Common Traits in Unhappy Relationships

The obvious and the not-so-obvious.

Brooke Meredith
Nov 17, 2020 · 8 min read
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Do you ever wonder, is my relationship good or not? Are there times when you have an argument or experience dissatisfaction in your romantic relationship and question, does this mean we aren’t a good match? Does this indicate it isn’t a healthy or happy relationship after all? Does this mean I chose wrong?

You can rest easy for the moment because yes, even great relationships have moments of challenge and do experience certain “down” moments. Even the best relationship experience moments of doubt. Even happy and healthy relationships have times when someone asks themselves, is this right? Can this really work over the long-term? Is this person the one I want to be with? Even wonderful relationships can have times where one person is not as thrilled with the other as they tend to usually be.

Therefore, experiencing these thoughts on occasion is not automatic evidence that your relationship is no good after all.

However, there are certain behaviors and traits that unhappy relationships tend to have in common.

Here are some of them.

They Stop Saying “Please” and “Thank you.”

Gratitude is a hugely significant thing in a relationship. So are expressing loving words and sentiments to your partner. Both of these things are important. Think of them as the oil on a hinge that keeps it from getting squeaky. The lubrication that keeps cogs turning instead of sticking and malfunctioning.

Your partner probably does all sorts of things, each and every day, for the happiness of your relationship, and for you (assuming this is a truly good relationship). Whether it’s cooking a delicious dinner, or rubbing your neck for five minutes, or saying yes and listening to you read them a passage from a book, or buying you a type of tea they think you’d enjoy, or doing the dishes so you don’t have to, or writing you a short love note, or cuddling with you before bed. You get the idea.

In long-term relationships, though, many of us begin to take these things for granted and overlook them. Don’t do that. This is dangerous. If your partner feels taken for granted, not seen, not cherished, or devalued, this can be where things get shaky or even go downhill.

The same goes for speaking lovingly toward your partner too. This means telling them they’re special to you, that you appreciate them, that you love their company, or that something they did impressed or moved you.

Do not let “please”, “thank you”, loving sentiments, or ultimately, gratitude, disappear from your relationship.

If these things are long gone, it isn’t a great sign.

They Never Spend Quality Time Apart.

Yes, you read that right. Quality time apart. Partners who do everything together, or worse, a partner who is possessive, jealous, and never lets their love go out and spend significant chunks of time here and there doing their own thing? This is bad news.

Time apart breaths new life into relationships. It gives you more to talk about when you come back together again. It adds variety to your own life, and as a result, to the relationship. You cannot miss each other if you are never apart. It’s also important that each person has the opportunity to grow on their own, apart from one another.

Healthy couples grow, both as a couple and as individuals too.

Healthy, full individuals have interactions with social connections apart from their romantic partners. They have some hobbies or interesting life focuses outside of their relationship. They have interests they like to go off and do, without their partner at times.

Here’s an excellent quote that sums it up perfectly:

“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.”
― Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic

Little to no interest in the details of your partner’s life and their passions

And there is a difference between feigning interest, and showing obligatory interest, as opposed to genuine interest and curiosity. Most people can sense and will notice the difference if your interest is put on.

You might be surprised- some people do lose a significant degree of interest in hearing the nuances of their partner’s inner life as time passes. This is dangerous, though, because in the words of Stephen Covey (The Seven Principles of Highly Effective People), what is important to the person you love must be as important to you as the other person is to you.

He then tells an anecdote about a friend whose son developed an impassioned interest in baseball. His friend, the father of this boy, wasn’t interested in baseball at all. But one summer, he took his son to see every major league team play one game. The trip took over six weeks and cost a great deal of money, but it became a powerful bonding experience in their relationship.

His friend/the father was asked on his return from the trip, “do you like baseball that much?”

The man replied, “no, but I like my son that much.”

And that, my friends, is a powerful lesson in love (and one that applies to romantic relationships, as well as friendships, and family relations too).

They Don’t Prioritize Relationship Rituals.

Couples who are close to each other have certain special things they do together. This could be a TED talk Tuesday night, it might be brunch every Saturday. It could be tea time each Sunday morning, or it can be reading each other “article of the day.” It might be exercising together two, three, or four particular nights each week, or always grabbing your partner their favorite type of dessert when you’re at that store or restaurant. It could be coming up with a couple of monthly goals for your relationship, or always rubbing feet and reading together in the evenings. You get the idea.

Have at least a few things that are cherished things you do together, and ones that are considered sacred, important, and which stand no matter what. Relationship rituals bond you. They give something to look forward to. They become something special in your connection. This same practice can be applied to friendships and family relations too!

Holding Grudges.

This is an important one. Couples in unhealthy relationships may forgive, but they don’t forget. Holding grudges, over time, will become a poisonous smog that seeps through and destroys your relationship. We’ve all known at least one, maybe more couples like this. Often, it’s a couple that has been married for decades. They aren’t especially happy or healthy together and are instead resigned. Though the couple doesn’t have to look like this either. It can also be a younger couple who has been together for far less time.

The point is: holding grudges is toxic. For relationships that hold onto past grievances, who keep score, and who are all about “well you did this a year ago, and you did this thing to me back then,” there will be a lot of unhappiness and bitterness in these relationships, for this very reason.

Deal with disappointment, anger, or upset when it actually comes up. Address it and process through it. Forgive. And then move on from it, let it go. If you cannot do this, it might be time to let the relationship go.

They Don’t Often Ask the Right Questions.

A lot of couples (and this happens most often in long-term relationships) tend to stop listening as closely to one another. They ask each other, “how was your day?” And it often just stops there.

(For some ideas on how to shake things up a bit, check out my article: 22 Questions to Ask Instead of “How Was Your Day?”).

Many long-time couples think they “already know each other.” They assume, I know my partner so well, there isn’t anything new they are going to tell me. This is a mistake and is faulty thinking. And this often happens because, instead of asking new questions and more open questions, we ask the same old questions of our partner every day.

This also happens because we falsely assume we know all of someone when this is impossible. You never know all of someone. No matter how intimately you know them, there are always sides and facets of them you do not know. This is because people are always growing and changing (especially if they seek continued learning through reading, life experiences, taking classes, other social connections, etc). And it is because each of us feels a multitude of varying feelings and thoughts every day.

Your partner has memories they haven't yet shared with you (think of how layered a single life is, how loaded with memories and experiences). They have thoughts and feelings they didn’t tell you about. They might have had conversations, or yearnings, or ideas they haven't yet told you.

You never fully know someone. And thus, there are always interesting potential conversations lying in wait, if only you ask the right questions.

Fighting More Often Than Getting Along.

All couples will get into disagreements, even sometimes a fight. When you put any two people together from totally different backgrounds, with different temperaments, some varying interests, values, and likes, then yes, there will be times when you do not agree on things, and even, when you get upset with each other. This is normal and unavoidable. (During COVID, this is probably an even tough thing and potentially more prevalent with the unusual).

But, if you find yourselves fighting frequently, and about all sorts of inconsequential things, this is a warning sign. It hints that there might be more going on underneath than is indicated on the surface. That maybe there are some deeper resentments going on that are festering.

The 5:1 ratio isn’t present.

Drs Julie and John Gottman, relationship experts (they can predict with a 97 or 98 percent accuracy rate after watching a couple interact for just ten minutes, whether or not their relationship will happily last or not) have a theory called the 5:1. Basically, for every one negative, disappointing, annoying, or frustrating interaction in your relationship, there need to be five positive, uplifting, loving, supportive ones to offset it.

When relationships become imbalanced in the direction of negative interactions, this is when they grow less contented, less satisfied, less happy. If negative interactions are more evenly matched with the prevalence of positive ones, this will still be quite damaging. Think of it as a bank account. If every time you put five dollars in, you take four or five dollars out, you basically break even. There is no positive balance in there.

You need to put in far more positive sums, and more frequently, than negative ones. Otherwise, the account will break even, or even dip into the negative. And once it dips into the negative, even occasional positive interactions won’t matter much since it will be akin to depositing money into an already negative bank account. It won’t be enough to bring it back into the positive again. Relationships need to have a lot of positivity, good, and loving gestures to stay happy over the long-term.

Keep an eye out for these traits and work hard not to allow them to become present in your relationship. If they do become prevalent in a relationship, they are significant red flags.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Brooke Meredith

Written by

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Brooke Meredith

Written by

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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