The list of bad habits marriage counselors wish couples could unlearn is virtually endless, admits Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“That’s because almost no one knows anything about how to have a healthy relationship,” she told us recently. “Instead, partners wing it, using mostly terrible role models as their guide. What this means is that most couples who come into my office are a complete mess in how they handle themselves in their relationships.”
What are some of the worst habits Whetstone and her couples therapist peers have observed? Below, they share their shortlist.
1. Stop trying to change your partner.
Therapist Chelli Pumphrey says far too many couples come into her Denver, Colorado office believing one or both partners will change after marriage or some other big relationship milestone (moving in together, having a baby). For the most part, who you meet is exactly who you marry, she said.
“You can’t change your partner — you can only change you,” she told HuffPost. “Focusing on what you contribute and what you can change will help you avoid power struggles and blame and progress forward more effectively.”
2. Stop withholding sex.
Nobody likes to think they’re withholding sex from their spouse as a form of punishment. Still, it happens all the time, said Stephanie Buehler, a psychologist and sex therapist based in Southern California. And it’s often hard for couples to break the cycle.
“Maybe once in a while they’ll throw their partner a bone and have sex with them on a special occasion but otherwise, it’s a sexual desert,” she said. “My advice is to take a good look at what you are doing. Figure out what is upsetting you and be more assertive. Anything is better than making your partner unhappy over the fact that the two of you never get it on anymore.”
3. Don’t invite your smartphone into your relationship.
Prioritizing your apps over your spouse is inexcusable but most couples today are guilty of it, said Gina Senarighi, a therapist in Portland, Oregon.
“Quality connected time is essential to long-term love but for most of my couples, quality time is interrupted by Candy Crush, Snapchat or the newest addictive app,” she said.
Another common smartphone-related sin, according to Senarighi? Having a full-fledged argument over text.
“If every couple resolved to stop fighting over text, I might be out of business,” she told us. “Text fighting never solves anything and more often than not, it makes things even worse.”
4. Stop trying to make your spouse look bad.
There’s no need to impress your therapist: Deflection and blaming your spouse will get you nowhere, Whetstone said.
“Don’t tit-for-tat on my couch,” she said. “This nasty little habit is when you point out something about your spouse you don’t like and she deflects the subject back to you, with criticism of her own,” Whestone explained. “It might sound like, ‘I think you had a little too much to drink last night,’ followed by her saying, ‘Really? You’re one to talk. You got so drunk at Aunt Matilda’s on Christmas Eve, you couldn’t even talk!’“
Inevitably, this game of one-upmanship escalates into an embarrassing fight in front of the therapist.
“The most ridiculous part of tit-for-tatting is that neither person ever addresses the subject at hand, which is something they did that hurt or disappointed their partner.”
5. Don’t try to solve all your problems while you’re angry.
It’s a rookie mistake to try and work out your issues when you’re angry — or hungry. (If you’re hangry, table the conversation, get yourselves some take-out and then proceed to talk.)
“The first thing I teach every couple is how to soothe each other and themselves, before they try to solve any problem,” said Pumphrey. “This could mean that you need a time out from each other or you just need to hold each other until you feel calm. Once you’re both calm, you can try to talk about the problem at hand. Sometimes, the problem may even disappear once you’re calm.”
6. If you cheated, stop pretending you did nothing wrong.
Choosing to go to a therapist’s office during or after an affair and refusing to admit you’ve cheated is a total waste of time (not to mention money), said Michele Weiner-Davis, a therapist and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage.
“No matter how much you believe that your affair is separate from your marriage and won’t affect your commitment to working things out, it’s simply not true,” she said. “Affairs have a tremendous impact on marriages. Even if you aren’t ready to tell your spouse about the betrayal, tell the truth to your therapist in a private session. He or she can help you determine the best plan of action to proceed forward.”
If you do confess to cheating, don’t try to downplay your actions by saying, “I didn’t mean to have an affair, it just happened,” Weiner-Davis warned. It was likely a slippery slope of actions that led you to stray and if you don’t take personal responsibility for cheating, you’re liable to do it again, she said.
7. Don’t spend your whole therapy session lying.
If you really want to get your money’s worth, don’t lie about anything, said Whetstone.
“There’s no better way to waste an expensive marriage therapy dollar than lying about you and your spouse’s actions and intentions or omitting crucial information affecting the marriage and yet, people do it all the time,” she said. “Therapists really do want to help and lying to us means we won’t be able to.”
8. If you’ve decided you want to leave, stop questioning it.
Sometimes, Senarighi says she wishes people who’ve already decided to leave would stop dragging their feet.
“Unfortunately most people are scared of leaving and stay far too long, vacillating internally on whether they should stay or go,” she told HuffPost. “This is especially hard in relationships that are good but not great. People stay until it gets bad and then they’ve usually ruined a good thing. I wish more people gave themselves permission to leave because wanting to leave is enough.”
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