Relationships—even the good ones—have their ups and downs. But while we love our significant others in spite of their flaws, there are a handful of traits that have the potential to do a number on your long-term happiness as a couple. But don’t stress out just yet: Should you and your partner tick the box on one of the attributes below, it doesn’t mean the end. Instead, it’s a jumping off point toward a healthy awareness of where your partnership might need a little R&R. Don’t worry, we’ve got the strategies to help.
5 Traits All Unhappy Marriages Have in Common (and How to Overcome Them)
1. They Forgive, but Never Forget
Grudge holders, beware: The tendency to never let go of a mistake or cutting comment your partner once made can signify a less than happy union. Maybe you’re burying a past incident vs. taking responsibility and apologizing for it. Or maybe you just can’t help couching a mundane comment once made as a pattern—and resurfacing it at every argument (or after a few cocktails), no matter how long ago it took place. Why it’s a problem: Couples fight. That’s a given. But how you resolve conflict is what counts the most when it comes to the overall health of your courtship.
The Fix: Strive to be open to your partner’s efforts to repair the damage. Or if you’re the offender, remember it’s never too late to own up to your error and make an effort to be better the next time. After all, closure counts for a lot. Writes relationship coach Kyle Benson: “The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is not that happy couples don’t make mistakes… They do all the same things unhealthy couples do, but at some point, they have a conversation where they recover from it.”
2. They No Longer Say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’
Manners matter. A lot. Just because you’ve been together six months or six years doesn’t mean you should forgo thanking your partner every time they pass you the creamer for your coffee or warm up your car ten minutes before you have to depart. In fact, forgoing “please” and “thank you”—or any sign of gratitude—can show carelessness and a lack of appreciation for each other over time.
The Fix: It really is that simple: Express gratitude for small efforts more often. (“Honey, I can’t believe you thought to warm up my car. That was so kind of you!”) That simple act can be powerful enough to counteract the damage of even a blowout fight, according to a study published in the journal Personal Relationships. (It’s not how often you argue, it’s how you treat each other that counts, per the study authors.)
3. They Don’t Prioritize Relationship Rituals
New experiences are everything to a relationship. (Cue the surge in your brain’s reward center that replicates the rush of the early days.) But pleasure can also be found in the mundane. For example, when you meet at the kitchen table every Sunday to read the real estate section or the fact that, no matter how late the bedtime routine goes with the kids, you always unwind together to a 20-minute rerun of Schitt’s Creek side by side. Whatever the routine, the minute you or your partner choose to skip out on it or take it for granted, pangs of unhappiness are likely to follow.
The Fix: “Lasting love is fed by little, everyday moments of connection,” according to psychologist Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute. In other words, those tiny daily “just us” interactions add up to a lot—you just have to make time for them.
4. They Never Spend Quality Time…Apart
You loathe the time your partner spends playing video games, but for some reason, you’re always sitting side-by-side cheering them on as their Madden strategies play out in real time. There’s a name for this type of behavior: It’s called de-selfing and it’s the act of giving up things that are core to you or who you are in order to maintain a relationship. But the very act of this breeds resentment. “In healthy relationships, we balance our individual needs and expressions with our need to connect and cooperate with others,” explains Dr. Paula Wilbourne, clinical psychologist, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Sibly. But de-selfing causes you to lose the delicate balance between autonomy (say, that virtual yoga class you’ve wanted to try) and serving the needs of those around you. The result is that you become enmeshed with your partner’s priorities and only give voice to their needs while at the same time burying your own.
The Fix: Stop faking a passion for your partner’s hobbies and prioritize time apart that nurtures your sense of self and the identity that exists outside of your relationship. (About that yoga class: Schedule it while your partner plays video games and you’ll both be happier for it.) After all, absence does make the heart grow fonder. It’s also 100 percent necessary for a happier union.
5. They Fight More Than They Get Along
Like we said, fights are par for the course. But according to a study from the Gottman Institute, the most compelling predictor of whether couples stay together is their ratio of positive to negative interactions. They refer to it as the 5:1 ratio meaning that every time you nag your spouse for leaving a bathroom towel on the floor, you also serve up five (or more) positive interactions. This could be a kiss, a compliment, a joke, a moment of intentional listening, a signal of empathy and so on. Unhappy couples trend toward more negative interactions than positive, which doesn’t yield good vibes long-term.
The Fix: Make a commitment together to bring a bit more levity to your daily interactions by laughing about the minor squabbles versus holding a grudge. (See above.) It can be hard in the heat of the moment to find the funny, but the more you prioritize the positive, the greater the happiness surge.