that work for them.
5. Positive Interactions
Not surprisingly, studies conducted by Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute reveal that healthy relationships have a minimum of a 5 to 1 ratio of feel-good exchanges to negative ones. These positive gestures may be as simple as expressing appreciation with a quick hug or kiss in greeting, or checking in on each other during the day with a brief phone call, text, or email. It’s these “little things” that add up and can make a big difference in a couples’ overall happiness.
Happy couples have the ability to really accept, and learn to live with, problems in a relationship that don’t seem to ever improve very much. Gottman’s research refers to these issues as perpetual problems, and he found that 68% of conflict between partners involves these recurring issues that stay mostly unresolved, and thus come up repeatedly. Developing a tolerance for the differences that cannot, or will not, change is a key factor in preventing a breakup or divorce. Healthy couples accept their partner where they are, and don’t hold their breath waiting for a new behavior or attitude. The goal, of course, is to focus on the positive qualities of your significant other, and tolerate/learn to live with his or her less than desirable qualities. The alternative can quickly lead to relationship instability.
I’ve noticed how many happy couples prioritize having daily consistent and uninterrupted time together. This “protected one-on-one time” is without any electronics or any distractions, and allows partners to give each other their full attention. I recommend that couples start by devoting a 10-15 minute block of time to focus solely on each other. It’s a healthy routine to develop, and communicates clearly to one another that their relationship is, in fact, a priority.
8. Sex Life
The happiest couples recognize that maintaining an active and satisfying sex life doesn’t happen without working on it. While it’s unlikely to recapture the romantic passion experienced when first dating, healthy couples become skilled at talking about their sexual preferences. They are able to communicate their needs and discuss this delicate topic easily with each other. Some busy couples find it helpful to schedule “sex dates” in order to make this intimacy a priority in their relationship.
9. Healthy Individuals
In order for a couple to maximize the quality of their relationship, each individual partner must prioritize his or her own self-care. Happy couples attend to their own physical, mental, and spiritual health while striving to continuously grow as individuals. Relationships can suffer when both partners are not addressing their overall health issues.
10. Goal Setting
Being able to discuss both short term and long term goals allows a couple to know the road map ahead. Healthy couples communicate freely about their hopes and dreams and revisit their goals periodically. Regular discussions keep them on the same page and no topics are off limits.
11. Realistic Expectations
Perhaps the most important characteristic that the healthiest couples share is the notion that relationships require sustaining a true effort, and attentiveness, in order to flourish. These couples are also able to summon the motivation and energy needed to maximize the success of their relationship. The happiest couples are realistic enough to recognize that a rewarding deep connection doesn’t happen without putting in the work.
Healthy couple relationships don’t necessarily have all eleven of the above characteristics, but they’ve put in practice more than a few. If you’re just starting out on the path to improvement, I’d suggest starting slowly. Introduce one of the above habits at a time (that you have not yet included in your routine) and try to notice how your relationship is enhanced. After incorporating one new habit, alternate with your partner in choosing the next one that the two of you can strive for together.
Although the overall divorce rate in this country is shrinking (see marriage statistics here), recent headlines and reports have indicated that the divorce rate is climbing for couples in the 50-and-over age bracket.
Interested in preventing further erosion of “gray relationships,” renowned gerontologist Dr. Karl Pillemer surveyed 700 men and women, ages 60 and up, to ask their opinions about how to keep the spark alive. Details can be found in his book “30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships and Marriage,” but here are his main findings:
1. Happy couples are willing to share new interests and embrace their partner’s interests. This is important even if it’s an activity or hobby they don’t really care for that much; Pillemer says it’s worth trying. One couple in the study included a golf “widow” and a golf enthusiast. When his wife decided to learn the sport and join her husband on the golf course, he reported it was a dream come true. He’d hoped for years that she would play golf with him.
2. While a romantic spark is important, it’s a real friendship between two partners that matters most over the long haul. After retirement, couples typically spend more time together. It’s hard to be with someone for extended periods every day if you don’t enjoy spending time together!
3. In successful long-term relationships, remembering the “little things” makes a big difference. Partners who help each other with small, routine matters, who show appreciation and add occasional surprises, keep their relationship fresh and their love alive.
4. Older healthy couples do in fact have active sex lives, and value being in good shape physically, as well as maintaining an appealing appearance. Often, the concept of sexual intimacy expands to include simply the pleasure of touch.
5. Of interest to note, Dr. Pillemer discovered that couples growing old together see each other as physically looking the same over the years – a great way to halt the aging process!
Study participants also endorsed the value of couples counseling. People who had been in previous marriages wished they had attended couples therapy prior to calling it quits. In hindsight, they realized how important it is to feel that you did everything you could to try to save the relationship. Lingering guilt or regret over “not trying hard enough” could likely have been avoided with some professional help.
Below are suggestions for keeping love alive in the later years, but they can enhance a couple’s relationship at any stage:
1. Each partner agrees to try one of their significant other’s hobbies, sports, or other interest that they haven’t previously participated in.
2. If suggestion #1 doesn’t apply or work out, decide on a new activity that interests both partners and learn about it together.
3. Focus on everyday little things that you appreciate about your partner. These “microinteractions” create positive connections that can have quite a big impact and really add up.
4. Surprise your partner with thoughtful gifts: perhaps that new tennis racket he or she has been eyeing, or tickets to something you could do together, such as a theater performance you know she’d enjoy, or a sporting event he’d like to attend.
5. Expand on #4 by scheduling a weekly date night. It can be something as simple as an evening stroll through the neighborhood, or as adventurous as taking that hot air balloon ride you’ve heard about.
6. Regularly compliment your partner and show your appreciation for his or her presence in your life. Everyone wants and needs to feel that he or she is valued and loved.
7. Even if a couple has no particular problematic issues to deal with, attending a few couples counseling sessions can enhance or “tune up” any relationship.
In summary, in order for a long-term relationship to flourish, it requires effort and an ongoing attentiveness. While there will undoubtedly be periods that are challenging and difficult, the end reward can definitely be worthwhile.