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10/26/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2015

5 Relationship Lessons We Learn WAY Too Late

By Leigh Newman

You can't go back in time and fix all the romantic missteps of the past. But you can avoid them from now on.

Lesson #1: Seek (Only) Clarity
Mr. Incredible Second Date mentions casually that he can't make it to dinner on Friday -- even though he already confirmed with you a few days before. Previously, you may have taken three deep breaths to calm down, only to snap like a candy cane from last Christmas, replying in an frosty voice: "So, I suppose this is your way of telling me this isn't going anywhere." Or, you might have remained silent and cool on the outside, only to assume he wasn't into you and privately resolved never to go out with him again.

This time, consider seeking clarification. By this I mean just asking the guy what he means… but without using that phrase, since it can come off as aggressive, as in: "What do you mean, you can't come to dinner Friday?" A more specific, detailed wording, like, "Um… I just need a little clarification. With my last boyfriend, breaking plans was his way of saying ‘Let's break up.' So I'm not sure, exactly, if you're telling me that this isn't working out, or if you have some conflict with Friday night. Do you mind taking a sec to explain that one thing?"

As with anything, saying this calmly adds to its effectiveness, because what you're really doing is opening the door to honesty, a door that slams shut when people are afraid. If he is moving on, keeping your tone relaxed will encourage him tell you, because he won't be scared of your getting upset (which will also allow you to move on, immediately). But if he just has to go out of town to work at the helpless-kitten orphanage, you will end the mystery and prevent yourself from reacting to what may not even be happening. Seeking clarity -- which, please note, is not seeking the answer you have in your head or the answer you want to hear -- is also known as facing reality.

Lesson #2: Watch His Silent Movie
It's so rarely what they say, dear. In fact, your particular guy -- the one you've just spent the past seven years with -- may have said over and over, "I'm totally ready for commitment." But his actions might have been telling you something completely different. This is why you must watch him as if he were the lead in a 1920s black-and-white silent movie, one whose gestures and facial expressions are his only means of expression.

Silent-movie watching works especially well in subtle cases, when even he might not be sure of the discrepancy between his proclamations and your life together. Say the two of you are attending a wedding, one during which other guests are openly asking when your wedding will be. Watching him sweat more than the groom, gulp down three glasses of champagne and exit the reception to sit on the beach and stare moodily at the ocean may not fill you with joy and security. But it will inform you that this movie has hit an unexpected plot twist and, though technology of this sort didn't exist in age of Charlie Chaplin, what you need to do is hit the pause button.

Lesson #3: Watch Your Silent Movie
You're 29. You adore comics. So does he! You work in finance. So does he! You like traveling to India, hazelnut coffee, downhill skiing and big hairy dogs. So does he! When he comes over with a tray of brownies that he baked and says, "I love you," you say, "I love you, too!" Because you love him, right? In fact, you might go around telling people that he is the best, you two are so good together, you've been friends for so long, it's perfect... etc.

Now if you could just stop talking, you might observe your exterior self doing some troubling things. Like waiting to eat the brownies he baked you until they are too stale to chew, forcing you to throw them out. Like failing to stock weird, dark beer in your fridge, even though you know he loves weird, dark beer. It's not that you don't think of these small gestures of love, it's that you don't execute them. Why is that? Observing your own silent movie is just as crucial as watching his, maybe more so. Oddly enough, being misled is usually less painful that misleading yourself.

Lesson #4: Don't Excuse Bad Sex
There are times in life when sex is bad -- and so many different ways in which it can be bad. There's clumsy, embarrassed, first-time sex. There's too-tired-to-have-sex sex. There's after-fight sex that you think will fix things but doesn't because you're both still too mad. There's sex in the in-laws' house, which makes you feel guilty and paranoid over breakfast the next day. There are bungled shower attempts and misinterpreted fantasies and times when kids walk in, their little faces frozen in mute horror.

No one in their right mind will insist that these are indications of a wonderful relationship. But they are also "every once in a while." They are not "every day." They are not "every week." And they are not the "once-a-month" sex that you acquiesce to because after a while, it's just so uninspiring or uncomfortable that you give up on the activity. No matter how handsome, funny, honest, smart, kind and sexy a partner is, bad sex isn't something that you can live with it. Fix it or face up to the possibility that you may need a new partner.

Lesson #5: Own Up To Your .000001673928 Percent
When you're talking to yourself or your friends, your relationship dynamics seem really clear. Because… every single piece of evidence points to him being the one to blame for the house being a wreck and your being overtired. At night, you do the cooking and cleaning and the homework and bath for the kids. He eats! That's what he does! He eats! And then he reads a book to the kids and turns off the light. In other words (which are really the same thoughts), you are the giver. He is the taker. He is the problem.

Except that that's never exactly true. Be it the uneven division of labor or the non-effective way you two communicate or the reason why you never have real date-night plans and always end up at the crappy franchised "eatery" on the corner, your partner is never 100 percent to blame. He can be 98 percent to blame (for his affair with his employee) or 77 percent to blame (for the fight you two had about the budget) or 2 percent (for the horrifying mold that grows in the bathroom grout due to splashed tub water), but 20 or 30 percent… or maybe just .000001673928 percent belongs to you. If it didn't, if the proportions were really 100 percent wrong to 100 percent right, then nobody would remain together. Common sense -- and math -- wouldn't allow it. That sliver of responsibility you bear for the problem you two face is a figure that, when examined with brutal, crucial honesty, can be use to calculate a solution.

  • You’re Going Separate Ways (Literally)
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    Your husband works a half hour north, and you travel a half hour south. Your home is precisely midway. Fair, right? Yep, but maritally inauspicious -- that’s what Irene Huang and her colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong found when they studied American couples that commute every day. If, like many couples in the study, you and your partner commute in opposite directions, your marriage may be unhappier than you’d be if you were going in the same direction every day -- even if you don’t leave for work together. What happens in your subconscious, Huang and her colleagues wrote in the study, is that the commute takes on more general goal-related associations. Travel in the same direction, and you feel as if you’re sharing the same goals in life; travel in different directions, and you feel like you’re not.
  • You Eat Burgers At The Wrong Time
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    We all know that creamy-buttery-lardy-cheesy stuff is bad for heart health. But Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser, researchers at Ohio State University, think that high-saturated-fat foods may also hurt your relationship. In an ongoing study, they’re asking married couples to eat meals in the lab -- one of the greasy-burger variety; the other, veggie-heavy. Once finished, the couples are encouraged to discuss vein-popping topics: money, in-laws, housework, and how to raise the kids. Based on their previous research, the researchers have a hunch that the participants’ blood samples will show that fatty foods enhance the body’s stress response to marital spats. Eat unhealthily and your argument may spiral out of control more easily -- and you may run a higher risk of cardiac disease, inflammation, and diabetes over time. Any way you look at a fatty diet, it’s bad for your heart.
  • You Were Never The Smiley Type
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    You knew those stiff-faced yearbook photos would come back to haunt you one day. But this finding’s unexpected: Women with “low intensity” smiles in their childhood and college photos are five times likelier to get divorced as adults than those who smiled effusively, found a 2009 study at DePauw University. A bright, wide smile represents an underlying positive disposition and worldview -- undoubtedly helpful in marriage. Lifelong smilers may be the type to seek and sustain lasting relationships, and because smiling is contagious, their partners may be happier too. The good news about smiling: If you want, you can “fake it ‘til you make it.” As we know from the facial feedback theory of emotion, smiling deliberately can make you feel happier, because facial expressions influence emotions.
  • You Don't Have The Marriage-Protector Mechanism
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    Okay, you’d be lying if you said you don’t notice an attractive man when he smiles at you. We all do. And it’s perfectly fine for your married (or boyfriend-ed) self to admit it. But a funny thing happens when you’re truly, deeply committed: you’ll think that guy is less hot once it's clear he's an admirer. In a study led by John Lydon at McGill University, women (and men) who are deeply committed to their partners found an opposite-sex face significantly less alluring when told that the person had singled them out as a potential match. It’s a protective mechanism; they might not even be aware of it. Meanwhile, women who aren’t very committed to their partners are just as attracted to a handsome guy when he comes out as a potential suitor. So if you’re in the habit of finding Don Juans equally (or more) gorgeous when they do something flirty, there is an upside: Now you've identified your own early-warning mechanism and can work on building a deeper commitment with your partner.
  • You Pop A Monthly Rent Check In The Mail
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    The housing market crashes, and so does your marriage -- but often only if you rent your home. If you own it, you’re likelier to stick it out. This surprising connection between home ownership and the divorce rate comes from a group of economists led by Purvi Sevak at Hunter College (CUNY). Why would it be so? In a housing downturn, owners tend to stay in their marriages because it’s harder to sell their property and they don’t want to lose money. They wait for the market to recover, and -- as time passes -- often reconcile. For better or for worse, your decision not to own joint property removes the wait-and-see lock-in -- making it easier to walk out the door.
  • You Buy His-and-Hers Hermes
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    You thought you found your soulmate when you met a man who knows Louboutins from Manolo Blahniks. And he was smitten when you noticed that his tie was from the new line at Armani. By all expectations, this would be a marriage made in... well, if not heaven, at least Italy. But researchers at Brigham Young University know better. In a recent study, they found that couples who admit to loving money and “stuff” score 10 percent to 15 percent lower on marriage stability than couples who say money isn’t important to them. They bicker more about finances -- even if they’re financially well off -- and are less responsive to each other. A marriage between two materialists fares worse, in fact, than one with only a single spouse who's a shopaholic.
  • You Lunch With The Wrong Folks
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    Your boss did it. Lisa in accounting did it. Your best friend, Lynn, did it. Even your upstairs neighbor did it (and noisily). Everyone’s doing it: getting divorced. Not you, you say. But you’re in a high-risk group, judging by the “divorce cluster” data from a study led by Rose McDermott at Brown University. The people in your social network -- everyone you rub shoulders with habitually -- influence your attitude about relationships. People with divorced friends are 147 percent more likely to become divorced. Statistically speaking, the more your friends, co-workers, siblings, and acquaintances have done it, the more likely it is that you might one day say to your husband, "Let’s do it. Let’s get divorced, too."
  • You Light Up Alone
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    He kicked the cigarette habit, but you can’t. It’s a vicious cycle: You smoke, he complains, you fight, you stress, and then you need to smoke again. (Although correlation isn’t causation; there are other risk factors too.) A group at the Centre for Economic Policy Research in Australia found that smoking is not a very high-risk factor in a marriage if both spouses are smokers. But divorce rates increase significantly -- by 76 to 95 percent -- when only one spouse (especially the wife) has the habit. Quitting saves your (love) life.

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