Show me a couple that never squabbles over unwashed dishes, lets frustration fester or goes to bed angry, and I’ll show you a couple of liars. Not all relationship issues are deal-breakers, but all relationships do have issues—it’s to be expected when two people grow and evolve while also sharing a Netflix account.
Whether you and your S.O. are celebrating your six-month or six-year anniversary, it’s important to identify and confront newfound (or ongoing) issues—even when it can be challenging to do so. “All those little things that you sweep under the rug need to be discussed so that they don’t all come up together,” says psychotherapist Augusta Gordon, LCSW.
But where do you start? How do you initiate a convo about your partner’s passive aggressive texting behavior or short fuse without setting them off? And how to do let down your own walls so that your relationship can mature?
Here, relationship professionals share the most common problems they see, and the best ways to resolve them.
1. You hold it all in
When the fear of asking for what you need keeps you from speaking up, resentment can build until it boils over. “I hear a lot of concern from clients that if they share their needs they’ll be told that they are mean or selfish,” Gordon says.
Another reason you might bottle things up: “People think negatively about outcomes and assume the worst rather than realize that sharing their needs can actually increase happiness for both people,” says Gordon. And if a fight does erupt, that can be a good thing—really! “Conflict is actually a wonderful thing because it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and deepen relationships,” Gordon explains. “Without conflict, we can’t have the deep level of caring that we want from our partners.”
But always communicate in a productive way—simply pointing out your partner’s flaws won’t accomplish much. “Be specific about what you want, because when you start saying, ‘You never do this or you always do that,’ that’s too broad,” says Amir Levine, MD, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and author of Attached. “Instead, talk about a certain situation—for example, ‘When you didn’t ask me to come with you, it hurt my feelings because I like to feel included.’”
Kristin Lyons, a New York City-based psychotherapist, also recommends taking a beat to really examine how you feel—and letting the heat of the moment simmer down—before bringing it up with your S.O. Then, “communicate them in a way that says, ‘You may not have intentionally tried to hurt me, but I am feeling hurt, and I need your help with understanding what happened here,’” she says.
2. You put up emotional walls
“When you allow parts of your deepest self to show, you may initially feel scared,” Lyons says. And this is totally understandable! Revealing yourself to a partner can be unnerving. “But the goal is to eventually arrive in a place where you feel like you’re seen and understood. Disclosure is one of the main ingredients in the cocktail of intimacy and closeness.” This kind of connection takes time to cultivate—you likely won’t be spilling your heart’s desires on the third date—but opening up gets easier each time you do it, Lyons says.
Lyons also adds that allowing yourself to be vulnerable “does not mean you’ll always get what it is that you’re looking for. It’s a risk that you’re taking with the hope of feeling a stronger and deeper bond and sense of trust.”
To help the process along, Dr. Levine recommends doing a physical activity with your partner—and no, not that kind. Think indoor rock climbing, taking a trip to an amusement park, or running a local 5K. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when couples do physical activities together, they are more in sync with each other,” he says. “Plus, they help you have a physical closeness that increases oxytocin, which then increases feelings of trust.”
3. You’re a people pleaser
In relationships, it’s common to feel like it’s your job to take care of your partner’s feelings, says Gordon. But while you may think you’re being caring and compassionate, constantly trying to please your partner is actually a way of exerting control over how they feel. Over time, this can create further tension or distance between the two of you and prevents emotional growth on both sides. “By intercepting their feelings, you are interfering with their ability to learn whatever lessons they need to learn to grow in the ways that they possibly could,” Gordon says.
4. You’re a perfectionist
The big issue here: Perfection is impossible in all areas of your life, especially in relationships. And holding yourself and your partner to an unhealthy standard can create a great deal of stress and resentment. Then, when things don’t go your way or if you feel emotionally injured, the body goes into threat mode—you know, that whole fight, flight, or flee response—potentially making you more likely to throw in the towel.
Also, when things don’t live up to your picture-perfect expectations, “you may not only turn on the people that you love, but on yourself, too,” Lyons says. “You can feel as though you’re deficient, defective, unworthy, or simply not enough.”
By understanding and accepting your partner’s weaknesses and developing a deep compassion for yours as well, “it can result in more effective communication with your partner and an opportunity to achieve exquisite closeness,” says Lyons.
5. You play the blame game
To maintain a healthy relationship, you must recognize that good or bad doesn’t—and can’t—exist. “When we find ourselves looking to point fingers or place blame we activate the most defensive parts of another person, and your message will not be heard,” Dr. Levine says.
“If you’re fighting with someone, the aim isn’t to show them that you’re right,” Dr. Levine adds. “What you want is for them to open up to you. But the more you attack your partner, the less you’re actually going to get from them—you may be right, but you’re not getting what you really need or want.”
The key takeaway here: Everyone makes mistakes. And as a result, circumstances often don’t always play out the way you hoped. According to Lyons, “Mistakes are not a reflection of our full selves or our partners, nor an opportunity to turn ourselves—or someone else—into a punching bag.”
And remember that you and your partner are doing the best you can. “Relationships will come with ruptures and mistakes, and it’s necessary to acknowledge them,” Lyons says. “If you can identify them, you may be able to nurture them, feel them—yes, we have to feel our feelings—grow from them, and potentially even find refuge in them.”