When it comes to relationships, conventional wisdom isn’t always the wisest. There are certain relationship “rules” or sayings you’ve heard time and time again — so many times that you’ve just taken them at face value.
But therapists say some of these rules aren’t hard and fast, despite what you’ve been told. If something works for you and your partner, then great! But don’t feel like your relationship is doomed just because you’re not adhering to these one-size-fits-all guidelines. Below, relationship experts reveal the rules you can ignore if you want to.
Rule #1: Don’t go to bed angry.
While many couples do swear by it, this rule simply doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, forcing yourself to stay up and keep hashing things out — even though you’re worked up and it feels like your head is spinning — can make an issue more difficult to resolve.
Marriage researcher John Gottman has studied emotional flooding, the psychological and physical overwhelm people feel during conflict. He found that in this state, it becomes nearly impossible to have a productive conversation.
It’s OK if you’re someone that needs time and space to cool off after an argument with your partner. And that might mean going to bed angry some of the time. With a good night’s sleep under your belt, you’ll be better equipped to express your feelings — without resorting to attacking your partner — and more capable of hearing them out, too.
“This time apart can help each individual recenter and come back to the conversation in a more productive and loving way,” Annisa Pirasteh — an LGBTQ-affirming therapist and the owner of Act2Change Therapy & Wellness Center in Atlanta — told HuffPost. “When you realise that you are becoming ‘flooded’ and need alone time, ask politely for a pause to conversation. Kindly let your partner know that you need some space to gather your thoughts.”
Don’t just storm off and leave your partner high and dry, though: Set a time to resume the conversation “with an open mind and open heart,” Pirasteh said.
Rule #2: You need to have sex X times per week.
Sex should be a way to connect with your partner, not something you feel pressured to do to hit some arbitrary quota — lest your relationship be doomed.
For one, sex drives fluctuate over time; in one season of your life, sex may be a high priority and in another, it’s lower on the list. Sometimes you’re sick or stressed or short on time. Putting unnecessary pressure on how often you have sex can lead to resentment, said Caitlin Harrison, an associate marriage and family therapist at Kindman & Co in Los Angeles.
“It also doesn’t allow for open dialogue around sex [and] what sex means for you as a couple,” she told HuffPost.
Rather than trying to hit some magic number, keep the lines of communication open and figure out what works for you and your partner.
“Try this rule instead,” Harrison said, “‘Let’s check in regularly about what our relationship to sex is and if we’re wanting more or less of something.’”
Rule #3: Don’t date someone with baggage.
Newsflash: Everyone has some emotional baggage, said Pasadena, California, clinical psychologist Ryan Howes.
And “even if someone lived a perfectly bubble-wrapped life before meeting you, that is potential baggage in a relationship,” he added.
The issue isn’t whether they have pain or trauma in their past, it’s how they dealt with those hardships and how your own baggage interacts with theirs.
“Honest conversations about wounds from each of your histories will help you both determine whether or not it’s a good fit,” Howes said. “Couples counselling can be of great benefit here.”
Rule #4: Household responsibilities need to be split 50/50.
When it comes to domestic labor, what’s fair is not necessarily equal and what’s equal is not necessarily fair, as “Fair Play” author Eve Rodsky has said.
In talking to couples, Rodsky found that it’s not whether both partner takes on the same number of tasks that determines their marital satisfaction — it’s whether each person fully “owns” the items they agree to tackle.
“Owning includes not just doing, but also the cognitive and emotional labor that each task requires — the forethought, the planning, the remembering when, where and how to get the job done — and without excessive oversight or input from the other partner,” she previously told Motherwell.
Trying to keep everything 50/50 leads to scorekeeping, which can breed resentment, said Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace.
“Instead, try deciding labor along the lines of individual strengths and interests,” she told HuffPost. “You’ll both be happier! Also, expressing continued recognition and gratitude of your partner’s doings can never get old and keeps resentment down.”
Rule #5: The relationship is over if someone cheats.
People tend to believe that faithfulness — or lack thereof — is a reflection of commitment to the relationship, Makepeace said. But “fidelity alone does not equal commitment, nor is it the sole indicator of a healthy relationship,” she added.
Some couples break up after one partner cheats because they believe it’s impossible to repair a relationship after infidelity. Others split up because they’re worried about judgment from friends and family if they choose to stay together.
Of course, ending the relationship might be the right decision for some. But infidelity doesn’t necessarily have to mean the relationship is over. It is possible to repair if both partners are committed to working through it together.
In fact, “in many cases, when dedicated to do so, couples can heal and become even stronger after an infidelity,” Makepeace said.
Rule #6: If you love someone, you always put their needs first.
Howes said he’s seen too many relationships fall apart because one partner neglects their own needs so they prioritise their partner’s instead.
“Sure, there are certainly times for sacrifice and elevating your partner’s needs, but when that comes at the expense of your own, you are on a path toward physical and emotional burnout,” he said.
“When dedicated to do so, couples can heal and become even stronger after an infidelity.”
– Abigail Makepeace, marriage and family therapist
It’s OK — encouraged even — to say “no” sometimes, to shake the martyr mentality and prioritize your own well-being.
“If your partner expects or demands that you constantly put them first, there may be deeper problems that warrant a call to a couples therapist,” Howes said.
Rule #7: Pick your battles.
Many of Pirasteh’s clients have told her that they worry voicing their needs will make them seem confrontational, aggressive or nagging. They’d rather ignore what’s bothering them than risk rocking the boat.
“My recommendation is to begin by changing the language you use to describe difficult or tense discussions,” she said. “Framing these conversations as ‘battles’ can result in showing up with a defensive or critical demeanour — similar to two boxers going head-to-head. Don’t forget that you and your partner are on the same team.”
And most importantly, it’s not what you say, but how you say it. With the right approach, it’s possible to broach these conversations in a healthy way.
“Let your partner know that you would like to discuss an important topic and set aside scheduled time where you are free from distractions,” Pirasteh said. “Use ‘I’ statements to communicate your thoughts and feelings in an assertive and thoughtful way.”
Rule #8: You have to be into the same things.
Having a shared passion for hot yoga or rooting for the same college football team is great. But having diverging interests doesn’t mean the relationship is destined to fail.
“It’s usually our differences that attract us to others and can actually strengthen a partnership long-term,” Makepeace said. “While having similar morals is important, there is less of a correlation than expected to being happier in a partnership, because you and your partner are more alike.”
These differences can be beneficial: They might give you a window into another perspective or way of life. Plus, maintaining your own interests and hobbies adds some healthy independence to the relationship.
“Moreover, couples can also do the fun work to find new areas of interest to share or experiences to build upon together,” Makepeace said. “The trick with having different interests is actively creating space for each partner to know they can continue those interests instead of feeling like they have to sacrifice those parts of themselves.”
Rule #9: If your partner really loves you, they should be able to anticipate your needs.
Some people expect their partner to know them so well that they should be able to predict what they want or need in a given situation. When their partner falls short, they take it as a sign of incompatibility or disconnection.
But whether or not they can magically read your mind is “not a reflection of how much they love you,” Howes said.
Instead, start getting in the habit of asking for what you want.
“It may feel repetitive and unnecessary at times, but this can be less damaging than the disappointment of not getting what you want because you didn’t speak up,” Howes added.