Relationship Tips

4 Common Habits a Couples Therapist Is Begging You To Stop for the Sake of Your Relationship

Photo: Getty Images/LumiNola
With some reflection on a current or past relationship, you might be able to guess a few of the worst things to say or do to a partner—like name-call or criticize them in an argument, or offer up an ultimatum. But many of the bad habits that can break down a relationship over time are far less obvious or intentional in action.

According to couples therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, co-founder of relationship counseling platform Ours, some of these under-the-radar habits can actually spring from good intentions, which is all the more reason why they can be so tough to identify in the moment. So, if you suspect you’re doing all the right relationship things but still feel a baseline level of tension bubbling up between you and a partner, one of these bad relationship habits may be to blame. Read on for the most common ones that Earnshaw sees in her practice.

4 relationship bad habits that a couples therapist says you should stop doing

1. You take on the majority of your shared responsibilities

A highly uneven division of the tasks that you and a partner share—be they household chores, taking care of a kid, planning a trip, or even small things like responding to mutual invites—is sure to degrade the quality of your partnership over time.

“What I often see happen is, at the beginning of a relationship or after two people move in together, one person will over-function, so they’re the one always changing the toilet paper, putting the dishes away, picking up the socks, and it’s no big deal because they love their partner and these are easy things to do,” says Earnshaw. “But then life starts to compound, and you have to deal with your growing careers, or you have kids, or you move into a bigger space, and then, being the one who continues to take care of everything begins to breed resentment.”

The tricky thing is achieving a (roughly) balanced division of those tasks before you reach that point. While you may want to do things for your partner—and that’s certainly not a bad thing—when it becomes a pattern or even an implicit contract of the relationship that you’re going to take care of most or all of the shared tasks, it’s bound to become exhausting and unsustainable with time, says Earnshaw. And eventually, you start to wonder why you’re the only one doing it, she says. Speak up now and have an honest, nonjudgmental conversation with your partner to figure out a more equitable solution for household chores and tasks.

2. You over-schedule yourselves with hobbies, activities, or side projects

It’s great to be an interesting person who loves to do lots of different things, and it’s great to date one of those people, too. But when you blend your lives together, the sum total can quickly become overwhelming. If you add up your things, their things, and the things you’ve chosen to do together and arrive at a number that isn’t reasonable to hit within the confines of daily life, you’ve gone overboard in a way that will both reduce your capacity to do the things you love and interfere with the quality of your relationship.

Earnshaw sees this commonly among high-achieving couples: “One is a doctor and the other’s a financial advisor, or one’s a teacher and the other is a journalist, and they’re just super busy, but also, they have a million interests,” she says. “When I ask them what their day-to-day life is like, they’ll tell me, ‘We get up at 5:00 a.m, take the train into the city, go to work, come home, and then I have yoga class and my partner does fencing, and after that, we’ll end up at Home Depot because we’re gutting our bathroom right now, and then we’re caulking things, and then we try to watch TV together, but I have 80 emails, so we’re on our computers.’” Then they wonder why they’ve lost their sense of intimacy or are constantly at each other’s throats, she says.

“Have a conversation around how much time [any new activity] will take and whether it might take away time from something that’s important between the two of you.” —Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, couples therapist

The problem here is with saying “yes” to all of the things without really thinking about how each one will impact the big picture, says Earnshaw. In her experience, this often happens in couples where both people are trying to be really supportive of each other’s interests—which is, again, a good thing. But that doesn’t negate the time economics of life, which she suggests discussing whenever you or your partner wants to add something new to the table. “Have a conversation around how much time the new thing will realistically take and whether it might take away time from something that’s important between the two of you,” she says.

Writing a list of all the things you each do daily (including the time you spend together, which people tend to leave off) can also help you figure out how to best prioritize, while illuminating activities that you might be able to strike out, she says, so that you don’t fall into the bad habit of overcommitting as a couple.

3. You let personal stress build up inside of you (rather than sharing it)

If you’ve ever had a fight or disagreement only to wind up saying, “It’s not you, I’m just stressed about [insert other thing here],” you know how easily any one person’s individual stress can infiltrate the dynamics of a relationship. But, perhaps counterintuitively, trying to keep stress inside you—rather than finding a time to share it with a partner—can actually make that worse.

This typically manifests in one of two ways. There’s the person whose internal stress causes them to act grouchy or irritable (for example, coming in the door and instantly complaining about the noise or the dishes in the sink), and there’s the person who just shuts down and isolates themselves, says Earnshaw. Both of these bad relationship habits can be tough to break because they’re natural coping strategies for the discomfort of feeling stressed, she says. But they’re also bound to create unnecessary tension and distance over time.

The antidote? Utilizing your partnership to work through stress together, rather than allowing the stress to bulldoze right through it. This requires both people committing to a brief daily conversation about the stress that each of them may be feeling and doing so at an agreed-upon time (so you don’t wind up in the scenario where one person is trying to vent about their horrible boss while the other is in the midst of watching their favorite TV show, for example).

“[In a daily conversation about stress], ask simple questions of your partner, like ‘What bothers you the most about that?’ and let them vent without attempting to offer solutions or advice.” —Earnshaw

“In this conversation, you can ask simple questions of each other, like ‘What is stressing you out?’, ‘What bothers you the most about that?’ and ‘What are you worried about happening or what’s the worst-case scenario?’ and then just listen calmly, letting them vent without attempting to offer solutions or advice,” says Earnshaw. “Doing this for both people each day can keep you from either acting irritable with each other or getting distanced whenever stress happens.”

4. You have no boundaries around technology use

Before you eye-roll at the “put your phone down” tip, know that you don’t have to disengage from technology completely or even mostly in order to have a great relationship. The key is just to make sure you’re not allowing technology to drive a wedge between you and your partner in moments that would otherwise be ripe for connection.

“Most people don’t realize how big of a role technology plays in their day,” says Earnshaw. “They wake up in the morning, and they’re sitting with a partner at the breakfast table, but they’re reading Twitter on their phone, then they’re firing off a Slack and listening to a podcast on their headphones while getting ready, and then they’re moving from that podcast to their computer to check emails.” With the recent advent of remote work for many folks, the boundary between work and home is blurrier than ever, she adds, leading many to engage with work pings and emails later into the evening, too.

Once the day is done, it’s easy to just continue along the technology path, regardless of your work location: “Maybe you sit down together, turn on the TV, and pull out your phones, and you have your laptop just off to the side in case you need to respond to a ping or order something online,” says Earnshaw. Theoretically, you could go hours without engaging with your partner, whereas, in the absence of the tech, you might have a meaningful conversation or just an opportunity to connect about your days.

The problem with the above is the mindlessness of it, says Earnshaw. “I don’t believe that technology is always a bad thing for a relationship,” she says. “I think that two people can lay in bed and look at Tweets and read them to each other or send memes back and forth, or watch a show together that they’re both engaged in, and it can truly feel connective.” It’s just when the tech habit becomes so ingrained as an individualized activity and a distraction from time spent together that things take a turn for the worse.

To avoid that spiral, Earnshaw suggests having a conversation in which you set boundaries around tech use (for example, no phubbing while you’re speaking to each other or eating a meal) and figure out, in instances where you are going to continue using it, how you can do so in a more supportive way for your partnership.

For example, if you both spend Sunday mornings in bed scrolling through your phones silently, perhaps you suggest that you start doing a crossword on the phone in bed together or read your tweets aloud like you’re reading the newspaper to each other, suggests Earnshaw. “For the tech activities you don't want to eliminate, it’s about figuring out how to create combined focus, so you’re not just allowing distance to creep into your relationship.”

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