We took chemistry, algebra, and PE, but there was no class in school on how to be in a successful relationship (off-topic side note: have you used calculus in your life, like, at all? Just saying). There was no “How to Not be a Shitty Partner 101,” or a crash course in finding a relationship that makes you happy.
So instead, we got all our relationship advice, expectations, and teen spirit wisdom from every 16-year-old girl’s god: Nicholas Sparks. Or maybe for you it was the “you complete me” magic of Tom Cruise, the will-they-or-wont-they of Ross and Rachel, or the passionate love-hate relationship between Mike Chadway and news producer Abby in The Ugly Truth.
Here’s the real ugly truth: toxic relationship habits are not only normal in our society, but are worshipped. Passionate love stories become blockbuster hits, screaming matches turned steamy make-outs become cinematic gold (à la The Notebook), and the idea of “love” becomes all-consuming, all-or-nothing, and “happily-ever-after.” The things that really makes a relationship good, stable, and fulfilling are not very exciting, nor do they sell well or feel dramatic enough for the big screen, which is why we often confuse “love” with toxic behavior. Here are the habits that feel normal in our society, but might be damaging your relationship (and what to do instead):
1. Expecting your partner to “fix” any emotional distress
Be honest: how many times have you been in a fight about your partner not being there for you during a tough time or not being sympathetic enough about your bad day? Have you built up resentment because your partner wasn’t as emotionally there for you as you “needed?” While it’s important to seek support and partnership with your significant other, there’s a big difference between being supportive and being emotionally obligated. You should be adding to each other’s lives without feeling like either of you depend on the other.
What to do instead: You should be able to turn to your partner and ask, “This feels hard to do alone – can you help me to get through this?” Key word: ask. Vocalize how you’d like your partner to show up for you and how you’re feeling, without expecting or relying on them to “fix” anything. Take responsibility for your own emotions, without expecting them to hold any responsibility for your happiness.
2. Making fairness and balance a relationship priority
Obviously, fairness and balance sound like two admirable qualities — but sometimes in relationships, fairness and balance look a lot like keeping score. If you find yourself mentally computing the effort your partner is putting in and how it relates to the effort you’re putting in, or if either of you are retaliating hurt feelings by bringing up past arguments, this could be a sign that one or both of you are more focused on keeping score than keeping the relationship happy. Your relationship should not include a scorecard that tallies up who has screwed up the most or who owes the other more.
What to do instead: Know that relationships do not have to be “fair” in order to be good. If you live together, reevaluate your chore chart – it doesn’t have to be “equal” (like “I cooked, so you have to do the dishes,” or “I took the dog for a walk yesterday, so you have to do it today”). Instead, offer to do the chores you know your partner really doesn’t like to do that you don’t mind, and vice versa. Think about what makes sense for both of your lifestyles, not what is equal, and treat every problem or disagreement like it’s brand new, without bringing up past issues.
3. Thinking of your partner as your “second half”
Back to that “you complete me” load of crap – no one, and I mean no one, can live a fulfilled life with the belief that they need someone else to make them whole. This mentality can lead to toxic dynamics like codependency, insecurity, and controlling behavior.
What to do instead: Look at your partner as someone who enriches and adds to your already complete life. Focus on yourself more often than you focus on the relationship, and seek out what makes you happy – then get ready to share your joy with your significant other.
4. Speaking in absolutes
Instead of saying, “what you said wasn’t very nice and hurt my feelings,” you say “I could never be with someone who says such awful things!” Instead of, “your reaction to what I said made me feel unheard” you say, “I deserve someone who listens to me and cares about my feelings!” Sound familiar? In speaking in absolutes, you’re creating expectations for the relationship based on your own “ideals” that actually have nothing to do with your partner. In general, stop relating with your significant other based on what they could be and accept who they are.
What to do instead: Focus solely on the problem at hand. Don’t generalize your partner’s actions, and vocalize why they hurt you in that moment, rather than why you don’t accept them as a worthy enough partner.
5. Intense conflict means passion
We all have laughed, cried, loved, and ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watching the iconic rom-dram The Notebook, complete with screaming matches that turn into passionate sex scenes (you’ve watched the Youtube clip, I know!). But “passion” that results in consistent fights or screaming matches off-screen are always rooted in deeper problems like immaturity, difficulties with communication, or even traits of relationship abuse like narcissism or control – no matter how good the “make up” is. Regardless of what causes consistent fighting, it makes for an unsustainable relationship, resulting in eventual burn-out. The truth is that love should feel gentle. You should be more consistent in your relationship than you are up and down, and you should feel more content than heated or angry.
What to do instead: Re-wire the way the two of you deal with problems. Think of the issue as you two against the problem, instead of each of you against each other. Also, focus on your partner’s emotions, rather than their words – this limits the ability to get caught up when something is said out of anger or frustration. Start expressing gratitude for the traits about your relationship and partner that have nothing to do with “passion” at all – their kindness, how they’re there for you, how you two share the same interests, etc. If your relationship still seems to have more passion and conflict than feelings of safety, security, and selfless support, just be warned that passion is not enough to feel fulfilled for a lifetime.
6. Dropping “hints”
So maybe you’ve “accidentally” left up a browser page of a certain pair of earrings you’re dying for when you borrowed their laptop, or maybe you just so happened to casually “think out loud” — I’ve always loved going to the ballet, but haven’t in so long! — in hopes your partner will take the hint and get you what you want. While a gift here and there is lighthearted and harmless, dropping “hints” about other areas of your relationship can be toxic and damaging. Dropping these so-called hints means one (or both) of you are attempting to nudge the other to figure out something for themselves, rather than just speaking it.
If you can’t openly communicate your feelings or desires, whether it’s I wish you complimented me more, or I’d like to try something new in bed, it shows your communication needs some work as a couple. There’s no reason you would be passive-aggressive if you felt like your feelings would be taken with respect and non-judgment.
What to do instead: Be up front and open about your feelings, desires, and needs. Never lead with false hopes that your partner will be able to assume what you want, and value open communication in your relationship. Make it clear that your partner is not obligated to fulfill your needs; rather, you’d appreciate their effort or support, and don’t be judgmental, unreceptive, or dismissive with anything they communicate to you.
7. Believing in the idea of “soulmates”
Another Box Office belief that had me believing in Prince Charming since I first watched Cinderella (or The Twilight Saga – I’d spend forever with Edward Cullen any day!). But the problem with believing in a soulmate is that you could be spending your life measuring your partner in terms of what they aren’t, rather than what they are. I’m not saying you won’t find someone who checks off every box on your checklist, or who won’t love you bigger and greater and kinder than you ever knew to wait for – in fact, I truly believe love is not worth having unless it’s that. But it’s the way we think about commitment that makes all the difference.
What to do instead: Think of commitment as a choice, rather than “destiny.” Instead of asking yourself if the person you’re with is “perfect,” ask yourself whether or not you would want your children to be exactly like them – it will help distinguish the difference between “settling” and being over-critical. Finally, complete yourself first (screw “you complete me”), and then if you happen to find someone who is compatible with the version of you that you love, it’s more romantic than passionate fights or happily ever afters could ever be.