Four Mistakes That Couples Make

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I spend several hours every week watching smart people make terrible mistakes in how they treat their lovers/partners. What follows is a list of the four major mistakes I see couples make.

If I do nothing more than commit myself to avoiding these four mistakes, I radically improve the quality of my partnership.

1. Comparing your new partner to the person you just left behind

I see this all the time with my clients. They break up with someone or divorce their partner and then they get involved in a new partnership. And when they tell me about it they make claims like, “Well, he’s better than Bob.” Or, “At least she’s not an angry person like Jane.” They compare their current lover to their past lover—the one they just left.

But this is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror. The point isn’t to compare your new partner to previous partners who you deemed to be wrong for you. The point is to compare your new potential partner to the kind of partner you want to have.

2. Making your partner wrong

Sadly, I see this dynamic too often—lovers who are intent upon making their partner wrong. Wrong about their feelings—”I feel scared.” “No you don’t, you’re just tired.” Wrong about their perceptions—”This is my favorite beach.” “It doesn’t compare to the place we visited last year.” Wrong about their behaviors—”You shouldn’t laugh so loud.” Wrong about what they remember—”No that’s not what you said, you said . . .”.

The solution is simple and respectful. Whatever your partner says, s/he is always right. Seriously, whatever your partner tells you, s/he is right. Unless you think your partner is a liar, in which case you have a more serious problem. But, if you fundamentally believe that your partner is an honest person, then whatever s/he says—believe her, believe him. Start with this generosity and you will immediately make it easier to connect.

3. Tolerating immature behavior

When I tolerate immature behavior—in myself or in my partner—I get good at one thing– tolerating immature behavior. Repeating anything makes me better at whatever it is I’m repeating. But is tolerating immature behavior something I want to get good at? Because when I “tolerate” immature behavior I usually end up repressing my true feelings . . . which leads to irritating myself . . . which leads to victimizing myself. This is not the kind of stuff I want to get good at.

The alternative, again, is simple. It’s a matter of learning how to give mature expression to my feelings and needs. And I ask the same of my wife, Hannah. I don’t ever want Hannah to feel that she can’t come to me and share her feelings or needs. I only ask that she try to give a mature voice to her feelings. Some people disagree with this idea. They think that cathartic expression of their emotions is important. Some people believe that the extreme change in emotions—from calm to intense—is what results in renewal and restoration.

Maybe, maybe not. But I do know that renewal and restoration is achievable through the mature expression of our feelings and needs. And, as I said earlier, we get good at whatever we repeat. So the more I behave in a certain way, the more cortical real estate I develop to support that particular behavior. If I repeatedly rely on cathartic expression of my emotions, I increase the likelihood that I will behave this way in the future. If I repeatedly practice mature expression of my emotions, I increase the likelihood that I will behave this way in the future.

4. Being too coarse

Too coarse, too casual—do you know what I mean? In part it comes down to taking my partner for granted. Not treating her like she is the most special person in my life. Or saying hurtful things, which people do and then justify when they are angry, “You’re stupid,” or “Go to hell,” or “I hate you.” I believe these behaviors erode something sacred: safety.

I have discovered a wonderful paradox in relating with Hannah. We treat our relationship as if it’s fragile, and as a result, our relationship feels robust. But, if we treated our relationship as if it were robust, I suspect we’d find out it isn’t. When I say we treat our relationship as if it’s fragile, what I mean is that we are thoughtful about how we treat one another—all the time. We never say hurtful things. We don’t take one another for granted. We nip hurt feelings in the bud so that they don’t take root and grow.

And it works . . .

Why, if my suggestions are so simple, do they seem so hard to do?

  1. We’re with the wrong partner. A poor fit. We simply have very different styles and values. Or, maybe we just lack good chemistry. Or, at a deeper level, maybe we don’t feel safe with our partner.
  2. We focus on the wrong stuff. Maybe what we have is actually pretty good, but we’re just so busy focusing on our problems and what doesn’t work that we don’t live up to our potential.
  3. We use the wrong language—this is true of most of us. We learned to use language in a way that made us think other people are largely responsible for how we feel. We learned to use language in a way that encouraged us to focus on the past and worry about the future. The only solution I know to correct our early life learning is to learn how to Perception Language.

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