In a previous post, I discussed common dating advice that is misguided or just plain wrong. In this post, I’ll tackle bad relationship advice. There is no shortage of books, magazine articles, blogs, and talk shows telling people how to have better relationships. But there are certain common bits of advice that research suggests are not true. So here are 6 pieces of bad relationship advice:
1. You should have sex with your partner every day.
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There is plenty of evidence documenting the benefits of frequent sex, including greater relationship satisfaction, lower stress, and greater happiness. This has led some people to claim that more sex is better, so couples should aim to have sex as much as possible, even every day.
However, other research suggests that more sex isn’t necessarily better. In a study of thousands of couples, Amy Muise and colleagues found that while people who had sex more frequently were happier, there was a limit. Having sex more than once a week didn’t provide any additional happiness boost. In an experiment where couples were asked to double their sexual frequency, this change had no impact on happiness — likely because these couples were already having sex about once a week to start with. What seems to matter more than sexual frequency is sexual satisfaction. People who are happy with their sex lives tend to be happier and more satisfied in their relationships. Sexual satisfaction doesn’t necessarily mean very frequent sex.
While there is no harm in couples having more sex, deliberately trying to have sex every day, as is sometimes recommended, could backfire. Does it really make sense to have sex more than you want to, as a way to improve your relationship? You might exercise more than you want to in order to improve your fitness — That will work because it has a direct impact on your body. But your mindset going into a sexual encounter affects how satisfying it is. So if you’re having sex when you’re not in the mood, the experience will not be as pleasant. For example, couples trying to conceive tend to report lower sexual satisfaction because they have to schedule sex and because they start to view sex as a means to an end, rather than a spontaneous expression of their feelings.
2. Men and women are so different they might as well be from different planets.
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Many popular dating advice books rely on broad generalizations about gender, like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” On average, there are many areas, where men and women differ. Some of these differences are quite large, like physical differences in upper-body strength and height. Other differences are smaller, like differences in personality. With all of these differences, especially the smaller ones, there is substantial overlap between men and women. Even with large differences, like height, it’s easy to see that some women are taller than some men. With personality and behavioral differences there is even more overlap. So when it comes to understanding one person – your romantic partner – judging that person’s actions based on their gender is a lot less helpful than trying to understand them as a person. In fact, the belief that men and women are fundamentally different has been identified by researchers as a maladaptive relationship belief that has a negative impact on relationships.
3. You should be 100% focused on your partner.
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Of course, you should be focused on your partner and work on your relationship. But it is possible to focus too much on your partner.
It’s good for couples to spend time with other couples. In studies where couples discussed personal topics with another couple, they experienced greater closeness and passion for each other, compared to couples who just engaged in the same type of conversation with each other. Interacting with others and sharing your relationship can strengthen your bond and remind you why you love your partner.
It’s also good for you to do things on your own and to cultivate other relationships with friends and family members. Expecting one person to fulfill all of your social and emotional needs can set you up for disappointment. As I discussed in more detail in an earlier post, life stress, poor interpersonal skills or problematic personality traits can all make it harder for people to have that perfect relationship. Sky-high relationship expectations can motivate you to work on having the best relationship possible, but if you lack the ability to make that happen, it will leave you disappointed. So it’s not a bad idea to look to other areas of your life and other relationships for fulfillment, rather than relying only on your partner.
4. All date nights are created equal
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Plenty of research backs up the notion that couples should have “date nights,” where they spend quality one-on-one time together. But this advice often fails to make a distinction between different types of date nights. So you might assume that anything you do with your partner will be equally beneficial for your relationship, whether that’s vegging out on the couch together, going to your favorite restaurant, or going hiking. While all of these dates are likely to benefit the relationship, some might have a larger effect than others. In particular, engaging in new and exciting activities tends to bring couples closer together.
According to self-expansion theory, passion in relationships comes, in part, from their ability to allow us to “expand” ourselves — to take on new qualities, learn new things about ourselves, and pick up new interests. New relationships help us do that. But more established relationships can do that too, if we engage in novel activities with our partner. The new and exciting activity doesn’t need to be grand. It can simply be trying out a new restaurant, taking a cooking class together, or checking out a neighborhood you haven’t been to before. So make the most of your date night by trying something new.
5. Fighting is bad for your relationship.
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Many people believe that fighting is necessarily bad for your relationship. But this belief, like the belief that men and women are too different to truly understand one another, is a maladaptive relationship belief associated with lower quality relationships. In fact, fighting can be constructive, when done properly. If there are problems in your relationship and you don’t discuss them, those problems will go unresolved. A good relationship is not one that is free of conflict, but rather one where conflicts are skillfully managed.
This does not mean that you should embrace every opportunity for conflict. Sometimes you do need to let the little things go. A useful strategy to use in close relationships is something that researchers call accommodation. Accommodation means tolerating the occasional bad behavior from your partner. So if your partner makes a snarky remark in anger, forgets to do a chore, or criticizes you, you let it go, rather than responding in kind. This enables couples to avoid having useless fights. As I discussed earlier, fights can be useful and productive if they involve tackling a real problem. You shouldn’t just let things go when it involves an important issue in the relationship that is bothering you. But you also shouldn’t turn every unpleasant behavior by your partner into a fight.