6 relationship patterns unhappy couples tend to fall into, according to psychology

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What’s the secret to a happy relationship? It’s the million-dollar question, right? 

Some couples go the distance and last 30 or 40 years, others struggle to hit the 2-year mark. What’s the difference?

When it comes to a lasting relationship, the devil is in the detail. Long-lasting, happy, and healthy relationships are not about the grand gestures and big events, but the small, everyday, and seemingly insignificant details. 

And over time, couples and relationships tend to fall into patterns where the little things that hold their relationship together, are lost. This isn’t just my view, there’s a lot of research to back it up. 

Today, we’re exploring 6 relationship patterns that unhappy couples fall into, according to experts in psychology. By being aware of them you can catch them early and stop them from ruining your relationship. 

Take note of how many of these patterns you see developing in your own relationship.  

1) They take each other for granted 

Saying “thanks” is basic manners and it’s always important.? But when it comes to relationships, it’s super important. Showing gratitude makes both people feel good and keeps things positive.

The truth is: it’s pretty easy to start taking each other for granted, especially when you’ve been together for a while. Small stuff, like making breakfast or sending a nice message, might not get the appreciation they deserve. 

These little things are actually what keep couples ticking along happily together. That’s why a lot of the time, when couples are unhappy, they’ve subconsciously fallen into the habit of taking each other for granted. 

Turns out: saying “thanks” and noticing the good stuff your partner does really matter. One study, as outlined by Harvard Medical School, “found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.”

If you’ve slipped into the habit of not showing your appreciation lately, it might be time to pay more attention to it. A little thanks can go a long way in keeping things smooth and happy between you two.

2) They slowly become less affectionate toward each other

Remember when you first started dating, and you were all about those cuddles, hugs, and just being close? It felt so natural to reach out and touch each other, right? Those days were golden.

These days, life is super busy. It’s easy for those little moments of affection to get lost in the shuffle. You’re both running around, tackling endless to-dos, and by the end of the day, you’re wrecked tired and you don’t even think about showing your partner affection

But here’s the kicker: a study from 2023, found that the amount of physical affection couples show each other is directly tied to how happy they are together. Basically, the more you’re in the habit of touching, hugging, or just being close, the stronger your bond.

Sure, life’s hectic, and energy can be in short supply, but when you stop showing each other affection, it’s a sign you’re falling into a common pattern among unhappy couples. And you’re at risk of becoming emotionally distant.

If you notice this pattern with your partner, don’t worry. You can get things back on track by doing simple things like kissing them goodbye before work, holding hands when you’re out, or even just sitting close on the couch. When it comes to affection, the little things are everything. 

3) They criticize each other and show contempt 

Ever catch yourself rolling your eyes at something your partner said or snapping back with a not-so-nice comment? It happens, right? 

But here’s the thing: while it’s totally normal to get annoyed or frustrated sometimes, constantly criticizing each other or dishing out those eye rolls can really chip away at your relationship.

Relationship experts Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottman did some research into this and found out that criticism and contempt (like eye-rolling, sarcasm, or mocking) are super harmful. In fact, the presence of contempt in a relationship is the biggest red flag that things might not work out.

So, if you and your partner are in a cycle of picking at each other and can’t seem to talk without some snide remark or dismissive gesture, it’s a heads-up that you’ve stumbled into a trap that a lot of unhappy couples fall into. 

But don’t despair just yet. Now that you know what’s going on, you can work on it. Next time you feel an eye roll coming on, pause and try a more gentle approach. It’s all about rebuilding that respect and kindness bit by bit.

4) They’re not intimate anymore 

Did you know that around 15% of married people haven’t had sex in the last 6-12 months?

There are lots of reasons why people stop being intimate with their partners. According to one study, it includes things like their partner’s lack of desire for sex, relationship problems, and infidelity.

And here’s the kicker: almost all of the reactions to ‘involuntary celibacy’ are negative, leaving people feeling frustrated, depressed, and rejected. It’s hardly surprising that couples in sexless relationships are usually unhappy, right?

Sex is an important part of a healthy relationship but it doesn’t just happen. Just because you’re together doesn’t mean it’s a given, you’ve still got to make an effort to feel close.

So how do you maintain the passion? Relationship experts John and Julie Gottman’s research finds that keeping the spark alive boils down to a few simple behaviors. Couples with an amazing sex life:

  • Cuddle
  • Say “I love you” every day
  • Kiss passionately for no reason
  • Talk openly about sex

If your relationship has slipped into a pattern that’s common for unhappy couples, little to no intimacy, and you want to reignite that spark, why not start by doing some of these things with your partner (with their consent of course)? Give it a try and see how they respond. 

5) They disrespect each other during fights

How you and your partner handle fights and tiffs says a lot about the strength and happiness of your relationship. If you can keep it respectful, even when you disagree, then a fight every now and again might actually be a good thing.

On the flipside, if respect and communication go out the window when you fight, you might have a problem on your hands. Fighting like this is damaging to your relationship and it’s a pattern that unhappy couples often fall into. 

As outlined by health and wellness writer Elizabeth Plumptre, “making threats, calling each other names, and giving each other extended periods of the silent treatment” are all things you should avoid when you’re fighting.

It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your relationship, there’s no excuse for being disrespectful toward your partner. It’s something you’ll see unhappy couples do and it often signals the beginning of the end.

6) They don’t prioritize quality time together 

How much real quality time do you spend with your partner each week? Rushing around in the mornings or the phone-scrolling evenings don’t count. I mean true, focused time together?

When you’ve been together for a while, it’s easy to stop prioritizing quality time together. It’s a routine that unhappy couples fall into a lot, without even realizing it. 

Here’s the thing: research shows that couples who spend more quality time together are happier in their relationships and experience a greater feeling of closeness. No matter how busy life gets, if you want a happy relationship, you’ve got to prioritize time with your partner. 

But don’t worry, it might be easier than you think. 

The Gottman Institute says spending just 6 hours a week on your relationship can do wonders. It might sound like a lot, but it’s made up of lots of small things like a 2-minute goodbye kiss or spending 20 minutes chatting about your day in the evenings. 

It’s pretty simple, if you want to be in a happy relationship, prioritize quality time with your partner. 

Final thoughts

Have you noticed that most of the patterns that unhappy couples tend to fall into happen gradually and quietly over time? It’s not like you wake up one day and stop being affectionate or start criticizing your partner all of a sudden. 

These patterns creep in slowly when you’re not paying attention and before you know it you’re in an unhappy relationship. 

Putting your relationship and your partner first can really make a big difference in avoiding those negative vibes. It’s not about grand gestures; it’s more about just being there, noticing the small stuff, and getting the little things right, day in and day out.

Cat Harper

Cat is an experienced Sales and Enablement professional turned writer whose passions span from psychology and relationships to continuous self-improvement, lifelong learning and pushing back on societal expectations to forge a life she loves. An avid traveler and adventure sports enthusiast, in her downtime you'll find Cat snowboarding, motorcycling or working on her latest self-development project.

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