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What are the top 3 common relationship mistakes? The answer might surprise you.

When you fall in love, it's easy to imagine that your healthy relationship will bring you wonderful personal growth and long-term companionship. No doubt your partner feels the same.

But as the relationship goes on, it is easy to expect your partner to stay the same, but moving in brings new challenges to many couples. Is your mistake expecting perfection? Having to set new boundaries?

Most issues that spark marital conflicts cannot be resolved.

Relationship Mistake: 1. Criticisms and Harsh Start-Up

A softened start-up” is; “the soft initiation of a request for behavior change.”

John Gottman’s research has revealed distinct patterns of negativity that he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Criticism is one of those horsemen.

But the way you complain really makes a difference. The best complaint is narrow in focus and is limited to the facts at hand. 

Criticism and Harsh Start-ups

Criticism attacks the partner's character. It points out character flaws or evil intent. And it comes out swinging with the first few words:

  • “You are so lazy!”
  • “Why are you so selfish?”
  • “You are useless!”

Research tells us that the first horse, criticism, is pretty common.

Criticism becomes problematic when it is the primary way you relate to each other.

Try Softened Start-up

Women, who tend to be the ones to complain, should notice how they start out their complaints and intentionally try to “soften” them, just as you would approaching a beehive. And a little soothing “smoke” doesn’t hurt, either.

Many years ago I worked with a couple, I'll call them Sam and Linda, to improve the way that they communicated with each other. I encouraged Linda to start out with some sweet words of understanding:

“Look, honey, I know you worked late tonight, but I’m dead tired and made dinner for the last three nights. Do you mind doing it tonight?”

Soft start-ups aren’t about hiding your annoyance. It’s OK to be annoyed at the consequences, but try to provide an explanation that doesn’t suggest a character flaw.

Second Mistake: Defensiveness

Gottman defines defensiveness as “defending one’s innocence, warding off a perceived attack, meeting an attack with a counterattack (a righteous stance of indignation), or whining (an innocent victim stance).

You can do this in any number of ways: “denying responsibility for a problem (it's all the partner’s fault), cross-complaining, or whining.

Accept responsibility for your role in the marital struggle. Not doing so leads to escalation.

What to Try Instead

Sam should own up to his contribution and accept responsibility, instead of getting defensive.

Instead of explaining why you are right, and your partner is wrong, explain why your partner is bringing up a good point and how you need to take heed.

Third Mistake: Batting Back Influence

You know the scene: Sam has just sat down after work to read the daily news online when he hears his partner Linda call up to him: ”Sam, can you give the kids a bath while I fix dinner?

Sam chooses not to answer.

Linda is at his office door.

“Are you ignoring me? Are you going to give the kids a bath or what?”

Sam looks up quickly but doesn't meet her eye. He looks back at the online news. He mumbles something.

Sam is talking to himself about how little free time he has and how hard he works.

“What?!” Sam says. He’s finished the article but hasn’t read a word.

“I said I would.”

Sam is now gaslighting. He didn't respond to his wife; he ignored her. If Sam is intentionally ignoring his wife to get “downtime” with his online news, or breaks his promises or his commitments to her, his repeated behavior will be seen for what they are: manipulations.

What to Try Instead

This is a destructive interaction. It can lead to long-term problems. If it is a new pattern, pick a time to sit down and have a serious talk about setting boundaries.

Linda begins this serious talk by telling Sam that she has been unhappy with some of the ways he has been treating her. If this is the first conversation about this, she explains that she knows he cares about her, but his behavior is impacting the way she feels about him. She tells him she's afraid it will destroy the relationship.

If Sam is receptive, she might offer some examples of the kinds of behaviors she's talking about. She avoids getting into an argument about the details.

If Sam acts poorly in response (denies, counter-attacks, acts defensively), she should say: "This is an example of what I am talking about. You are negating my experience. Please stop it."

She ends by telling Sam that from now on, she is going to let him know when his behavior has become offensive and that she hopes he will cooperate by being open to these reminders.

Relationship Maturity

Sam needs to be transparent with Linda, according to Gottman. He has to be responsive when she talks (notice I didn’t say “agree with her,”) keep his promises, and do what he says he’ll do.

Gottman says that we need to know that our “partner is an ethical, moral person—a good person, someone who will treat us and others with high moral standards, integrity, honesty, kindness, love, and goodwill.”

We have to be able to trust our partner’s intentions, motives, and actions toward us. When you feel like other people's or your partner's needs always take priority over you, this needs to be addressed.

Sam's needs are also important. He should talk directly about these needs and not expect Linda to know what he wants.


Let’s face it, fighting between couples is more the norm than the exception. According to one researcher, couples have more than 300 arguments each year. Fighting isn’t the problem; getting angry isn’t a relationship mistake, either.

The key is how each of you responds to the fight. Keeping your feedback as complaints instead of criticisms, practicing soft start-ups (don’t anger the bees), and responding with openness to complaints instead of getting defensive or batting back influence will go a long way toward keeping that beehive humming and avoiding these three common relationship mistakes.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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