If you ask people what breaks relationships apart, they might say money, lying, or cheating. And that is true. But, like death by a thousand paper cuts, there are even more insidious everyday habits that kill relationships too.
For nearly three decades, I’ve had a front-row seat to thousands of relationships. My ongoing research—a long-term study funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1986—gives me the opportunity to study, closely and over time, critical patterns in marriage and divorce, romance and relationships. Today, here’s what I know for sure: Small stuff is a big deal.
To create a truly happy, healthy relationship, every couple, of every stripe, should take the most overlooked and under-discussed relationship killers to heart. Below are the four most overlooked relationship killers and solutions to those bad habits.
1. Skipping me-time.
Many couples say that space, or giving each other plenty of time for self, is the single most important reason they think their relationship survived. Time alone gives partners those vital moments to process thoughts, pursue hobbies, and develop new topics to talk about! Too much space or separateness isn’t good, but partners who pursue their own hobbies, interests, and friends tend to be happier than those who depend on each other for everything.
Solution: Talk to a partner about the benefits of me-time, and emphasize that you still want couple time too. Don’t keep secrets, and share with your partner some of the fun or funny things that happened during me-time.
2. Assuming you know each other.
Couples who have been together for many years sometimes believe that they know everything about their partner. Unlike when they were first dating, they stop asking each other questions and learning more about each other. Such loss of curiosity can be lethal. I call this the silent dining syndrome. Couples go out together to a restaurant but then don’t talk.
Solution: To stay happy in a relationship, partners need to talk to each other every single day, for at least 10 minutes, about anything other than the home, kids, work, or their relationship. Ask questions to each other, just like when you were first dating! A side benefit of getting to know one another again is an increase in passion and excitement.
3. Staying mum about “minor” annoyances.
A lot of couples sweep little annoyances and pet peeves under the rug. Over time, though, these small everyday irritations can add up and put a relationship on life support. It’s actually the small, everyday irritations that can accumulate if not dealt with and become big problems in relationships.
Solution: Contrary to popular belief, couples need to sweat the small stuff in their relationship to be happy and together over the long haul. Bring up the annoyances in a constructive way—pick the right time and situation to discuss, ditch all other distractions, use your “I” statements, and avoid using the words “never” and “always.”
4. Waiting for special occasions to express love.
Many couples make the mistake of waiting for special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, or Hallmark-type holidays, to express loving feelings to one another. One key finding from my study is that when men do not receive frequent affective affirmation from their partners (defined as words, gestures, or acts that show him he is noticed, appreciated, and loved) that couple is two times more likely to divorce or breakup.
Solution: Do or say something frequently to show a partner that he or she is valued and noticed. Sometimes a goodbye peck on the cheek or a thoughtful compliment is all it takes to make a partner feel loved and appreciated.
Dr. Terri Orbuch (aka The Love Doctor®) is a relationship expert for OurTime.com, as well as a professor, therapist, research scientist, and author of 5 best-selling books, including “Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship,” available on Amazon.com. Learn more about her at: DrTerriTheLoveDoctor.com.