I was fortunate to grow up in a home where communication was valued. I know how lucky and blessed I am to have been given this gift. My parent’s ability to communicate with me and one another wasn’t perfect, but it provided me with a template for future relationships.
I have not always made the best relationship choices. Nor have I been the best partner because I have made mistakes along the way. As I grew older I began to see just how much my actions affect others. I committed to improving my self-confidence, figuring out what I wanted in a relationship, and focused on self-change. My goal of fixing myself first versus trying to change another person led me to find healthier relationships.
My work as a couples therapist has taught me almost everything I have ever wanted to know about relationships. In the past twelve years as a therapist, these three things stand out as the most important. If you can apply these tips to your behavior and make changes as needed, then you will see your relationship improve.
Of course, you know this already, but are you still trying to change them? Are you expecting they will change even though their behavior remains the same? I thought I could change or fix my partner. I am a caretaker which led me to get into relationships with partners that needed me. Being a ‘fixer’ gave me a purpose and validation. I realized I had to change this need if I wanted to see improvements.
Sometimes this meant having to take a hard and challenging look inward while holding myself accountable for what I found. Other times it meant having to walk away from the unhealthiness. When I removed the pressure that I had to fix another person, it freed up my energy to accept the fact that I need to change.
I could have stayed in a place of blaming my partner for not changing. This would not have helped in my quest to be a better person. It would have only kept me stuck and unhappy.
Unhappy couples do not focus on self-change. They remain focused on what their partner needs to do differently. If a person wants to see a change in their relationship, they have to be the one to change how they look at things. The goal is for the other partner to look at the differences and become motivated to do the same. If this doesn’t happen then, one partner may have to decide to change the dynamics of the relationship or walk away from the unhealthiness.
Whether I tried to take the victim role or if I was triggered by something he said I found a way to make it about me. When he was talking about an issue related to him, I would personalize it as if it had to do with me. When this happened, an argument always followed.
I realized that it wasn’t all about me all of the time meaning that everything wasn’t my fault. If my partner was upset, I assumed it was something I did wrong or caused his pain. When I began to back off and give him space to just be himself, then there wasn’t any room for conflict. It helped to realize that I couldn’t make him feel or think anything because our feelings are based on our thoughts, not another person’s actions.
Unhappy couples fall into this trap because they can’t resolve the root of the conflict. When an issue erupts, they often stay on the surface and don’t fix the underlying problem. When one partner takes it personally the underlying problem gets moved to the side, so the conflict doesn’t get resolved, then one argument leads to another. All that is left is a cycle of blame and personalization.
Through the years I learned how important it was to show appreciation for my partner daily. He taught me how to do this by modeling it. At the time, I had no idea this was the case, and neither did he.
On any given day he will tell me something he appreciates about me whether he thanks me for making breakfast or helping proofread his work. It could be as small as thanking me for listening to him as he talked through a work problem.
When we first started dating, I was shocked that someone would thank me for these types of things since they were just normal actions I would do for someone I cared for. It made me want to be more conscious in giving him gratitude as well.
Unhappy couples do the opposite of this. Typically both people are waiting on the other person to show appreciation and unwilling to give it until they hear it. They also may be angry and resentful about things that took place in the relationship that they can’t imagine the idea of giving a compliment. Working with these couples taught me that regardless of how I feel about a situation, there is always space to say something nice. Unhappy couples do not give or show appreciation for one another. They are too focused on being angry that they aren’t appreciated.
Life is too short to be consistently unhappy. We all have times in our life that cause us to feel down. However, if you remain in an unhealthy relationship (regardless of the reasons), you are responsible for your unhappiness. Don’t repeat these three things I have learned from unhappy couples.
It is possible to change the dynamics of your relationship, by fixing yourself first. This is the best chance of seeing change. If not, then you will have a decision to make about the future of your relationship.
Want to take a deeper dive into self-change? Then check out my books 4 Weeks to Improve Your Relationship as a Couple or Fix Yourself First: 25 tips to stop ruining your relationship. What is the best advice you have learned from observing or knowing unhappy couples? Share them with me in the comment section.