Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I recently broke up with my significant other after a rocky two years. I'm young (26), and it was my first relationship. There were several big problems that led to the breakup, but one that really poisoned everything else was our inability to communicate well. We avoided tough issues, and when something finally boiled over, we would deal with it for only a little while before letting it sink below the surface.
Now that I'm single, what can I work on by myself to keep this from happening again? I think on some level I knew the big issues were deal-breakers, and I wanted the relationship to work, so I avoided talking about them.
Answer: Well, there's a huge piece of it right there - getting so invested in Saving the Relationship that you lose sight of the fact that you're not even happy in it.
Don't blame it on being a rookie; it's just a classic mistake, period. It's so much easier to ignore the mild, day-to-day discomfort of a blah relationship than it is to smash up everything. So, often the best thing to work on is recognizing, and never forgetting, that the pain of a breakup always looks worse from the "before" angle than it does from the "after."
I also think you can make a difference right away in your communication by asking yourself whether you are completely honest with your friends and family (within the bounds of civility, of course) - and whether you are less so in a romantic relationship. Treating your relationship communication as entirely separate from your communication in a friendship, with family, at work, etc., is another common mistake.
If you can honestly say you're more "yourself" with friends/family, then that's something to take with you next time you're in a relationship, in the form of a resolution: "Be me - don't hedge to please someone else."
If it turns out you're always guarded, even with friends and family, then that's where this communication project needs to start. Look closely, identify the situations or topics where you hold back your true feelings, and start expressing them, come what may.
As you can guess, "being yourself" may lead to breakups, if the way you really are doesn't please your current love or friends or even family, but that's a good thing. Better to get the false relationships on more genuine footing, even if it means no relationship at all, than to force a multiyear relationship with someone who likes your carefully constructed (and ultimately unsustainable) front, and not the real you.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.