Why Unhappy People Struggle With Relationships

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Courage to Be Disliked" by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do unhappy people struggle to form healthy relationships? What common belief destroys marriages?

People who are always unhappy in life often struggle to form meaningful or strong relationships. The two top reasons for this are that unhappy people see others as competition, and they believe that mutual sacrifice is necessary.

Learn why these two negative beliefs could be holding you back from a healthy relationship.

Forming Healthy Relationships

Unhappy people’s need for external approval doesn’t just make them feel bad about themselves—it also actively prevents them from forming healthy relationships with others. Kishimi and Koga make it clear that as long as you’re trying to earn someone else’s approval, it’s impossible to forge a mutually satisfying relationship with them. 

(Shortform note: In Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller offer a counterargument: Not only is it possible to forge fulfilling romantic relationships without abandoning a dependence on external approval, healthy relationships require a constant stream of mutual approval and support. Levine and Heller argue that we’re only able to reach our full potential as independent individuals if we have a “secure base” of a loved one’s reliable approval.)

The authors argue that seeking approval from others disrupts your relationships for two reasons. Let’s explore each in detail. 

Reason #1: Unhappy People See Others As Competitors

Kishimi and Koga argue that unhappy people choose to see life as a competition and other people as adversaries—if others win, it means you lose. Why is this the case?

Recall that approval is often conditional—it depends on what you do. Some people will like you for making them laugh, others will like you for being generous and kind, and another may like you for achieving career success. These are difficult things to do, and no one would be able to do it all perfectly. This means that inevitably, someone else will be better at earning approval than you.

When others succeed, they’re raising the bar, making it more difficult for you to earn the same amount of approval. Kishimi and Koga explain that external approval is a zero-sum game—the better someone else does, the worse you look in comparison. In other words, the pursuit of external approval is, by nature, a competition, with winners and losers. For this reason, Kishimi and Koga assert that unhappy people fear the success of others. They celebrate the failures of those around them instead of offering support, preventing them from forming healthy relationships.

The Infinite Game of Life

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek draws a distinction between “finite” games, which you play to win, and “infinite” games, which you play indefinitely for their own sake. Sinek applies this idea to the world of business, but it’s equally applicable to the pursuit of happiness. Approval-seekers who see life as a competition treat it as a finite game instead of an infinite one. Consequently, they’re unable to form supportive relationships with their “competitors.”

Sinek explains that people who approach infinite games with a finite mindset set the goal of beating the competition. Since they’re playing to win, they spend all their energy and resources attempting to best their opponents in a specific finite context—for instance, sales goals (in business), or GPA (in school). If they lose, their efforts feel wasted, and they have no willpower left to continue.

On the other hand, instead of comparing themselves to others, infinite-minded people make it their goal to advance a “just cause,” a noble mission directing all their actions. Because they’re fulfilled by continuing to play, they have an infinitely renewable source of energy, making them difficult to outlast. For this reason, people who refuse to see life as a competition often find the most success. Someone who approaches life with an infinite mindset can form healthy relationships because they don’t have to beat others to accomplish their just cause.

Reason #2: Unhappy People Believe Relationships Are Founded on Sacrifice

Another way an unhappy person’s obsession with approval harms their interpersonal relationships is by causing them to feel entitled. Kishimi and Koga argue that because unhappy people spend their lives striving to meet the expectations of others, they become resentful when others—especially loved ones—fail to meet their expectations.

The authors explain that if an unhappy person does something kind for a loved one without receiving gratitude and appreciation in return, they feel cheated. The attitude becomes: “Because I did that for you, you have to do this for me.” This kind of conditional relationship limits the freedom and happiness of both parties.

For example, imagine someone throws a lavish surprise birthday party for a friend of theirs, then gets offended when that same friend doesn’t do the same for them. In this scenario, the person who organized the party is only using their friend as a means to get something in return. If the friend feels obligated to return the favor but doesn’t want to, they’ll come to resent the original gesture. This isn’t a mutually fulfilling friendship.

This Belief Destroys Marriages

The idea that you deserve to have others meet your expectations is often more destructive the more committed a relationship is. The less likely it seems that the relationship will collapse, the more likely it is that one party will take the other for granted. This is because when you view relationships as mutual sacrifice, at some level you’ll want to “win the trade” by contributing as little as possible. The more your partner has committed to you, the more you’ll be able to get away with.

In this way, greater commitment comes with the risk of damaging a relationship. The longer a relationship lasts, the more important it becomes for both parties to avoid the assumption that relationships require sacrifice. We’ll explore the alternative belief in the next section of this guide.
Why Unhappy People Struggle With Relationships

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  • Why you care too much about what other people think of you
  • How to tap into the freedom and joy inherent in human existence
  • How to overcome trauma from your past

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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