From financial insecurities to physical abuse, there are all sorts of reasons romantic relationships don’t work out. But if you find yourself stuck in a pattern of relationships that don’t last, there may be some subtle psychological reasons why.
Over the years working as a psychologist and counselor, I’ve observed 10 common patterns that sabotage people’s long-term relationships over and over again.
If you can learn to see them and work through them, your chances of finding a satisfying long-term relationship will increase dramatically.
1. You’re afraid to ask for what you really want
Being a therapist means I hear all the requests people wish they could make with their partners but are too afraid to:
- I wish we had more sex. But it’s a weird thing to just say. Plus, I don’t want him to feel bad…
- It’d be nice if we went on more dates—like we used to when we were dating.
- I want to spend more time with my friends, but he gets so insecure anytime I do things without him.
Yes, sometimes it’s hard and embarrassing and scary to be direct and ask for what you want. But what’s the alternative… Just sit around hoping things get better and all of a sudden your deepest wants and needs start getting met by magic?
Your relationship won’t work if you’re not willing to work for yourself.
Unfortunately, many people are taught to be overly polite and respectful and considerate of other people’s wants and needs to such an extent that they ignore their own. And when you chronically ignore your own legitimate wants and needs, you’ll end up seriously resentful—and very likely, find yourself sabotaging the relationship.
The solution is to become more assertive—to communicate your wants and needs in a way that’s honest to yourself and respectful of others. Like anything, it’s difficult, but with practice it is a skill you can learn and improve.
2. You’re afraid to say ‘no’ to what you don’t want
This one’s the flip side of the previous point: If you can’t say no to what you don’t want, you’ll end up just as unhappy and resentful as if you don’t ask for what you do want:
- Can you say no when your partner suggests getting burritos for the third time this week?
- Can you say no when they want to have sex but you don’t?
- Can you say no when they want to take that new job that requires working an extra 30 hours per week?
Obviously, all healthy relationships require some compromise. But if you’re habitually compromising on everything—or on things that are deal-breakers for you—how healthy can your relationship be?
The willingness to say no is about standing up for yourself—it’s about giving yourself the same level of respect you give to others.
If you can’t do that, how could the relationship not become one-sided, unhealthy, and eventually fall apart?
3. You’re not willing to enforce your boundaries
It’s one thing to set healthy boundaries. The hard part is enforcing them:
- You can say you’d like your partner to remember to take out the trash on Tuesday evenings, but what are you willing to do if they don’t?
- You can say you’d like Thai food instead of Italian, but what good is it if you give in and “just go with it” every time because they make such a fuss?
Healthy relationships depend on healthy boundaries. But here’s the rub:
Boundaries are worthless if you’re not willing to enforce them.
And actually, it’s worse than that: If you chronically set boundaries but don’t enforce them, you’re training your partner to not take your wishes seriously, which only makes the problem worse.
It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s crucial that you get used to setting and enforcing boundaries early and often in your relationships. Because despite our best hopes and desires, it’s very hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
4. You depend on your partner to feel better
Classic love story:
- Insecure, self-doubting Partner A meets overly-confident, quasi-narcissistic Partner B.
- Initially, things feel great: Insecure Partner A brings every worry and concern to confident Partner B who makes everything feel better with definitive reassurances of every kind.
- But quickly, things fall apart: Insecure Partner A realizes that confident reassurances don’t actually address the core insecurity. All the while, overly-confident Partner B starts to resent Partner A as “too needy” and “fragile.”
- Gulfs form, resentments fester, trust disappears, and eventually the relationship dies—sometimes with a bang, often with a long drawn-out whimper.
Moral of the story:
Your emotional wellbeing is your responsibility. Don’t make it your partner’s.
Obviously, other people do matter for our emotional health and wellbeing. But if you go into a relationship depending on the other person to feel okay, you’re setting up the relationship to fail from the beginning.
5. You overrate the importance of complementarity
Opposites attract. And then they explode.
Initially, it feels good to be with someone who’s very different from you in key areas because it feels like they make you better by complimenting you:
- Your extroverted partner makes it easier for you to say yes to social events.
- Your confident partner makes you feel a little less insecure.
- Your organized partner helps you avoid big-time errors running your business.
But those compliments quickly devolve into resentments:
- He’s such a bore… He never wants to go out or socialize.
- They’re always telling me how I should feel and how silly it is to worry.
- She’s so rigid and controlling… It makes me feel like a kid in school.
While tempting initially, basing your relationship on complementarity is often a recipe for disappointment, distance, and resentment.
Here’s a different way to think about it:
Healthy relationships happen when you and your partner are compatible, not complementary.
Compatibility means because of what you share, you’re able to work together as a team. And to feel as though you’re a team. Because like any team, your similarities outweighs your differences.
When you’re deciding to get into a relationship, differences are appealing because they give the illusion of filling in our own psychological needs. But in the long run, it’s the things you agree on and share that define the strength and happiness of your relationship.
6. You don’t have good models for healthy relationships
We all like to think of ourselves as mature and intelligent decision-makers who make important life choices rationally and objectively, based on good reasoning and solid evidence.
But in reality, we’re all far more influenced by unconscious patterns than we like to admit.
And this is especially true of our relationship decisions: The relationships we choose are heavily influenced by the relationships we grew up around and the ones we see on a regular basis. Which means…
If you’re surrounded by examples of unhealthy relationships, it’s very difficult to swim against the grain and choose a healthy one.
Instead of naively assuming that you can stand above all the social influences in your life, better to try and change the type of people and relationships you spend time around so that those powerful unconscious models work for you instead of against you.
7. You have low standards for emotional maturity
I’ve probably heard this story a hundred times:
But he was so handsome and funny and smart… How was I supposed to know he had the emotional maturity of a 14-year-old?
The problem here is that we assume people’s level of maturity is consistent across different areas. But as you can probably tell when you stop and think about it, just because someone is mature in one area of life doesn’t mean they’re equally mature in all areas of life:
- He may be older and more socially sophisticated than the frat boys you typically date, but does that mean he’s emotionally mature and capable of, say, admitting when he’s wrong?
- She may be incredibly well-educated and intellectually mature, but does that mean she’s emotionally mature enough to handle stress well and be resilient in the face of failure?
No matter how smart or successful or charming they are, if they’re not emotionally mature, your relationship will be unhappy.
Unfortunately, most people have incredibly low standards for emotional maturity. And while your partner’s defensiveness in difficult conversations or avoidance of talking about feelings may not feel like a big deal when you’re dating, I guarantee it’s going to feel like a big deal when you’re raising kids, or trying to buy a house, or dealing with the loss of a job.
Just say no to emotionally immature partners. Your future self will thank you.
8. You gossip about your relationship
Relationships are built on trust.
Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s a true one that we’d all do well to think more carefully about.
Specifically, it’s worth looking closely at where you tend to lose trust in relationships. And one of the biggest places I see lack of trust coming from is something that seems innocent and harmless to many people: Gossiping about your relationship with third parties.
Of course, this seems natural enough:
- You and your partner have a big fight, so you meet up with your buddies at the bar and vent for a while.
- Your partner says something insensitive that really hurts, so you instinctively call up your mom to complain.
- You’re having trouble conceiving, so you “process” your worries and insecurities with your best friend.
Now, I’m not saying any of these are bad necessarily. But if you’re talking about your partner or your relationship with a third party, and there’s a good chance your partner wouldn’t want you to, that’s problematic.
You and your partner need to be crystal clear on what’s okay to talk about outside the relationship and what needs to stay in the relationship.
If you find yourself habitually talking about relationship difficulties outside the relationship, maybe you need a better way to talk about relationship difficulties inside your relationship. Or maybe you just need a different relationship.
9. You have unrealistic expectations of your partner
Most people get into long-term relationships too quickly or without good judgment. As a result, they often find themselves stuck with partners who simply aren’t a good fit.
Understandably, this is a painful realization. And rather than confronting that painful reality and dealing with it, they avoid it by living in denial. They assume that if they work really hard, and if they convince their partner to work really hard, everything will be okay. Sadly, it probably won’t.
But one of the ways people maintain the illusion of control over their relationships is high expectations. When you tell yourself someone should act a certain way or be a certain way, it gives you the illusion of control and certainty. But just because you really expect someone to be a certain way, or you expect your relationship to be a certain way, says nothing about whether it’s possible.
Unfortunately, it gets worse…
Not only do your unrealistic expectations not make things better, often they amplify an already bad situation because they make people feel bad for not being something else.
Everybody suffers when you expect people to be more than they’re capable of.
The best way to avoid unrealistic expectations and all the conflict and resentment that comes out of them is to choose your partner wisely from the beginning.
10. You don’t know what your values are
I’ll keep this final section short and sweet:
How can you expect to find a partner who’s right for you if you don’t know what’s right for you?
Values are the things that matter most in our lives. They’re our highest principles and the things we aspire to. The problem is, for many of us, we simply inherit our values without much conscious deliberation about whether they’re a good fit for us.
So, if you choose a partner based on values that aren’t really your own, is it any surprise that you attract people who aren’t a good fit for you?
If you want to find a partner you’re deeply compatible with, make sure your values are really your own.
All You Need to Know
If you want to cultivate healthier long-term relationships, watch out for these 10 psychological traps:
- You’re afraid to ask for what you really want
- You’re afraid to say ‘no’ to what you don’t want
- You’re not willing to enforce your boundaries
- You depend on your partner to feel better
- You overrate the importance of complementarity
- You don’t have good models for healthy relationships
- You have low standards for emotional maturity
- You gossip about your relationship
- You have unrealistic expectations of your partner
- You don’t know what your values are
10 CommentsAdd Yours
All this is relevant. Thank you.
However, it sort of leaves one on a negative plateau…
How do we learn about good role models of behaviour?
Why do Dating Agencies have such a strange approach? It’s 2 dimensional -a short self-video cameo, would say a thousand things?
Have Chat Rooms (which were free) disappeared?
Definitely can relate with you on finding good role models of relationships. It was a big value of mine and a heart cry! When I found people who did model what I wanted I pursued a relationship with them (changed association), which opened up a lot of opportunity to grow. I’ve come across a lot of resources since then around relationships that have been helpful, if you’re interested I would be happy to share?
This is all nice but is very weak. It’s like every self help checklist.
There are core behavior patterns based in attachment science that govern a lot of behavior. Not knowing the core science of human development leads to the creation of such 10 step self helpy checklist that go nowhere.
I can say that all of these points have proven successful in my life in improving my relationships. But certainly took work and putting them into action and reframing and retrying over years to get closer to the result I’ve been looking for 🙂 my anxious attachment style has worked itself out to lean more towards secure based on putting these working points into action over the years.
Life is interpersonal relationship problems whatever the relationship is based on:romance, work, family. We need others in our lives to survive, share the workload, connect. Each member of our community needs to respect each other and therefore have confidence in each other. Ideal, yes, but many intimate relationships, of which we have a limited number in our lives, require this the most. This includes respect and confidence in our selves first and foremost.
Thanks Nick! Such a valuable checklist. I’ve often considered this very point and while now I maintain a safe distance and consider myself to be ‘out of the game’ I revisit these issues as my children work on their relationships and it’s a great comfort to know they read your newsletters too.
While I agree with your list, there is something about desire that isn’t addressed. What is attraction? 15 years ago I was with my (then) boyfriend in Ecuador on a group tour with an older, craggy-looking rancher from Tasmania. He only spoke a few times yet I wanted to leave America and follow that guy to Tasmania or anywhere. Totally thunderstruck. Of course, no one ever knew this, least of all the boyfriend or the man, but still, what was that about? About every 10 years some guy walks through the door and I’m gob-smacked. Different types, but something gets me, and I don’t understand it, the fundamentals of attraction, which takes over in an instant, a craving and desire. It sounds superficial, yet trying to cultivate a spark where I feel none, no matter how sensible the prospective partner, doesn’t produce a relationship to work on all of these fine points you’ve made. Sometimes I get on my nerves!
1st, I want to say I absolutely love your writing format Nick! Short intro, right to the point, and a summary of the key points.
2nd, I took this article as a refresher; some points to meditate on as I just met a man and we are talking and getting to know each other.
Appreciate your expertise
Dad here. Good article. Give the kids a hug for me. Happy summer!
THANK YOU- for all the writing you share with the world. I look forward to your Monday newsletters each week, and I always get so much out of your work. My life is and has always been an interpersonal….nightmare to say the least, but over time I feel the insights you share, indeed have a positive effect on my interpersonal life and my overall well-being. Please just keep on doin’ it, and thank you again, for your time and effort spent on sharing much-needed information about such important topics that I believe every person can benefit from in some way.