Johannes Kieding, LMSW
Common Relationship Mistakes and Solutions
If you desire more fulfillment in your relationships, if you want a sense of closeness, togetherness, and less emotional isolation and friction with those you choose to spend your time with, the following pointers on common relationship mistakes as well as antidotes to these mistakes might help you:
First common problem: arguing. Arguing happens when you categorically reject the other’s point of view and try to convince the other of yours. This endeavor is rarely productive and tends to create emotional distance in the relationship. The antidote to arguing is to briefly state, in a non-accusatory tone and without suggesting that the other has no redeeming qualities, what the other did or didn’t do that you have feelings about, then stating those feelings, and then stopping. This communication should not be more than two sentences. “You didn’t take out the trash and you said you would, and I am feeling really annoyed with you right now.” Period. Full stop. You are just stating your feelings, which no one can argue with. Stopping after the brief communication allows space for the other person to take in what you said and to respond.
If the other person responds by being mean or critical, you simply continue in the same fashion: “And now you sound critical and you’re raising your voice, I don’t like that either, that’s annoying, too.” Ideally, the other person will respond with something like, “I can see why you’d be annoyed, I am sorry.” If the other does not, but continues to be defensive or critical, it’s time to end the conversation: “This is the third time you’re getting defensive and refuse to acknowledge and try to understand how I feel, I need to end this conversation now, we can try again in an hour.” Suggesting a time line for when to try to connect again is important in that it avoids the sense of abandonment, and the other knows when you will reconvene.
The second common relationship problem is where you are not supporting each other’s feelings. Arguing is an obvious example of the other’s feelings not being supported, but less obvious examples include stonewalling, not responding at all, or trying to talk the other person out of how they feel, as in: “But look at the bright side, just try to cheer up and let this go now.” These types of responses also create emotional distance and deprive the relationship of the sense of togetherness and mutual support it could have. The antidote to lack of support is the validation of feelings.
It’s important to understand that based on the other person’s priorities and ways of seeing the world, their feelings are reasonable. You don’t have to agree with how the other person is feeling in order to be supportive. Validating comments can sound like this: “I don’t blame you for feeling annoyed, I did raise my voice and I did forget to take out the trash like I said I would.” Or, “I remember things differently, I thought it was your turn to take out the trash, but given that you remember it the way you do, I can certainly see why you would be irritated with me.” You may not agree with the other, but you’re acknowledging that the other’s views, feelings, and recollections are reasonable.
With this point, it’s important to keep in mind that supporting the other’s feelings does not mean you need to support how they deal with their feelings. If the other is demeaning, rude, or hurtful in some way, you never have to support that. The following hypothetical comment drives this distinction home: “I am sure you have your reasons for feeling angry, but dealing with your anger by yelling at me is not OK, I will not accept this treatment.”
The third common relationship problem is to either allow the other person’s needs and wishes to control you, or alternatively, completely disregard the feelings and needs of the other. These are two sides of the same coin. The antidote to this problem is to factor in the other person’s feelings in your decision-making, but ultimately keeping in mind what is best for your own self. You might agree to do something the other wants you to do, or you may not agree to it, but you’re decisions aren’t crippled by the extremes of either not considering the other’s feelings at all, nor completely denying your own.
For example, “I have thought about this. I know you really want to go out tonight, and your wishes matter a lot to me, but tonight I am simply too tired, I am not willing to do it, I am so sorry.” Or, “I have given this some thought and given how important it is to go out tonight, I am willing to do it, as long as I am allowed to resent you a bit at the same time. And I am sure I’ll forgive you within the hour!” Regardless of what your choice is, you’re in charge of your own life, not blindly giving in to the other, nor blindly denying the other’s wishes.
A fourth common relationship problem is cheating and trust issues that come from having been cheated on. The dishonesty inherent in an act of cheating is typically the most destructive and hurtful aspect of an affair. The only way to rebuild trust from a long-term perspective is for the person who cheated to get to the bottom of why they cheated and resolve the underlying drivers of the behavior. Short-term, however, the following principles can help:
There can be absolutely no contact whatsoever between the person that cheated and the person he or she had the affair with – this has to be a hard and fast rule in order for trust to have a chance at rebuilding. If the other person who your partner cheated with tries to contact your partner again, your partner has to make it clear to that person that there will be no contact, and your partner needs to communicate to this person that he or she will immediately alert you (you as in the person who was betrayed) to the fact that this person tried to re-establish contact. Lastly, if anyone flirts with her, even if something small happens that in the past would have seemed too insignificant to mention, the person who had the affair has to let the other know immediately – there can’t be anything even incidental that he or she doesn’t let the person who was betrayed know about.
With this point, it’s important to keep in mind that if the person who cheated does not feel genuine remorse for his or her behavior, he or she is not likely to stop the behavior and is likely to continue to cheat.
In summary, the following bullet points make up common relationship problems as well as their antidotes:
1. Instead of arguing: very briefly describing/observing what has happened and stating how you feel about it, using feeling words (happy, angry, sad, remorseful) and then stopping.
2. Stating own position but leaving room that the other may feel differently about the issue – not here is what I want or think, end of discussion. Instead: “Here is what I would like, but how would that be for you?
3. Instead of not supporting the other’s feelings: support and validate the other person’s feelings. Each partner needs to treat the other person’s feelings and needs as valid and important: “I don’t blame you for feeling that way. A second cat is really important to you and I don’t want one, so I don’t blame you for being angry with me”.
4. Acknowledging that what the other person is wanting/thinking/feeling is reasonable based on what is important to the other person – even if you disagree or feel different.
5. Support feelings but not always how the other deals with their feelings: “I don’t blame you for feeling angry at me and sad, but dealing with it by pressuring and scolding me is not OK”.
6. Instead of reactively letting the other’s feelings control you or alternatively treating the other as if their feelings are not important: factor in the other person’s wishes/feelings/priorities in decision-making process but not being controlled by the other person’s wishes, never giving up autonomy for partner.
7. Repairing broken trust: From a long-term perspective, the person who had the affair needs to get to the bottom of why the cheated and resolve this. If this person minimizes the affair or has no remorse about it, the cheating is not likely to stop. From a short-term perspective, a series of actions can help, ranging from cutting off all communication with the third party involved in the affair to reporting even minimal flirting that in the past may have seemed too incidental to mention.
These ideas are often difficult to implement and apply, and a good psychotherapist can often prove invaluable in helping you to make the changes necessary in order to really follow through with these suggestions and understandings.
The suggestions and ideas in this article come from my take on the ideas of Marvin Skorman, MA LMHC, who has devoted much of his life to building on Dr. Habib Davanloo’s (2000) Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), a form of psychotherapy.