As a therapist, I work with a lot of unhappy couples.
And one of the most surprising things I’ve observed over the years is this: Creating a happy relationship is often about what you do less of, not more of.
Unhappy couples are usually stuck in a pattern of negative habits. From hypercriticism and sarcasm and to avoiding difficult conversations, the subtle habits we fall into as couples can slowly ruin a relationship despite our best intentions.
But remember this: If a habit that can be learned it can also be unleared.
What follows are five of the most common habits that lead to unhappy relationships. Learn from them and make your own relationship happier.
1. Gossiping About Your Partner
If you asked 1,000 people whether or not they gossiped about their partner, only a handful would say yes. But that’s only because most people don’t realize that they’re doing it.
In reality, it’s surprisingly easy to end up gossiping about your partner:
- Chatting with your best friend about that insensitive comment your husband made at dinner last night.
- Complaining to your buddies about how your wife spends too much time with her mother.
- Venting to your coworkers about how lazy and unresponsive your boyfriend is.
Now, these might seem innocent enough on the surface, but the long-term effects are serious:
Gossiping about your relationship kills trust.
Think about it from your partner’s perspective:
- How would you feel knowing that every time you and your partner had a fight, he called his mother and told her all about it?
- How would you feel if each time your spouse was upset with you, she vented to three of her best friends — meaning they had a running history of your marital difficulties?
If your partner can’t trust that sensitive information will stay within the relationship they’ll eventually stop telling you.
And this is a quick path to losing intimacy in your relationship.
On the other hand, most genuinely happy couples have exceptionally good boundaries when it comes to talking about their relationship with others:
- As a rule, they just don’t talk about relationship issues outside of their relationship.
- If they do feel the need to, they check with their partner first and explain the rationale and the limits to those conversations.
Here’s the thing: happy couples tend to be happy precisely because both people are emotionally mature enough to be able to receive criticism from each other. And when this is the case, you don’t need to vent to friends, complain to your parents, or do any of the other forms of gossiping about your partner.
When you and your partner are a real team, you can work out almost anything together.
2. Keeping Score in the Relationship
My therapy clients often tell me about how they did something that annoyed or upset their partner or spouse.
But almost in the same breath, they follow that up with a detailed report of how it shouldn’t be that big of a deal because there were three previous occasions in the last month when their partner did the same thing to them.
This kind of relationship score-keeping is unhelpful, for sure. But it suggests a deeper problem in the relationship: you don’t trust each other.
Couples resort to score-keeping because they feel like they need ammunition to defend themselves against future mistakes.
If you know your husband is going to blow up at you the next time you’re late getting ready to go out, and you don’t trust him to handle that in a mature way, you’re going to be ready with a handful of examples of when he was late, therefore making his accusations hypocritical.
But if you’ve gotten to this point — the point of needing to defend yourself by counterattacking — your relationship has much bigger problems than the two of you being late and frustrated.
Keeping score in a relationship means you’ve lost faith in your ability to handle mistakes together in a mature way.
If you routinely ask your spouse in a reasonable way to be more prompt getting ready, and they routinely ignore your request, it makes sense that you’re going to resort to more primitive persuasion attempts — like, say, blowing up!
If you routinely ask your spouse to be more helpful around the house and they routinely ignore your request, it makes sense that you’d resort to more primitive methods of persuasion — like passive-aggressively being late all the time.
Happy couples, on the other hand, don’t let things get this out of control in the first place. And their secret…
Happy couples are incredibly responsive to reasonable requests from their partners.
They know that, even if the request doesn’t seem all that important or crucial, it’s important to be responsive and follow through on it anyway because it builds trust in the relationship.
When you trust that your partner will respond to your needs and requests, you’re unlikely to resort to more primitive and toxic means of change — like tit-for-tat score-keeping.
3. Leaving Your Sex Life to Chance
One of the most common misconceptions about sex has to do with the relationship between structure and spontaneity.
Most of us, it seems, want our sex life to be spontaneous. This makes sense: Many things, sex included, are often far more fun and enjoyable when there’s a strong element of spontaneity involved.
But here’s the strange paradox of spontaneous sex in a long-term relationship:
If you want your sex to be more spontaneous, make your sex life more structured.
Let me explain…
After the initial excitement of the honeymoon phases, sex doesn’t just happen as often as it used to. And for good reason — not only is there less novelty in the relationship, but real life easily gets in the way:
- After a long, stressful day at work, you’re just too tired.
- When your kids have been especially bratty all evening, you’re just not in the mood.
- If you’re worried about making rent this month, it’s hard to be excited enough to plan a fun sexual encounter.
The cure for life intruding on sex is to make your sex life more structured.
At first glance, planning to have sex every Thursday evening might seem a little cold and calculating — the very opposite of spontaneous! But think about it a little more…
When you know on Thursday morning that you’re going to have sex that night, you start thinking about it more throughout the day. Maybe you send your partner some flirty texts. Maybe you come up with a new idea for foreplay. All of which “primes the pump” and makes it more likely to actually happen later.
Having sex scheduled creates anticipation and desire, which are the key ingredients for exciting and spontaneous sex.
Sex is like art: If you wait around, simply hoping to feel inspired, you’re unlikely to produce anything great.
Similarly, passively hoping for a spontaneous sex life usually leads to a nonexistent one. But a structured sex life often leads to more frequent, fun, and spontaneous sex.
4. Focusing Too Much on Your Kids
Kids are great. I’ve got three of them myself.
But here’s the trouble with kids: They’re little leeches—ready and waiting to suck up every last ounce of energy, time, and attention you’ve got. And if you’re not careful, they will!
A common theme among a lot of the unhappy couples I see in therapy is that they’re obsessed with their kids. Literally everything in their life revolves around their kids, with no time left for them. This is a major opportunity cost of obsessive parenting…
If you invest all your time and energy into your kids, you’re not going to have much left for yourselves and your relationship.
It’s a tragically common story:
- A couple decides to have kids and then dedicates themselves completely to those kids, pouring every last bit of time and energy into them. And they do it for years.
- But then, after years of not investing in their own relationship, they wake up one day and discover that they just don’t feel the same way about their spouse that they used to.
Well, no sh!t you don’t feel it anymore!
If you don’t invest in each other, you can’t expect to have a happy relationship.
Happy couples, on the other hand, understand that the Oxygen Mask Principle applies to more than just airplane rides: If you don’t take care of your relationship first, in the long run this will likely impact your kids even worse.
Think about it from your kid’s perspective:
Would you rather have parents with a happy, loving relationship who spent 5% less time with you than you’d like, or parents with a miserable relationship who constantly bend over backward to meet your every whim and desire?
Don’t let your kids be an excuse for not investing in your relationship:
- When you get home from work, send your kids to the backyard, lock the door, and enjoy an hour of peace and quiet with your spouse.
- Let your kids be bored for a Saturday afternoon and go for a walk and long lunch with your partner.
- And for God’s sake: Train your kids to sleep in their own beds!
Look, I know this isn’t necessarily easy. We love our kids and we want the best for them. And making time for ourselves isn’t always easy.
But if nothing else, it’s important to get your priorities straight about kids and your relationship.
I’ve seen plenty of happy families where the couple invests in themselves and lets the kids fend for themselves on a regular basis. But I can’t think of a single happy family where the parents ignore their own relationship in order to obsessively focus on their kids.
5. Avoiding Difficult Conversations
When my daughters are old enough to be dating seriously, if they should happen to come to me for advice about dating, one of my most important ideas would be this: Choose someone who’s good at difficult conversations.
Plenty of people are good conversationalists. Which is obviously an attractive quality in a potential partner. Who doesn’t love stimulating thoughtful conversations, hilarious storytelling, or poignant reminiscences?
But here’s the thing:
In a long-term relationship, your happiness will have much more to do with how well you do difficult conversations, not easy ones.
Unfortunately, this is not something most people “test” for when they’re dating. They want someone who’s funny or interesting in conversations, but they don’t consider how they handle difficult or painful conversations:
- They may be charming while describing their backpacking trip to Peru last year, but how receptive are they when you point out an annoying habit?
- They might be hilarious talking about old stories from college, but how level-headed are they when you need to have a serious discussion about money and spending habits?
- They might be fascinating and thought-provoking when they describe their passion for social justice, but how compassionate are they when you describe something you’re really struggling with?
Turns out, most people aren’t actually very good at difficult conversations. As a result, they tend to avoid them. They develop all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle strategies for getting out of or dismissing difficult conversations.
This is a huge red flag!
On the other hand, a hallmark of happy couples is that they don’t run away from difficult conversations. No matter how good or bad they are at them, and no matter how uncomfortable, they’re mature enough to be willing to have them.
Happy couples are a team. And the most important form of teamwork in a relationship is the willingness to have difficult conversations.
So, if you’re thinking of getting into a long-term relationship, think carefully about your partner’s willingness to engage in difficult conversations. And don’t just guess — test it out!
Bring up a difficult topic and see how they respond.
If you’re already in a long-term relationship with someone who tends to avoid difficult conversations, start small. Practice bringing up mildly difficult topics and then encourage them afterward for being willing to do it. Then slowly build up from there.
All You Need to Know
If you want to be happier in your relationships, learn to identify and eliminate these 5 bad habits:
Gossiping about your partner
Keeping score in the relationship
Leaving your sex life to chance
Focusing too much on your kids
Avoiding difficult conversations
16 CommentsAdd Yours
This is great!! I loved reading this a lot!! I want to comment something not really related to the topic… how do you think is better to call the people u help… clients or patients? I’m studying medicine and I always hear this dilemma of “they’re not clients, they’re patients” but there’s also always a “client team”… I’m just curious about ur opinion. Thank u!
I like “client” because it feels more collaborative. Patients do what the doctor orders. Clients work with their therapists to achieve their goals.
Eye opening. Some of the habits we possess unconsciously.
You’re explanations and the way you approach topics when you write grip to the very end. Awesome Article Nick!!
Thank you, Chloe!
Excellent article . Love your work.
Read everything you email. Pass them on to people I know would get something out of them. Keep up the fab work.
Thank you very much, Vicki! Really appreciate it!
Thanks for your excellent article. But I little confused over the point that not to focusing too much on your children. Rather we have to focus very much on your children.After your busy schedule of events how much you devote to them? The children are main focus for your family life that’s what I think. After all everyone has his own opinion. Thanks ®ards from
I certainly agree that it is important to focus on our kids! But if we focus on them so much that it comes at the cost of our marriage/relationship, I think we need to rethink things…
Hi Nick, perhaps there is an opportunity here to go more deeply into number 5.
Be keen to chat more about that when we catch up next.
I love the way you write. Simple, clear and nailed the topic at hand.
Thank you so much and subscribed to your newsletter. Cannot read everything that you sent but when I got a chance, it is worth every minutes spent.
thank you for all you do
Awesome article. You nailed it.
Very good article…Me and My husband take pleasure to read them..Thank you!
Dear Mr. Wignall, Molte Grazie for a superb article. I am blessed to be in an LDR with a Chinese Surgeon in Chongqing, whose great outer beauty derives from an even greater inner beauty of wisdom, poetry, philosophy, affection and Confucian virtue. Over a year, our relationship has ripened slowly and organically. We both have come to the conclusions you express so well in your article. The last advice is the hardest- we have agreed to have a weekly family meeting to “precrastinate” issues from money to common/private goals. It is our deepest intention that our friendship/love continues to support each other’s goals completely. We both know that “time-out” to recharge the self is the way to recharge the relationship. The Chinese, Thank God, do not talk of sex in the hypocritical American manner; they obviously enjoy sex – the population numbers are silent testament to this. I reassure my chong-er (Pinyan for darling) that sex follows friendship and trust; it is NOT the way to have our first meeting when she comes over. It will happen when it is supposed to happen. We hope to move to Europe to produce a photoblog (bilingual) addressing what it means to be human. Finally, let me recommend a book by the Gottman’s: The Man’s Guide to Woman. It is a nonpareil resource for men to learn about women – a question challenging husbands, scientists and philosophers since Eve was created from Adam’s ribcage. A question: What is the best thing about being a Man? The answer: Women. Yours in appreciation, Peter H. Dohan, MD, Portland ME
Great article thank you.
I’m wondering how my 22 yr relationship is not working.the partner will not seek out getting on board.ive been in therapy for 17 yrs.alone but somehow it isn’t wrking.im growing.hes stuck .help