A Psychologist’s List of the 6 Most Common Mistakes We Make in Relationships
And how to avoid them so yours will succeed
If your wife asked you to give a podcast interview with not just her but also your ex-fiancée, who happens to be a psychologist, how would you respond?
Andy Levine faced this exact question, and even though it sounds like a great way to blow your marriage, he said yes. Andy has been married to Sharleen Joynt, an opera singer and former Bachelor contestant, for five years.
In the 5th episode of their podcast, Dear Shandy, Margie, clinical psychologist — and Andy’s ex-fiancée — makes an appearance. Besides turning a terrifying prospect into an insightful conversation, Margie also shares the most concise list of relationship dos and dont’s I’ve ever come across.
She’s a true “bottomless pit of wisdom,” as Sharleen describes her. Here are the 6 most common mistakes Margie sees us make in dating and love — and how to avoid them so your relationship can thrive.
1. Give yourself time to become someone you like
It’s common among friends, particularly men: Someone suggests a get-together. Something “active.” A hiking trip, perhaps, or a cycling tour. No one has done any exercise for months, but somehow, you end up on an excursion roughly equivalent to an Ironman triathlon — and spend the next three days on the couch, waiting for your butt to stop hurting.
According to Margie, we do the same thing in relationships: We try to run before we can walk.
“When you really give yourself permission to take your time, to really become someone that you like, somebody that you enjoy being, with a life that you enjoy having, you will attract somebody that you like. If you’re someone you like, you will attract someone that you like.”
In other words: You can’t find true love before you truly love yourself.
Your life will never be perfect, and you can’t exactly time when you’ll meet “the one,” but until you feel genuinely satisfied with your life as is — your work, your health, your non-romantic relationships — that should be the baseline you’re working towards, not “let me get a partner who can fix it.”
“Everybody knows what that feels like — when you arrive within yourself and you’re living in the heart of who you are. You start to attract the right people and things. And if you’re not there, you know it too, and so give yourself the time to get there,” Margie says. Amen.
2. Allow your relationship to reach a point of conflict
Sticking with the hiking metaphor, when you walk alone in the woods, a narrow path will suffice. If you walk next to your partner, however, the two of you will need a wider track. To stay together, you must find a new way — a way neither of you might have chosen on your own.
This is what it means to resolve conflict in your relationship, but, according to Margie, a lot of people never even allow theirs to get there. “It’s not that you want to seek out conflict with your partner, but it’s important to test whether the relationship has the capacity for growth.”
How you do this matters less than that you do it, she says:
“I’m not saying you need to sit down as two zen masters and just share your feelings. No, you can have a blowout fight, do whatever, but is it productive? Are you able to get somewhere new and resolve things that are not working?”
“What is the relationship asking of us?” is the key question here, Margie says.
Your relationship should grow, not contract, after each fight. For it to do so, you need the words “I’m sorry.” You need empathy, patience, and humility.
You need to find the path with enough space for both of you, and while it may not always be the fastest, it’ll be the one on which your relationship can last.
3. Understand that you can’t change other people
One reason your relationship will naturally reach a point of conflict is that — duh — you’re two different people! Eventually, you’ll disagree on something, and that segues right into Margie’s next lesson:
“The most important lesson is to understand that we cannot change other people. Other people are beautiful and perfect as they are. They don’t exist to be who we need them to be.”
In fact, if you’re constantly frustrated that people aren’t who you need them to be, you should evaluate whether you actually love them, Margie says.
“That’s not really love, that’s gratification. Love is about loving somebody who’s not exactly who you need them to be and loving them anyway.”
Or, in Andy’s words: “Fixer-upper is for houses, not people.” If your partner wants to change, that’s an effort you can support, but it’s not for you to decide when, how, and why other people evolve. That just leads to entitlement, gratification, and manipulation. The exception to the rule? Lead by example:
“If you’re willing to change yourself, you can change the relationship — and thereby change the person. But that’s not because you changed them, it’s because you allowed yourself to be part of that change.”
Still, never change in hopes of changing your partner. “Understanding that you can’t make people different is a really liberating thing.”
4. Accept that romantic love is conditional
Just because you shouldn’t expect people to change does not mean you need to accept everything they do. This sounds like a contradiction, but actually, it’s a balance. Maintaining this balance is why, sometimes, the only way to advance a relationship is to end it.
If your partner starts smoking and smoking is a no-go for you, you can observe the situation for a while. You can see if they have a desire to stop you can support, and you can try being accommodating to your partner’s habit. Realistically, however, you can neither expect them to change nor give up your principle. This might be a line in the sand you can’t overcome.
“Adult relationships are not like parent-child relationships,” Margie says. “When a parent loves a child, it really is unconditional.” When two adults come together, however, it’s normal to expect some form of give and take.
Don’t test how much your partner loves you. Don’t play child-like games. Don’t expect them to take whatever you dish out, Margie says. It’s not fair.
“Understanding that there is a conditional aspect to adult partnership is a way to help couples operate with more respect towards one another.”
You’re not a bad person for not laughing off every stupid decision your partner makes, and neither are they for not putting up with all your antics.
You’re two grown up people, living in the real world. Act like it.
5. Anything is okay — as long as you can talk about it
Margie’s hero is Mr. Rogers, who, for over 30 years, taught children about feelings, rationality, and relationships through his TV show. Her favorite quotes of his is that, “if it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” In other words:
“Anything is okay — as long as you can talk about it.”
Whatever problem you have in your relationship, when you talk about it, you’re already working on it. Bring up important issues. The trick here is to realize that anything is mentionable, as Mr. Rogers would say:
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
Don’t be afraid. Talk about your feelings.
6. Let go of any issue that’s less important than the relationship itself
Returning to the woods one last time, Andy explains how to avoid small spats:
“If you live in the woods, and you get familiar with your neighborhood, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is a place where there’s a snake. This is a place where there’s poison ivy. This is a place where I’ll trip over this log every single time and sprain my ankle.’ Eventually, you’re just like: ‘Oh, I can avoid all these things.’”
Not pushing your partner’s buttons is a good start, but you’ll also have to let go of bigger issues — as long as they are not more important than the relationship itself. Andy learned this in his relationship with Margie:
“The importance of the relationship always took precedence over everything else. The relationship is like the queen bee. Nothing else matters. Protect the queen. Even if I was resolute, ‘I am right and she is wrong,’ I was like, ‘Is it really important enough to cause a fracture?’ And it wasn’t. Ever.”
Your relationship will never be the only thing that matters in your life, but you’ll face situations in which you must decide that it matters more than anything else. Margie confirms:
“You put the ‘We’ above the ‘I.’ At a certain point, you’re willing to say, ‘Even though I’m angry, even though I’m hurt, this “We” is the cup that we both drink from, and we want to keep it filled. If I’m vengeful or spiteful, I’m not going to have anything to drink. So let’s keep nourishing this cup.’”
Some problems must be solved. Most needn’t be. Protect your relationship.
All You Need to Know
With her charming soberness, Margie ends the conversation: “Wasn’t the best learning you ever had all the stuff that was miserable?”
For Andy, the “stuff that was miserable” led him to marrying Sharleen, a relationship he describes as “so rock solid that I can have this memory lane conversation with my ex-fiancée, and I know we’re not gonna have a fight about this.”
You might not end up on a podcast with your spouse and ex-fiancée, but if this rock-in-the-ocean kind of relationship is what you want, heed Margie’s advice:
- Give yourself time to become someone you like
- Allow your relationship to face conflict
- Understand you can’t change other people
- Accept that romantic love is conditional
- Talk about anything
- Let go of everything less important than the relationship itself
Like life, love finds a way. It might not send you the perfect partner tomorrow, but if you avoid the biggest traps, it’ll soon find it’s way to you too.