How to avoid these most destructive of relationship derailers
Love, friendship, intimacy, passion, mutual support... all these relationship benefits make for a happier life. Ah, that special someone you can laugh with, who shares your hopes, dreams, and concerns - and you don't have to book an appointment and pay £80 an hour.
Hold on a moment - we can be in danger of idealizing relationships. And of course, people can be happy without an intimate partner. But however you cut it, relationships do matter.
Research on pain perception even found that we experience less pain when looking at a picture of a loved one (1). Healthy relationships make for good health and should help you feel secure, strong, loved, and loving - at least some of the time.
No wonder many people want a relationship. But for some people, it's harder for new relationships to 'take', to grow and thrive.
What are the seven most destructive relationship mistakes? And how can we avoid them?
Mistake 1: Being too desperate to 'hook up'
This is a classic and universal relationship mistake: Time is 'running out', biological clocks are noisily ticking like estrogen-filled time bombs threatening to explode, and panic sets in. Suddenly, anyone with a pulse and clean(ish) fingernails starts to seem like a 'good bet'.
'Wanting a relationship' is not the same as wanting to be in a relationship with a particular person. If you get too hung up on wanting 'a relationship' as a general idea, you may fall into the trap of:
- Flinging yourself at the first vaguely available (or non-available) creature to enter the room.
- Putting potential partners off if they sense you're as desperate as Gollum was for the One Ring.
What to do: Remember the words of the song 'You Can't Hurry Love' and don't. Octogenarians can still hook up, so slow down. Starting a relationship with someone 'just because' is like setting out on a voyage without checking for rot, poor engine performance, sea worthiness, and your legal rights. And in the long run, if you have one eye on the stopwatch, starting up with the wrong person wastes more time. Which reminds me...
Mistake 2: Repeatedly going for Mr/Ms Wrong
If you're in the market for relationship mistakes, this one can be neatly combined with the first mistake. If I repeatedly scrape my face on tarmac and then wonder why it hurts, I may need to take stock a little.
But hold on; anyone can mistakenly get together with a 'psycho'. Early on, they may be all charm and attentiveness (and you may be conveniently averting your eyes from early telltale signs - such as 24-hour surveillance on your house). So you can't always blame yourself for getting mixed up with the psycho, but feel free to blame yourself for:
- Staying with a psycho once the signs become obvious.
- Deliberately going for someone with 'dysfunctional features' that match characteristics of someone with whom you had a past destructive relationship and then later wondering where it all went wrong (see my face scraping example above).
Of the two points just covered, the first one is more forgivable (since I'm in a refreshingly judgemental mood), because it can feel harder to break free once you're in. But the second one?
What to do: If you're chronically pursuing mates (to use the National Geographic term) obviously flawed to the extent that relationships will be painful and doomed, then at least admit this to yourself and don't be surprised that 'relationships always go wrong'. Knowing your patterns is the first step to changing them.
Mistake 3: Game playing
There is a great line from a Seinfeld episode, and I'll try not to misquote here, in which one of the characters says to Seinfeld, "You shouldn't play games in relationships!" to which he replies, "What's the point of dating without games? How do you know if you're winning or losing?"
If we view too much of life through a competitive lens, we come to treat everything like a tussle, a chance to score points and get ahead. Trying to make someone want you more by acting 'standoffish', ignoring them, or trying to make them jealous is, of course, all about manipulation. If a relationship starts off on a basis of game playing, don't expect any winners long-term.
What to do: If you want a good quality relationship, be honest and upfront so you can both 'win' together. And refuse to be drawn into their games if that's what they do.
Mistake 4: Wanting too much too soon
Wanting to peg someone down too quickly to see whether they're 'committed' is like trying to insist cabin crew serve you their delicious vacuum-packed fare during take off. Give it a chance!
Telling someone you love them on the first date, planning your retirement together, or talking about 'us' and 'we' prematurely applies too much pressure and saps the spontaneity and fun from the early stages. Having to 'know how they feel' may be fair enough down the line, but asking them too soon where they see this relationship going can make them feel like they're being interrogated in a job interview.
What to do: Hold off for a while until you know each other better. Everything that exists in our Universe, as far as I know, has a time scale - including love. Don't be too quick to establish yourselves as a longstanding couple when you've known each other just a few weeks.
Mistake 5: Don't act insecure
I've written a whole piece on this, so I'll be brief. Give your new dating partner some space. Even if you feel insecure, acting too insecure too soon can switch off the relationship before it starts. Resist the temptation to be constantly checking where they are and what they are doing and/or thinking and feeling. If you really like them, it's natural to be thinking about them a lot; but remember they had their own life before you came along and they still have that life.
What to do: Acknowledge to yourself that it's natural to feel worried that you might accidently 'break' something you feel is precious, especially in the early 'fragile' stages; but remember that a flower seed, once planted, needs to be left a bit rather than constantly picked and scratched at.
Mistake 6: Ditch the perfectionism
Fairy tales in real life may not look like fairy tales as presented by Mr Disney. Prince Charming may have a crooked nose, and your princess may have pigeon toes. What am I wittering about? Being so fussy that you miss genuine relationship opportunities.
I talked above about being too desperate, but it can work the other way. Expecting people to be perfect, then getting mad when their behaviour doesn't exactly accord with your imagination of how they should be is, frankly, nuts.
If people don't 'live up to' your self-made image of them, is that their fault? If you have too-tight parameters for how your love should be before you meet him or her, then you may be positioning yourself out of the market. Sure, there are things we all prefer, but some people are so specific:
- "He must have green eyes (and two of them!)."
- "He must wear designer jackets."
- "He must have a body of a Greek god, the mind of Albert Schweitzer, and the car of a London financier."
- "He must have a dollar-shaped beauty spot on his left buttock."
I kid you not; some people (usually younger people) cut off their own options to this extent. They may defend this with: "Why should I accept anything less?!" But this misses the point that, so often, something can seem to have all the right 'parts', but when those parts are put together, you find they don't really work as well as expected.
What to do: Open your mind to the possibility that you could be mistaken in assuming you can only have a relationship with a person who fits exactly what you have imagined. And remember that you are having a relationship with a real-life person, not a phantasm of your own making.
Mistake 7: Don't try to change them
There is an old Sufi tale (2) in which some villagers find an eagle, a bird they had never seen before. Because it was unfamiliar, they didn't feel it was like a 'real bird' at all. So they cut its beak, trimmed back its feathers, and clipped off its talons, at last deciding that now it looked like a 'proper bird'. Of course, it could no longer fly.
Treating your new partner like a project that you need to work on, like something to 'improve', is disrespectful and can make the person feel like you don't appreciate them for who they are or even know them at all. Trying to get someone to wear more trendy clothes, go for the jobs you recommend, act how you think they should, begs the question: what did you see in this person to begin with?
What to do: Remember the story of the villagers and the eagle.
Dating someone new should be fun, exciting, and enjoyable. If you can monitor and influence your own behaviour during this 'getting to know' phase, then you have much more hope of getting to know whether you and they really will work together without needing to blame anyone if it doesn't work out.
Knowing what may be wrong can help us all understand more how to find what is right.