Here’s a truth: relationships end. Sometimes they end because the relationship came to its natural conclusion; it was a relationship that was right for that particular place and time, and the people involved outgrew the relationship. Other times, however, relationships end because the relationship itself didn’t work. Someone wasn’t happy, someone found that their needs weren’t being met, or realized that they just had to go. Still other times, relationships end because people let it die… or caused its death.
But what a lot of folks often don’t realize is how many relationships had their end already written before the relationship had even begun. While the early days of dating someone are often the easiest and most enjoyable, these can also set the stage for how the relationship will end… sooner, rather than later. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the thrill of the new, when you and your partner are both getting that oxytocin high off each other and not realize that you’re planting the seeds that will cause everything to fall apart down the line.
To make matters worse, these are issues that may seem minor at first, but metastasize faster than you might realize. They may feel insignificant at the start, but ultimately they’re matters of respect; respect for your partner and respect for yourself. And a relationship without respect cannot last or be healthy.
Gentlemen, you don’t want to leave your future to chance. It’s time to learn how to recognize the mistakes that will spell the end of even the happiest relationships. When you understand and avoid these mistakes, you’ll quit struggling with your relationships and become the kind of man your partner will love to brag about to others.
Mistake #1: You Don’t Speak Each Other’s Language
One of the most fundamental principles for every successful relationship is simple: communication, communication, communication. If you and your sweetie can’t communicate, then it doesn’t matter how much bed-rocking, neighbor-annoying sex you’re having; there will come a point where no amount of physical chemistry will be able to overcome your mutual frustrations.
But what people often don’t understand is that communication isn’t just about talking; it’s about being understood. You can talk your head off all you want, you can use your words, you can even shout… but if you and your partner aren’t communicating in a way that the other can understand, then you may as well be speaking gibberish to each other.
The most obvious example of this is the idea of “love languages” — the way that we express love and affection for people we care for. The idea of love languages is that there are different ways that people show love that goes beyond simply saying “I love you”. These can range from spending quality time together to giving giving gifts or doing things for your partner. However, when people don’t understand how their partner expresses affection, it can seem as though they just don’t care. They may be shouting “love” at the top of their lungs, but it just doesn’t come through. Not in any way that they can understand, in any case.
As a case in point, consider this scene from the movie Ghost:
In the movie, this is treated as a character flaw on Sam’s part; he’s afraid to express himself or actually commit to his relationship with Molly. However, it’s not a matter of his being willing to accept that he loves her, it’s that he doesn’t necessarily show love the same way she does. She may use saying the words to show it, but Sam shows it through his actions. The famous pottery scene, for example, is a clearer demonstration of his feelings than words would ever be for him. But the fact that he and Molly have different love languages is a core conflict in their relationship. He may be showing that he loves her, but she doesn’t hear it when he tells her. Not the way he intends, in any case.
However, there’s more to speaking the same language than just how you express affection. How you communicate during times of conflict is just as vital… possibly even more so. Once again, people have different ways of communicating their distress or letting their partner know that there’s some lack in the relationship. One of the most infamous examples is the classic argument about who does the housework and why.
Take washing the dishes as an example. A common variation of arguments about who washes the dishes is rarely about who washes them and how often, but why someone washes them or not. The argument is expressed in terms of wanting the other person to want to wash the dishes more often. This, in and of itself, can seem absurd; who wants to do dishes more often? Why would someone even be care about why you wash them, as long as they get done?
The issue is that this argument isn’t about the dishes or even how often the housework gets done… though we’ll be coming back to that in a moment. No, the issue is that one partner is feeling taken for granted. They don’t want their partner to do the dishes more often so much as they want their partner to be just that: an equal partner. Someone who is taking equal responsibility for the upkeep of their life together, not someone who has to be reminded over and over again to do more of their share of the work. They want their partner to be as engaged, as interested and active in basic maintenance of their shared lives as they are.
Now, a common response is “well, why don’t they just say that?” And the answer is simple: they did. The disconnect is that the other person didn’t understand that because they haven’t taken the time to learn their partner’s language. And while this is an issue that hits everyone, it tends to be a very one-sided. It’s all too common for one partner — usually, but not always women, especially in hetero relationships — to learn the other’s languages, while the other partner doesn’t make a return effort. But communication is a two-ways street, and it’s on both partners to make the effort to learn how to understand each other.
Making sure that you understand each other — both for the good and the bad, the love and the conflict languages — is vital. This includes making sure you and your partner understand any underlying issues that may get in the way of communication or that might send messages that aren’t intended. For example: if one partner has issues that interfere with executive function or memory, that can seem like disrespect or not listening, when it isn’t. But this, too, is part of making sure you’re understood, and requires both people to make an effort to be understood.
If only one person is making that effort, the relationship has developed an imbalance… and that imbalance will often cause things to fly apart.
Speaking of arguing and getting needs met…
Mistake #2: You Aren’t Comfortable With Discomfort
Everyone loves a relationship in the early days, when everything is easy. When it’s all cartoon hearts and blind cherubs, it seems like nothing could possibly shake the foundations of your relationship. Your love is just far, far too strong.
But that stage never lasts. Where you have two or more people, you have conflict. It’s inevitable; if you’re a person occupying space in this world, you are inevitably going to elbow somebody else. No relationship, no matter how strong, how happy or how “perfect” is without conflict. That’s not the problem.
The problem is when people are too afraid of conflict.
On its face, this seems absurd: what’s wrong with wanting to avoid conflict, especially within your relationship? Why would you want to invite trouble into something precious and happy?
But that, in and of itself, is the issue. Sometimes conflict is necessary. It’s often the avoidance of conflict that causes problems, not the conflict itself.
I can’t tell you the number of letters I get from people who lay out all the ways their needs aren’t getting met in their relationship. They can explain exactly what it is they’re missing, why this is a problem and what fixing the problem would do for them. However… they’re telling me all of this information, instead of sharing those exact thoughts, feelings and needs with their partner. If they were to take everything they said to me and said it to their partner — even using those exact words — then their entire issue would be resolved and I would be this much closer to being out of a job.
But they don’t. They’re afraid of what voicing those concerns might do to the relationship. Now, in fairness: this is an understandable fear. A lot of people worry that their partner may take things the wrong way if they say that there’s something wrong or they’re missing something vital from the relationship. Others worry — not without reason — that their partner will judge them, mock them or otherwise get angry at them. And still others fear — again, not without reason — that their relationship is contingent on their not questioning things. If they were to actually advocate for their own needs or stand up for themselves, their relationship would burst like a soap bubble.
Except… would that actually be so bad?
One of the mistakes people often make is that they equate “not fighting” with “a successful relationship”. But the problem with this outlook is that it forces you into smaller and smaller boxes, where you give up more and more of yourself, rather than risk a confrontation. Worse, all that happens is that the lack you’re feeling never gets addressed, and your needs never get met. So rather than strengthening your relationship by avoiding any potential conflict, you actually undermine the entire enterprise.
Nothing rots the support structure of a relationship more than feeling like you can’t express yourself or advocate for yourself and what you need. You can bite your tongue until it bleeds, but that doesn’t make things better. It doesn’t mean you’ve avoided that conflict; you’ve just kicked it down the way, where it’s going to fester, mutate and grow until it explodes in a completely unexpected manner… messily and all over the place.
The great irony of trying to avoid conflict is that more often than not, the things that people try to avoid wouldn’t be conflicts if they were addressed early on. Most of the time, the issue is the discomfort of bringing up the issue, rather than the issue itself. While yes, talking about something you may need in bed or wanting to discuss thorny relationship issues can be intimidating and awkward, that doesn’t automatically mean that the topic itself needs to be avoided. The more important the issue is to you, the more important that it is that you actually bring it up. After all, your partner isn’t a telepath. Nothing can improve until you open your mouth and make the words fall out.
Now this doesn’t mean that speaking up for yourself won’t cause conflict; sometimes the issues you’re trying to resolve are going to result in you and your sweetie arguing. Some may even lead to the relationship falling apart. But arguing isn’t in and of itself a bad thing or an indication that things are wrong; sometimes it’s a matter of trying to untangling a host of issues that’ve gotten knotted together. And, to be perfectly blunt: relationships ending aren’t necessarily a bad thing either. If, for example, asking for something you need from your partner will end the relationship, then that’s probably a relationship that needed to end. Staying in a relationship isn’t inherently better than breaking up, not when the cost of staying is carving away parts of yourself for someone who couldn’t care less.
But this is information that’s best discovered and addressed sooner, rather than later. Staying in a relationship purely out of a desire to Not Be Single is the emotional equivalent of hiking in shoes that’re the wrong size. You may get where you’re trying to go, but the pain and misery it’ll cause you is never worth it, and the long-term consequences for you can be dire. It’s better to get comfortable with those uncomfortable conversations early on. Not only will this make it easier to have those conversations when it really matters, you’ll learn very quickly whether this relationship is a good fit… or if your partner is simply not the right person for you.
Mistake #3: You Don’t Make an Effort
Here’s something a lot of folks don’t get about relationships: a lot of relationships don’t end because people fell out of love or one partner decided to “trade up” or what-have-you. A lot of relationships end because one partner ends up doing all of the work. It’s not about the spark fading or cheating, it’s about burnout.
This is a variation on the adage that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.
Women don’t leave relationships or marriages: They burn out.
It’s years of overwork, overcompensating for men who underfunction in the house and relationship. Independence is better than prison.
— Heidi N. Moore (@moorehn) May 23, 2020
One partner reached the point where they looked around at the burning grease fire of their lives, realized that not only they were the only person who not only was trying to put the fire out but the only person who cared that shit was on fire. They, quite reasonably, said “fuck this, I’m out,” and chose to let it burn without them.
A lot of digital ink gets spilled about “what women actually want,” or “what women are looking for in a man,” or even “how to make women happy in a relationship” and how mysterious and complex it all is. While folks will crawl all over themselves to talk about how unreasonable or demanding women are when it comes to relationships, the truth is that the bar for straight dudes is so low they could trip over it.
Started realizing Women appreciate the fact that you made plans sometimes even more than the plan itself.. it’s the pre thought part that has them
— dvsn ÷ (@dvsn) September 22, 2021
The cold truth is that a lot of men are all too accustomed to passing off the work of actual relationship maintenance to women. While the most obvious example is the simple divisions of household chores — the whole “I want you to want to do the dishes” conversation I mentioned earlier — it applies just as much to the emotional labor that’s necessary to make the relationship work in the first place. The small things that people don’t realize are vital to keeping a relationship alive and healthy are often just as important, if not more so, than who does which chores. But those are also aspects that men tend to neglect until it’s too late.
While it’s easy to pass this off as a lazy, hacky bit about men being shitty, this changes when you actually talk to women about their relationship experiences. Some stories are as dramatic as the most profound “I expressed this minor need to my boyfriend and he blew up at me, AITA?” posts from the Am I The Asshole subreddit. Others are so common and baked into to how men are socialized that it’s a shock to realize that this is actually a problem.
One of the most common examples that men often don’t think of is basic social planning. If you were to ask a random sampling of straight couples who plans and manages most of their social life, you’d quickly discover that women do the lion’s share of keeping and maintaining their social calendar. This includes everything from arranging the week’s schedule to planning nights out, hosting events… even something as simple and seemingly straight forward as making plans to get together with friends. In fact, this problem is so endemic in straight couples that widowed and divorced older men are among the most socially isolated; they relied so much on their wives handling all the social responsibilities that when they no longer have a spouse, their social circle is decimated.
But this goes beyond just who makes the plans and who arranges things. This lack of effort — any effort at all — spreads to almost all aspects of relationships. A lot of men treat a relationship as being able to live how they lived when they were single, while having to occasionally do errands for their partner. Meanwhile, their partner finds themselves shouldering more and more of the physical and emotional labor of the relationship, usually on top of having the responsibilities of managing a life and career of their own.
The hell of it is that this isn’t (usually) a matter of intentional maliciousness. For all the comments folks make on social media, most men aren’t actively looking for someone to take over as a mother figure. Rather, it’s often a matter of benign neglect and letting standards slip. Often, what ends up happening is that their girlfriends or wives take on some responsibility that just wasn’t getting done. Since this usually happens without comment — their partners just start handling business — guys often don’t notice the change. But that first, unremarked abdication of responsibility tends to be narrow end of the wedge. After all, once one responsibility was taken off your shoulders without your having to do anything, it’s much, much easier to allow the others to fall by the wayside.
It doesn’t takes very long before one person is doing all the work.
Sometimes guys will notice this shifting of labor. However, while they may notice the change… it’s hard to be motivated go back to how things were before. It’s all too easy to rationalize things away. One common explanation is “well, they care more about X, so it makes sense they’d take it over.” The problem is that caring about X more than you doesn’t make it their responsibility. In fact, the fact that they care about X more is reason for you to take responsibility for it. By shouldering that burden yourself, you’re taking a concern off your partner’s plate. By ensuring that X is done, you’re giving your partner more room under their emotional bandwidth cap. It’s a loving and caring thing to do.
But waiting until you’re asked to take care of X — or Y, or Z — isn’t the same as making an effort. Making an effort would entail doing the thing, shouldering that responsibility before asking you became a necessity. Paying attention to the division of effort and labor — physical and emotional — is part of your responsibility as a caring partner. Making an effort isn’t about getting good boyfriend or husband points; it’s about being an equal in the relationship. Not just in “control” but in output and responsibility, handling your share of the load instead of allowing it to fall to the wayside until your partner takes it on out of necessity. It means being an active participant in the maintenance of the life you share together… not just getting involved in the good parts, or the fun, easy stuff.
And while we’re on the topic:
#4: You Fell Victim to the Male Bumbler
One of the ways men end up rationalizing not making an effort is surprisingly insidious: “she’s just so much better at it than I am.” “I’d do more, but she doesn’t like how I do X…”
I’ve fallen victim to this one myself; in most of my relationships, past and present, I’ve usually had partners who took more responsibility for things like cleaning, because we had different cleaning styles and mine was less… rigorous. My tolerance for clutter and disorganization was higher than theirs. But the fact was that I wasn’t carrying my end of the burden, and I was willing to excuse it as not being as good or thorough at the job as they were.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. It seems reasonable on the surface: you’d like to do more but you’re simply not as good, not as skilled or not able to reach your partner’s standards. It makes more sense, then, to let them handle things; they’ll only get upset when you try and end up doing it over anyway. In practice, however, this is falling into an overused trope: the Male Bumbler.
The term, coined by author Lili Loofbourow in the article “The Myth of the Male Bumbler“, refers to the tendency for men to use ignorance and incompetence as a reason to excuse bad behavior. From the article:
The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.
While Loofbourow was referring to men using the Male Bumbler trope to excuse sexual misconduct and abuses of power, it’s a trope that equally applies to other areas where men “just happen” to be incompetent. Areas that, by sheer coincidence, end up becoming the responsibility of the women in their lives. This ranges anywhere from cooking and cleaning, to child rearing or chores that don’t involve construction and carpentry. It becomes a means by which they can slough off responsibility without taking ownership of that decision. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s that they’re just no good at it.
Needless to say, this seeming incompetence is most often found in areas that are traditionally seen as feminine or “women’s work”… a subset of labor that seems to expand continuously as more and more duties get shunted aside by disinterested parties. However, that very division is part of what keeps the trope of the male bumbler alive. Because men are thought to be clueless and less-than-competent in non-manly areas, they’re held to the lowest of standards… standards that they often manage to miss anyway. And yet it’s acceptable for them to miss those standards, because folks don’t expect them to be able to meet them.
This is a trend that often starts incredibly early, often in childhood. Even “cleaning your room” was a task done in the most slap-dash way possible, only for their parents to do the real work after.
And while this has changed over time… men are still given leeway to be unskilled or incompetent that women aren’t.
What makes things worse is that men often buy into this trope themselves. It’s so culturally pervasive that it’s hard not to take that belief onboard without realizing it. But regardless of how they bought into the myth, it’s still a case of learned helplessness. The supposed ignorance and incompetence is an easily solvable problem. Continuing to be less-than-capable at particular responsibilities is a choice, especially in this day and age. We live in a world where we have unfettered access to almost any information we could ever desire at our fingertips. It is the work of seconds to find information, instruction, even step-by-step tutorials for whatever task we’re supposedly not good at.
The same applies to meeting standards of competence higher than the absolute minimum. More often than not, the excuse of “they’re better at it than I am” only exists because the person saying it allows this to happen. They hold themselves to such a low standard that they aren’t motivated to step up. Why bother, when you’ve gotten this far by only giving the lowest level of effort? The fact that you don’t currently meet your partner’s standards — exacting though they may seem — is, in itself, a reason to not try.
Not being able to meet their standards should be the reason to work at it so that you can meet them. Beyond the damage that this learned helplessness causes to your relationships, it’s a matter of respect. It’s showing respect to your partner by upping your game and taking a level in relationship badass, and it’s showing respect for yourself. Instead of shrugging your shoulders and letting someone else do the work, it’s about rising to the challenge and not buying into bullshit ideas that you can’t be competent in this area.
And the thing is, this sort of competence pays dividends beyond basic “being good at cleaning stuff”. It makes your relationship that much stronger and more equitable and frees up your partner to be able to do more things that make her happy — something you should want and encourage for her. And there’s also the fact that women find that sort of competence hot as hell because it’s so uncommon.
So, y’know. There’re benefits to your relationship that move from the kitchen to the bedroom too. Just sayin’.
Mistake #5: You Don’t Live Up To Who You Were At the Start
The beginning of a relationship is a magical time. We rarely as close to being our ideal selves as we are when we first start dating somebody. When everything is fresh and exciting, we want to put our best everything forward and present ourselves in the most favorable light possible. It is both the easiest part of the relationship and the time when we put in the most effort. That sense of newness and fragility, the feeling that this is special and so must be nurtured to keep it, inspires us to perform at our best. So we dress up sharper than we normally would, spend more time making sure our hair is just so. We’re never more open to trying new things or wanting to dazzle our new partners with our awesomeness than when we’re caught up in the whirlwind of New Relationship Energy
But then we start to let things slide. As we become more comfortable and secure in the relationship, some things just don’t seem as important any more. We dress a little more loosely. We don’t spend quite as much time on our grooming. That openness to adventure becomes settling into familiar patterns and interests.
We, in short, let go of our ideal selves and fall back to something more… grounded. Realistic. Something that takes less effort to maintain.
And that can be a problem.
While comfort and familiarity in a relationship are inherently good things, one of the unintended side-effects is that we often let comfort turn into laziness, and familiarity into taking them for granted. We’ve gotten used to their presence and so we don’t worry as much about losing it. This lets us become a little more selfish, a little less concerned with our partners. And that’s a path that can turn into a steep downhill slope very, very quickly. It doesn’t take much for laziness to become an unwillingness to give more, or for familiarity to curdle to contempt.
The worst part about this is that it’s a very subtle process — a death of a thousand cuts. Each little piece of ground you cede seems incredibly reasonable. It’s understandable that maybe you’d like to spend the time and energy elsewhere. It makes sense that you might choose the tried and true over something new and different. Of course you would not go on as many dates or make as many gestures now; those all costs money, you know. But each slip in your standards — barely noticeable on its own — adds up very quickly. Those changes are so individually minor that you don’t realize how much things have changed until you look up and see it all at once.
Who we are at the beginning of a relationship is a challenge of sorts; it’s an ideal that we are aspiring towards. It is, in its way, a promise to our new partner and to ourselves: this is who I can be, this is what life with me could be like if you were with me. When we let that fall to the wayside, we’re breaking that promise. Like the learned helplessness of incompetence or the inadvertent sloughing off of responsibility, we are excusing ourselves from even trying to live up to that standard, never mind achieving it. And in doing so… well, we’re giving ourselves room to not try in our relationship too.
And so we let what our relationships could be fall by the wayside as well. We expect little of ourselves and give less.
Small wonder that most relationships end.
However, by simply treating your relationship like it’s new, no matter how long you’ve been together, you’re able to keep that magic alive. Rather than giving up or take the easy path, you’re choosing to rise to the challenge of reaching your ideal self. You aren’t letting that promise go because it would be more convenient to do so; you’re making a point that your partner deserves the best version of you. That commitment demands a lot from you, and you are showing you care enough to try to reach those standards. And because you expect more of yourself, you are able to give more.
That, in turn, inspires your partner to rise up to meet you at your level — or even to surpass you and inspire you to meet her. Not only are you putting the effort in to make life and your relationship better for your partner, but you’re making it possible for the two of you to keep and maintain the higher standards you feel your partner needs and deserves. Your investment in each other only continues to grow as your bond strengthens and your connection deepens. It’s what helps the two of you build the sort of relationship that lasts decades… or even a lifetime.
And this isn’t to say that life is all top-hat and tails ’til death do you part. The point is to reach for the ideal and to keep striving towards it. It’s ok if you don’t hit those high marks every time. It’s ok if there’re days you and your partner have less time or energy to expend. The point isn’t reaching the goal, the point is that you’re trying to. You may not be able to give the same amount every day, but you’re giving as much as you can. You’re showing, through your actions, that you care about this relationship and that you will do what you can to make it work.
So set those standards for yourself. Let the version of you at the start, when the NRE is flowing and everything is a fairy tale romance, be the promise, the motivation and the goal. Try to live up to who you are in that moment… and your relationship will be just as magical 50 years down the line as it was the day you met.