Why relationship problems persist and what we can do about them

Have you ever been in a relationship where a small problem snowballed into a much larger one?

You’re not alone. This is a widespread pattern.

Here are some examples of problems people commonly face in their relationships with partners, friends, coworkers, etc.:

  • You need more personal space.
  • They don’t help when you need them.
  • They retreat when they encounter conflict.
  • You dislike constantly being interrupted or spoken over.
  • They never give you the time you need to process things.
  • You feel like the other person is not seeing or hearing you.
  • They don’t listen to you and instead give you random advice.

Something interesting happens when you encounter a problem like this.

The brain will start to search–usually unconsciously–for supporting evidence. It will pick out data that proves this is a real problem. This is confirmation bias in action.

And there’s another interesting thing that happens.

We start to behave in ways that prove this is a real problem.

You may blame them. The problem only exists because of what they’re doing (or not doing). And you’ve already tried to solve the problem. So this is on them.

You may remind yourself why this is a problem–it’s common sense, it’s obvious you don’t like it, and you’ve talked about it before, yet they still haven’t changed. Whatever it is, it’s clear they’re in the wrong, and you’re in the right.

You may punish them for not changing like you’ve asked them to. This might take the form of criticism, ignoring them, or sneaking in little passive-aggressive jabs at them when we notice them doing something stupid.

At the same time, you may not get curious about what’s going on for them–why are they choosing that behaviour anyways?

You may forget about all the good things that have happened in the relationship. (Usually, our romantic relationships and friendships include good experiences. However, it’s easy to overlook those when we’re focused on a problem.)

And you may not share your whole experience with them. You’ve probably already told them–multiple times–that this is a problem, so why bother sharing your thoughts and feelings about it anymore?

Together, confirmation bias and these behaviours create a vicious cycle.

What once was a small problem now seems so much more significant.

We see the problem everywhere we look. It’s getting worse, not better. And it seems like it’s never going to go away.

And this has a growing impact on your relationship.

You feel less happy (and it’s all their fault).

You don’t want to spend as much time with them because of this.

And you start to question whether you still want to invest time into the relationship.

So what can we do?

We can take responsibility for our role in the problem.

We can look for the good things about the relationship. (Don’t worry about ignoring the problem–your brain won’t let that opportunity slip by thanks to confirmation bias. 😉)

You can ask yourself: What am I grateful for about this relationship?

We can reflect on the behaviours we’re choosing (or not choosing) that may contribute to the problem.

You can ask yourself: Who would I be if I stopped choosing these behaviours?

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