When you think about a healthy relationship, what does it look like? What does it feel like? Chances are, an image popped into your head with a smiling couple that’s holding hands and tackling whatever life throws at them, side by side. But there are a number of traits that sound like signs of strength but are really things a couple should steer clear of. Many are holdovers from earlier relationships—the things we, as teenagers, thought meant our relationships were “meant to be” instead of suffering from our lack of worldliness or experience. Anita A. Chlipala, LMFT, and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love shared eight traits that aren’t as positive as they sound.
Spending Lots of Time Together
“Spending a lot of time together is normal in the beginning, as is wanting to be in constant contact via phone or text,” says Chlipala. “With feelings of infatuation at a high, we crave our partner and want to spend as much time with them as we can.” So what’s the problem? “Problems arise when you completely stop hanging out with friends or wait until you hear from your partner before you make your own plans,” Chlipala explains. Those other relationships are important, too! She adds, “It’s healthy to not be in constant contact. You need to maintain your own identity with your interests, values, and goals—even in a long-term commitment like marriage.”
Turns out, disagreements now and then can actually be good for your relationship. “I never trust a couple who tells me they never fight. It’s impossible to agree or see eye-to-eye on everything,” Chlipala says. “People who avoid conflict don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings, but the disadvantages are that they aren’t as satisfied in their relationship because they don’t speak up for what they need.” You should be able to have conversations with your partner (that are, yes, sometimes a little heated!) and should feel comfortable voicing your feelings and opinions. Chlipala continues, “I’ve heard from married couples, ‘It’s important to be on the same page.’ Not always. You’re two different people with two different personalities, backgrounds, preferences, etc., so it’s impossible to be on the same page about everything. Sometimes the solution really is to agree to disagree, and to work to understand your partner’s perspective without having to agree with them. Conflict can be healthy because it can help a couple not take each other for granted and make sure both partners are working on the kind of relationship they want.”
Thinking “Sorry” is Enough
On the other end of the spectrum, if you and your partner have disagreements frequently, apologizing isn’t enough to keep your relationship together. Yes, you should say you’re sorry, but you need to follow up with action. “People rationalize that, as long as their partner apologizes, everything is okay. But an apology isn’t enough if you don’t fix unhealthy behaviors or learn to work better together,” Chlipala explains.
Having Lots of Sex
Hear us out on this one. “Lots of sex is just fine—as long as both partners are okay with it. If sex is the main way of connecting, then that’s a problem. I’ve had couples tell me the only place they agree is the bedroom! But having sex with someone can keep us attached to them, even if we logically know they’re not a good fit.” So a healthy sex life is a positive, as long as you’re both on-board and are also connected outside of the bedroom. If sex is the only thing you have in common, it’s time to move on.
Sharing All the Same Interests
“Research actually shows that having common interests has little to no bearing on a satisfying relationship,” says Chlipala. “And having different interests can keep the spice and passion alive in your relationship.” So, of course, having a few things in common will help get the ball rolling early on, but having diverse interests is good for both of you, as it can introduce you each to something new and maintain a little bit of that air of mystery you had when you first met.
Telling Your Partner Everything
Honesty is the best policy, but it has to be used responsibly. “There is a difference between constructive and brutal honesty,” says Chlipala. “Brutal honesty quickly turns into dumping our negative feelings on our partner or being critical. I am an advocate of honesty and openness, but it has to be a responsible honesty. Responsible honesty is about the sharing of yourself so your partner can ‘know’ you. Sometimes it takes thoughtful consideration to know what to share, instead of just blurting out whatever comes to mind.”
Defining the relationship might sound like something a mature, almost-married couple doesn’t need to address, but it’s a conversation worth having, even in a marriage. “There has been an increase in infidelity in our society, and I think it will continue to grow. People may think that having conversations about cheating means you don’t trust your partner, but that’s not the case. It’s important to be clear with your partner about how you define cheating and infidelity,” says Chlipala.
Not Admitting Jealousy
“Jealousy can actually be healthy when handled in the right way,” says Chlipala. “It can bring a couple closer together and can also increase passion because it makes your partner look more attractive knowing someone else wants him or her. Jealousy can also serve as an impetus to make sure you’re not taking your partner for granted.” So if there’s a little jealousy from time to time, address it and acknowledge that it’s reminding you of what you have. The issue lies at the opposite ends of the spectrum. “Suppressing jealousy or expressing it in the extreme can both be unhealthy. Jealousy has an evolutionary purpose to help ward off mate-poaching, which can lead to aggression. And people who say they never feel jealousy might just not care enough.”