How to fail at relationships

I should have written this post for Valentine’s day.

A little while ago a good friend of mine, who has been happily coupled to his now-wife since they were 20 years old, asked me how one messes up a relationship. (I hope he wasn’t looking for practical advice.) More specifically, he said:

At the beginning, all you want to do is to be with your partner and make them happy, so pleasing them is very easy. But eventually there comes a time when you know you should be kind to them, but it’s no longer effortless. How do you decide not to?

A great question. Since I have extensive experience failing at relationships, I think I have a pretty good answer and more: I can give you guys a thorough manual for how to mess up your domestic life. Beware – there is more to the art than just deciding to be unkind!

1. Communicate ineffectively

An ex-boyfriend and I were at a large party where I didn’t know many people. He went off to talk to a group I didn’t know, leaving me to fend for myself. I felt awkward and abandoned. Eventually a friend of his took pity on me and tried to engage me in conversation. But as he was quite drunk, his efforts came across as inappropriate and unwanted flirting. I was having a miserable time.

I fumed for a couple of hours, by which point my boyfriend was rather tipsy as well. But I couldn’t contain my anger any longer, so I dumped it all on him. He didn’t think any of this was a big deal and tried to joke it off, and, since he was drunk, repeated the same unwelcome joke about 26 times. In response, I exploded and brought every conflict we had ever had into the conversation. He felt this was horribly unfair and exploded back. This I could not handle, so I switched to damage control mode, took back everything I had said, apologised profusely and promised not to bring it up ever again. Months later I would still think of the party and get angry, but I would keep my thoughts to myself.

If you want to damage your relationship:

  • Initiate discussions of conflict in public places when your partner is deeply engaged in another activity, and preferably under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Avoid marijuana though, it makes people too docile.
  • If your partner confronts you about behaviour that you wouldn’t consider problematic if the tables were turned, dismiss their complaint. Do not try to understand why they feel hurt, as clearly they simply want to annoy you. Make passive-aggressive jokes to annoy them back.
  • Drag as much dirty laundry into the conversation as possible. Berate your partner for everything they had ever done that has hurt you, and compare their acts unfavourably to your own bad behaviour, as the way they are treating you is much worse than anything you have ever done. They are therefore not allowed to get mad at you for anything for the next six months.

2. Don’t tell your partner what you need from them, or ask them what they need from you

When I first moved away from my childhood home it was to a different continent, with my brand new husband (now ex-, proof that I am good at this). The adjustment was very difficult, and I felt painfully homesick and lonely. Husband did some great things to help me feel better; for example, he let me hang out in his office every afternoon after I finished my classes. Unfortunately, he worked in a high-security building where visitors had to be checked in at the gate. This meant that every day, from my earliest possible arrival time until I actually arrived, he had to sit in his office waiting for security to call, and he often missed his team’s afternoon tea as a result. Of course this problem could have been solved by us getting a pair of cell phones, but Husband and I were not cut out for real life.

Understandably, he eventually got frustrated with my neediness and complained. I immediately re-evaluated our entire relationship: I decided that I was a huge burden on him and thought that my presence was unwelcome in general. I continued showing up at his work because I was desperate, but I no longer saw his co-operation as him supporting me through a difficult time: now I thought he was merely tolerating me. I said nothing, though.

When I missed my family so much that I broke down in tears, he tried to cheer me up by talking about all the exciting travel plans we had coming up. What I needed from him was simply physical comfort, and some acknowledgement that my feelings were normal, and that he understood. I didn’t tell him that either. Instead, I withdrew and cried alone in the shower.

If you want to damage your relationship:

  • Don’t communicate your needs. Your partner must know what you need from them without you saying a word, because love means you can read each other’s minds.
  • If your partner’s behaviour puzzles you – for example, if they seem distressed when you are not – don’t ask questions. You should instead be helpful by explaining to them that they should not be feeling the way they are.

3. If your partner needs something that doesn’t come naturally to you, ignore their needs

I bet many of you know this trick already; I see it happen in relationships around me so often. A good friend of mine and her partner love each other and have a beautiful life. She sometimes struggles with low self-esteem though, and needs frequent verbal encouragement and expressions of appreciation. She wishes that her partner would say things like “I know you have the skills to do well in that course”, “I appreciate the delicious dinner you made today”, “you look beautiful in that sweater”, and “I love you”. All of these would be true statements coming from him, but he thinks he’s ‘not the kind of guy who says things like that’. Obviously you can’t do something for your loved one just because you know they need it: it has to come from some kind of deep instinct within you in order to ‘count’.

When Husband and I had problems we knew we needed to talk about them, but couldn’t agree on how. He preferred open confrontation, no-holds-barred brutal honesty; I preferred a gentler process where issues are chipped away in emotionally manageable chunks, with warmth and comfort in between. Neither of us could be won over to the other side (although I made some effort, I didn’t have the courage or stamina to do it his way), so we never talked. When we tried, conversations would quickly end with me clamming up; this pushed him to be extra harsh in order to provoke a reaction from me, which in turn only forced me further into my shell.

If you want to damage your relationship:

  • Only do things for your partner that “come from your heart”. Never use your brain: brains are not to be involved in matters of love.
  • When your partner’s reactions or preferences differ from your own, double down and be more aggressive and adamant about doing things your way. This will force them to see that you are right.

4. Being unkind

Finally, we come to answering my friend’s question: how one decides to be unkind. If you are a human being with any empathy, hurting a person you love is neither pleasant, nor easy. The way it happens is dark and hard to write: the secret is anger. The angrier you are, the easier it is to convince yourself that your partner’s feelings don’t matter: that they deserve whatever it is that you are about to do – or not do. Better yet, you can convince yourself that they won’t be hurt by any of your actions because they don’t care about you anyway. If you want to feel entitled to be unkind, you can nurture anger and help it grow, and seize it when it comes. You can ride it like a surfer rides a wave.

A warning though: this is a dangerous game. One day, long after you had damaged your relationship, you will take off your angry goggles. Maybe you will have resolved your differences, or maybe you’ll have left the relationship, either way the anger will be gone. That day you will look at yourself and how you behaved with clear eyes, see unkindness and cruelty for what they are, and live with that knowledge for the rest of your life. I don’t recommend it. Methods one through three should be entirely sufficient to damage your relationship to the breaking point.

Failing at failing

With me such an expert on damaging relationships, you might wonder how Pink and I are still together after five years and a baby. (Oh, more advice. Already shaky relationship? Have a baby! It helps make it much worse 100% of the time.) Part of the problem is Pink’s hopeless lack of talent: his track record at damaging relationships is abysmal. I have also gotten somewhat worse with age. Another issue is that our neuroses are too well-matched, so carrying out the tips above is much harder. For example, we are both stereotypical first children: still striving to make our parents proud, dependent on outside praise for our sense of self-worth. We react to failure and rejection with similar despair, so the cure comes ‘naturally from our hearts’. In that sense we simply got unlucky, and might be stuck with an unfailing relationship for good.

Have more tips on how to fail at relationships? Share in the comments!

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