9 subtle habits that can sabotage a relationship, according to psychologists

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When we talk about breakups and divorces, the most common reasons we think of are the big stuff, right? Cheating, lying, abuse…

But did you know that there are certain subtle habits that are just as damaging as infidelity and abuse? 

The thing is, sometimes, they are so subtle that we barely notice them creeping into our relationships. Not until it’s too late and the cracks we didn’t notice have turned into huge, gaping chasms. 

In this article, I’ll discuss nine of those subtle habits that psychologists say can sabotage a relationship. I hope they can lead you to examine your own relationships and see what needs to change. 

Let’s dive in! 

1) Failure to communicate openly

Let’s begin with one of the cornerstones of healthy relationships – communication. 

It’s common knowledge that we need to talk our problems out so they won’t fester. There’s no shortage of research studies that point to its importance. 

It’s one of those concepts that look simple in theory. 

But in practice? That’s a different thing. So many of us don’t do it. 

There are many reasons why we fall short in terms of open communication, such as: 

  • Fear of rejection or judgment
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Difference in communication styles
  • Lack of emotional awareness 
  • Lack of communication skills
  • Different social/cultural backgrounds
  • Poor listening skills

It’s actually a longer list than this, which leads me to say this particular truth – people are complex! 

That’s why, despite our best intentions, these differences can sabotage our relationships

2) Conflict avoidance

If you look at the list above, you’ll see this habit as one of the causes of failure to communicate. 

I used to think that the lack of conflict was a sign of a healthy relationship. 

No arguments = absolute peace and harmony, right? 

Wrong. 

Because that sense of peace could be a false one. You might not be having arguments but I’m willing to bet you’ve got issue after issue piling up inside you just waiting to implode. 

Take it from Joseph Grenny, the author of “Crucial Conversations” – sweeping issues under the rug never makes them disappear. According to him, “The biggest mistake couples make is avoidance.”

And you know what? Strangely, it’s the couples who argue who stand the best chance of staying together. 

One study in the journal Family Process found that couples who argue regularly are ten times more likely to have a good marriage than the under-the-rug-sweepers. 

So, take that advice and speak up respectfully. Confrontation isn’t my favorite thing either, but I’ve learned that it’s sometimes necessary.

3) Making assumptions

You know what they say about assumptions – they make an “a** of u and me”. 

Psychologists agree. Well, maybe not in those exact terms. 

But they do emphasize that making assumptions about your partner’s feelings or intentions can lead to unnecessary conflict. 

Real talk – we might know our partners inside and out, but the fact remains that we don’t know every single thing that runs through their minds. Nor can they read ours. 

For instance, I’m the type who celebrates birthdays in an extra special way. That’s how I was raised. 

Meanwhile, my husband is the opposite. His family acknowledges birthdays, but they don’t really make a big deal out of them. 

So, in our first year together, when my birthday rolled around, I was expecting, you know, a little more. (Okay, I admit, I expected a surprise party.) 

What he did, though, was cook dinner for me and write me a lovely letter. It was really thoughtful, but again, I admit, this thought passed through my head: 

“Is this it? Does he really love me?”

Eventually, we did talk it out and I saw where he was coming from. Which brings me back to my earlier point that there’s still so much we don’t know about our partners, even if we already know them better than other people. 

[Side note: I did learn later that his love language is acts of service (especially food-related ones) – so that homemade dinner was actually a supreme act of love!]

4) Ignoring the little things

That story I shared with you reminds me of this one other important habit – never take your partner for granted. 

See, that’s what I did when I failed to appreciate my husband’s thoughtful dinner and letter. They might be little things, but for him, they were already huge. 

Research studies show that gratitude and appreciation add to relationship satisfaction in a big way. 

They state: “People who are more appreciative of their partners report being more responsive to their partners’ needs, and are more committed and more likely to remain in their relationships over time.”

So, don’t forget to look at the everyday, mundane things your partner does for you. Those acts of kindness can keep the spark alive! 

You know what doesn’t?

5) Keeping score

Show me a relationship where there’s an imaginary scoreboard, and I’m almost certain that relationship won’t go the distance. 

I’m talking about a tit-for-tat mentality – you do something nice for your partner, then expect something in return. 

Or you chalk up points against them. 

“I took the kids to school twice this week.”

“Yeah, but I took them four times last week!”

“Well, I did the laundry thrice this month!” 

Notice how quickly that spiraled into a contest full of resentment?

You see, according to psychologists, keeping score has no room in relationships. 

Couples need to function as a team – work out arrangements, but allow each other grace when you fail to hold up your end from time to time. 

6) Too much criticism

A close second to the point above is the habit of being overly critical. 

I mean, you don’t need a psychologist to point out that too much criticism can erode the trust and respect you have for each other.

Still, here’s what relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman have to say about it: 

“Critiques and complaints tend to be about specific issues, whereas criticism has to do with attacking your partner’s character and who they are.”

See the difference? It’s perfectly natural to want your partner to improve, so it’s okay to voice your concerns or offer points for improvement from time to time. 

But constant criticism? That crosses over from “wanting you to improve” to “you’re not enough.”

7) Holding onto past mistakes

Another subtle habit that sabotages relationships is the refusal to let go of past mistakes. 

I say it’s subtle because it only comes up every now and then. You might be having a perfectly innocent discussion about contacting a house painter, then you suddenly blurt out…

“Maybe put it on your calendar? You might forget like you forgot our anniversary.”

We’ve probably all been guilty of this at one point or another, but psychologists say that holding onto grudges may be a form of emotional mistreatment. 

Once you’ve talked an issue out, let it go. It should have no room in your relationship, or else you won’t move forward. 

8) Neglecting self-care

When we’re one half of a couple, it’s natural to want to make your partner happy. But – don’t forget yourself, too. 

Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you have to: 

In fact, according to Cindy Norton of AVL Couples Therapy, the lack of self-care affects intimate relationships. 

She says, “We tend to take on the moods of those around us; so if you both are tired, run down, and stressed out, your relationship is going to take a hit.”

Think about it – iIf we’re not happy with ourselves, how can we be happy with someone else?

9) Over-dependence on technology

Finally, we get to a habit that so many of us have become addicted to – overuse of technology. 

GoodTherapy talks about how technologies have added to the stress of modern relationships. 

A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that one in four people in a relationship felt their partner was too distracted by their phone. 

And nearly 8% of them had argued with their partner about spending too much time on their phones. 

There’s no two ways about it – being glued to our phones gets in the way of intimacy. 

This made me rethink my own phone habits, and hopefully it does the same for you. 

What might work is to be intentional about it. Set tech-free zones and times and go for offline activities like taking a walk together or playing board games. 

Or just do like our parents or grandparents did – have a good old-fashioned conversation!

Final thoughts

I know it’s a lot to take in, but being aware of these subtle habits can make all the difference in your relationship. 

Just because you’ve been together for a long time doesn’t mean you can forego being attentive and considerate. Much like a garden, relationships require constant care to thrive. 

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