Our behavior is a small thing that makes a big difference in our relationships.
This morning I saw a middle-aged woman ferociously slam the car door in her husband’s face and storm off into a department store. Then, an hour later, I couldn’t help but notice two 20-something friends sitting next to me at a local coffee shop, the man staring down at his iPhone the entire time his friend shared with him her concerns about her sister’s drug addiction. And just now I came across someone’s rant on Facebook about their significant other that concluded with, “ALL MEN are exactly the same!”
Most of us have likely done something similar in our relationships at some point, because relationships aren’t easy, and sometimes we make missteps. In fact, let’s be honest – we’ve all acted in toxic, damaging ways at one time or another. None of us are immune to occasional toxic mood swings. But that doesn’t excuse what we do to each other.
With practice, we CAN do better.
Over the years, through our coaching practice, Getting Back to Happy course, and live events, Marc and I have worked with thousands of individuals and couples looking to fix their failing relationships, and we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to make this happen. One of the most significant realizations is the fact that most failing and failed relationships (both intimate and platonic) suffer from the same basic behavioral issues. I’m sharing them with you today in hopes that doing so will help you catch yourself in the act, so you can course-correct when necessary.
The Big Four
Believe it or not, roughly 90% of the failing relationships we’ve witnessed over the years suffered from one or more of the following:
1. Using complaints and disagreements as an opportunity to condemn each other.
Complaints are OK. Disagreements are OK too. These are natural, honest reactions to a person’s decisions or behavior. But when complaints and disagreements spiral out of control into global attacks on the person, and not on their decisions or behavior, this spells trouble. For example: “They didn’t call me when they said they would because they were busy and forgot, but because they are a horrible, wretched, evil person.”
Remember, there’s a big difference between who someone IS and what they sometimes DO.
2. Using hateful gestures as a substitute for honest communication.
Frequent name-calling, threats, eye-rolling, belittling, mockery, hostile teasing, etc. In whatever form, gestures like these are poisonous to a relationship because they convey hate. And it’s virtually impossible to resolve a relationship problem when the other person is constantly receiving the message that you hate them.
Also, keep in mind that if someone you love makes a mistake and you choose to forgive them, your actions must reinforce your words. In other words, let bygones be bygones. Don’t use their past wrongdoings to justify your present righteousness. When you constantly use someone’s past wrongdoings to make yourself seem “better” than them (“I’m better than you because, unlike you, I didn’t do XYZ in the past.”), it’s a lose-lose situation.
Replace your negative thoughts with positive communication! Because the truth is, if you’re throwing hateful gestures at a person instead of communicating with them, there’s a good chance they don’t even know why you’re being so mean.
When communication between two people isn’t open and honest, there’s a lot of important stuff that never gets said.
3. Denying responsibility for your role in the relationship.
When you deny responsibility in every relationship dispute, all you’re really doing is blaming the other person. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem here is never me, and it’s always you.” This denial of accountability just escalates every argument, because there’s a complete and utter breakdown of communication.
The key thing to understand is that you have a choice. Either you’re choosing to be in a relationship with another person, or you aren’t. If you’re choosing to be in, then you are responsible for it. Denying this means you’re giving up all your power to the other person – you’re their victim, regardless of circumstances (positive or negative), because you’ve given them 100% of the responsibility for the relationship you have with them.
So remember, even when the behavior driving a relationship dispute belongs to the other person, the only way to find common ground, or simply create more healthy space for yourself, is to first own the fact that you are 50% responsible the relationship at all times. Once you do, you have the power to make progress one way or the other.
4. The silent treatment.
Tuning out, ignoring, disengaging, refusing to acknowledge, etc. All variations of the silent treatment don’t just remove the other person from the argument you’re having with them, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship you have with them.
When you’re ignoring someone, you’re really teaching them to live without you. If that’s what you want, be clear about it. And if not, drop it!
Note: We also recently covered these toxic behaviors at one of our live events…
Five More Worth Avoiding
Although not quite as prevalent as the four mentioned above, these behavioral issues are still incredibly common relationship-killers:
5. Using emotional blackmail.
Emotional blackmail happens when you apply an emotional penalty against someone if they don’t do exactly what you want them to do. The key condition here is that they change they’re behavior, against their will as a result of the emotional blackmail. In other words, absent the emotional blackmail they would live differently, but they fear the penalty and so they give in. This is an extremely unhealthy relationship behavior.
The solution, again, relies heavily on better communication. There should NOT be a penalty, just an honest conversation. It’s vital for both parties in a relationship to know that negative thoughts and feelings can be communicated safely to one another without there being penalties and harsh repercussions. Otherwise both parties will suppress their true thoughts and feelings, which ultimately leads to a relationship filled with distrust and manipulation. (Read Emotional Blackmail.)
6. Withholding the truth.
Trust is the bedrock of a healthy relationship, and when trust is broken it takes a long time and commitment on the part of both parties involved to repair it and heal. The key thing to remember here is that secrets can be just as deceitful as openly telling a lie.
All too often, I’ll hear a coaching/course student say something like, “I didn’t tell him but I didn’t lie about it, either.” This statement is a contradiction, as omissions are lies. If you’re covering up your tracks or withholding the truth in any way, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out and trust in the relationship completely breaks down. So speak the truth, always.
Being honest is the only way to be at peace with yourself and those you care about.
7. Putting each other on the back burner.
Failing to carve out quality time for your important relationships is one of the most unhealthy relationship mistakes of them all, and yet it often flies under the radar… at least for a while… until everything begins to fall apart.
The truth is relationships are like every other living entity in the sense that they require nurturing in order to survive and thrive. It’s easy to allow the rush of our busy lives to take over, especially when we have young children, work, hobbies, friends, and a body that demands nourishing food and regular exercise. But your relationship with someone is a body as well, and if it’s not nourished with quality time every week, it will start to wither.
Dedicate ample time every week to focus exclusively on those you care about. Nothing you can give is more appreciated than your sincere, focused attention – your full presence. Being with someone, listening without a ticking clock and without anticipation of the next scheduled event is the ultimate compliment.
8. Needing or expecting your relationship to always be easy.
When your marriage, friendship, parenting, etc. gets difficult, it’s not an immediate sign that you’re doing it wrong. These intimate, intricate relationships are toughest when you’re doing them right – when you’re dedicating time, having the tough conversations, and making daily sacrifices.
Healthy, long-tern relationships are amazing, but rarely easy 24/7. Resisting the hard times and seeing them as immediate evidence that something is wrong or that you’re with the wrong person only exacerbates the difficulties. By contrast, finding the patience and mindfulness to view the challenges as an opportunity to work together will give your relationship the energy and strength needed to transcend the problems and grow even stronger in the long run.
9. Expecting your relationship to solve all your personal problems.
It’s easy to believe that it’s your partner’s or best friend’s job to make you feel happy and whole. But the truth is, while a healthy relationship can bring tremendous delight to your life, it’s not their responsibility to fill in your empty voids. That’s your responsibility and yours alone, and until you accept this responsibility (for your unhappiness, frustration, boredom, etc.), problems will inevitably continue in your relationship.
Another way of looking at this is to realize that healthy relationships contain two people who practice self-care as individuals. When two people meet, the biggest prize always goes to the one with the most self-acceptance. He or she will be calmer, more confident, and more at ease with the other person. Truth be told, what you see in the mirror is often what you see in your relationships. Your petty disappointments in your partner and friends often reflect your petty disappointments in yourself. Your acceptance of your partner or friends often reflects your acceptance of yourself. Thus, the first step to having a truly healthy, long-term relationship with someone else is to have a healthy relationship with yourself.
The floor is yours…
If you can relate to any of these toxic behaviors, remember, you are not alone. We all have unhealthy personalities buried deep within us that have the potential to occasionally sneak up on us and those closest to us. As mentioned above, the key is awareness – recognizing these toxic behaviors and then course-correcting when necessary.
So, which of these toxic behaviors have you struggled with? Which ones have interfered with your relationships? How do you cope? Leave a comment below and share your insights with us.
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