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  • Three Easy Ways to Kill a Relationship

    As human beings, we’re not born with great people skills.  Infants are naturally self-focused, motivated by internally felt needs.  We gradually learn relationship skills as growing children—socialized by our families, at school, around the neighborhood, and out in the world, supervised by adults.  We learn by example, through experience, and according to our own neuro-psychological make-up.

    Given that there is no perfect environment to learn perfectly adaptive skills, we can all stand to learn better ways to survive and thrive.  Some of what we learn doesn’t lend itself well to socially normative settings.  Here are three common relationship mistakes we make that we can correct right now.

    Questioning love

    “I love you.”

    “Oh, really?” – “Do you mean that?” – “Yeah, right.” – “Why?” – “I doubt it.”

    Questioning an expression of tenderness and vulnerability delivers a message of mistrust. Questioning love is a weapon that creates a deep and painful wound.  It is a personal insult.  It creates a rift in the relationship.

    When a friend or intimate partner says “I love you.” just assume they mean it. Take that statement at face value.  Depending on the context, it could mean a lot of different things. It could mean that they like us, or that we have some endearing quality, or that we have just said something they value or want to know.  It’s possible that they are saying it in a sarcastic tone, but even then it is almost always a recognition that we are appreciated.

    In the most serious way, saying “I love you” is a gift of tenderness and commitment given from the heart.  Saying “I love you” shows vulnerability and trust.  Whether or not you feel the same way about them, trust what they give you, don’t repudiate it. If you don’t share the feeling, find a kinder way and a better time to say so.

    Mean little zingers

    According to Webster, a zinger is a “pointed, witty remark.”  Here, I am adding “meant to hurt feelings” to that definition.  In relationships, mean zingers are comments that are like private jokes, except that they’re not jokes, and often they’re not private.  Mean zingers are said in the context of a conversation that is often serious, and they often shame or devalue a person in front of others.

    Examples might include:  

    “She’s not very pretty” — “You’re one to talk.”

    “I want to meet your friends.” — “That’s not what you told me.”

    “Thank you for being patient with me.” — “You mean, for standing here looking like I care?”

    With mean zingers, it’s the context that determines the meanness.  Often that context can be complex.  For example, imagine A spending a lot of time studying for an exam, while B works and does home chores during that time.  When the two take a break and meet friends for a dinner out, B might resentfully send a mean zinger by saying, “I wouldn’t mind doing all the work in this relationship if I had confidence it would make a difference.”

    Shaming a friend or partner in front of others is playing dirty.  It’s not a way to cultivate a healthy or happy relationship.

    The 5 to 1 ratio

    Research shows that in relationships, whether at work or at homewe remember negative comments far more easily than we remember positive ones.  The subjective weight we give negative feedback is much heavier than the subjective weight we give positive feedback.  In fact, the ratio is 5 to 1.  

    It takes five positives to offset one negative.  In married couples, research shows that where there were fewer than 5 positives for every negative, the marriage ended in divorce.  Interestingly enough, this ratio also holds in organizational settings, where successful teams had 5:1 positive to negative, and unsuccessful teams had a ratio of anything lower than that.

    There are lots of creative ways to be positive in a relationship, use them all!  For certain sure, tell your partner when they do something right.  Try to say it in a more sophisticated way than “You did [this] right.”  Practice different ways to say this ahead of time.  It may sound weird, but it’s worth it.  You can tell them as they are doing it, and afterward.  

    The most powerful strategy is to give positive feedback in front of friends.  Tell friends a little story of a particular reason you appreciate your partner—a particular amazing thing they did today!

    Other ways to give positive feedback include but are not limited to:  a caress, a hug, a smile, a wink, a kiss, a big thank you, asking an open-ended question about how they “got that to work,” a simple statement of pride in them, a brag to a friend, a reciprocal kindness, a gift, an assisting hand, a love letter, a text, an affectionate email, a follow-up about how their action helped you in some way. You can come up with all kinds of ways to give a piece of positive feedback.

    Yes, constructive criticism is important.  But remember to offset that with five kinds of positive feedback.  And try always to end on a positive.


    2004. Losada M. and Heaphy, E. “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model” American Behavioral Scientist. v47, n9.

    1994. Gottman, John.  What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes.  Hove and London.


    Copyright © 2023 by Marilee Snyder