Monthly Archives: January 2014

How to mess up our relationships (Part 2)

I was struck by just how many ways we can sabotage our relationships – easily enough to fill two blogs! So here’s my further four things to think about, and try to avoid, when it comes to our intimate relationships.

Disloyalty: Destructive triangles are often part of dysfunctional relationships. One partner talks to someone outside the relationship about intimate situations without the other partner’s knowing or consent. That confidante then knows things about that partner they may have no right to know. It is common for friends to gain advice and support from other friends when they are distressed about their relationships, but there is a big difference when doing so means selling out their partners most intimate and vulnerable feelings and behaviors. It is especially problematic when the unknowing partner is also friends with the other party. The resulting awkwardness can be significantly uncomfortable and many a time that trusted friend tells the outside partner, leaving everyone in the triangle wondering who to trust.

Winner or Loser Arguments: When couples argue, they usually stop listening to each other early in that conflict. Real conflict resolution, on the other hand, can only occur when the partners in an intimate relationship stay deeply connected to their own feelings and also those of the other. They realize that there are two sides to every disagreement and that compromise often requires both partners mutually searching for a resolution that holds both of their needs intact as much as possible. Arguments are very different. Each partner will used whatever means are at hand to push his or her side of the “truth” no matter what the other needs. They may go on for round after round, losing sight of whatever they were arguing about to begin with, because neither is willing to give up his or her point of view or accept defeat. Most arguments neither solve a problem nor help either partner feel better about themselves.Assumptions are made on both sides and acted upon as if they were true. There is little inquiry or openness to any reasoning that might upend what is already felt or demanded. The argument ends when one or the other partner is just too tired to go on and retreats. Too many of these unresolved conflicts predict potential relationship failure. Emotional scars form that can make each succeeding negative interaction less likely to result in healing.

Boundary Violations: Boundaries are the way people keep their internal vulnerabilities, concerns and insecurities safe.The way we were raised as children plays a significant part in how easily we give up our rights to those decisions.Parents who consistently violate boundaries teach their
children that they have no right to privacy in any situation. In dysfunctional relationships, one or both partners often feel little conflict about entering the other’s private world without permission. They believe that what is their partner’s is also theirs, without question or concern. That can apply to material things, thoughts, feelings, plans or desires. At the other end of sorrowful dysfunction,  a partner doesn’t know his or her boundary rights and gives up what is their right without question or argument. That means acquiescing to any demand the other partner wants, whether it is good for them or not. Partners who violate boundaries may do so, not so much out of maliciousness, but out of the fear that their partners are keeping things from them that would affect their lives if they knew. Those who allow their boundaries to be violated may be seeking intimate blending without thought of consequences.

Fear of Loss: The more a partner is attached to a relationship, the more he or she will fight for it if seems threatened in any way. Being attached is not the same as being involved, inter-dependent or deeply connected. Those are three healthy responses to a non-ownership relationship. Intense attachment, like a child might feel on the other end of a potentially abandoning parent, produces a feeling of anticipatory grief at the thought of losing the relationship. It can drive the person feeling threatened into a desperate grappling to hold on to it at any cost that, sadly, usually has the opposite effect: ultimately pushing the desired partner away. To stop the anxious partner’s terror, he or she must be able to self-soothe, ease off and focus on attending to the needs of that partner. If love is strong enough, those behaviors might be alright for a while, but no one wants to be on a shelf, waiting to be needed on demand.

How we mess up our relationships (Part 1)

There are many common dysfunctional behaviors representing negative patterns that most couples experience. You may have your own that are not listed here, but identifying and recognizing these may help you stop them from damaging your commitment to each other.

Assigning Blame: It is all too easy to fall into this trap. By the time either partner finally agrees or doesn’t agree as to who is the accountable culprit, the relationship has already suffered. If both partners are willing to look at their own accountability and reactions, then there is the possibility to learn from what has happened and to heal any hurt done. Blame never results in a good outcome.

Threats of exile or abandonment: Often these words are only meant in the moment and are usually retracted later. Even when the negative feelings subside, the wounds often remain and accumulate. If they aren’t taken seriously, they mean nothing. If they are, they may indicate dwindling commitment, especially if they are repeated in subsequent conflicts. If you ever use those
phrases, make sure you mean them. Someday, your partner may take you seriously.

Dominance/Submission: If the relationship is a power hierarchy where one partner consistently is on top, the other, more adaptive partner will eventually lose hope and stop fighting as hard in succeeding conflicts. That leaves one partner holding all the responsibility for the outcome, while the other takes up a position of submission, martyrdom and resentment. If both partners see themselves as members of an effective team neither needs to be right all the time, or automatically get to direct the outcome of any situation. They work for the ultimate best function of the relationship, regardless of who is given the power at the time, and do so with compromise and support.

Grudges: Grudges come from unexplored, unexpressed or powerless complaints that are not responded to with due consideration. Grudges can start small and seem too insignificant to fight about but, once buried, can fester and grow. People who harbor grudges usually do so across
the board. They often feel victimized by others, bitter about unfair losses and resentful of
actual or exaggerated injustices. When confronted by their partners, they usually will not reveal
the depth of their resentment, but act it out in indirect ways or bring up a slew of past affronts in the middle of an argument. Intimate partners who carry grudges don’t ever let go of the past. They feel powerless in the present without using grudges to fortify their position. Underneath, they often see themselves as people who have been repeatedly cheated.

Ownership: Consistently feeling the need to own or control a partner is a danger sign. In functional, mutually supportive relationships, neither partner feels that they own the course of another’s life. They know and accept that couples who truly care want each other’s dreams to come true. Of course, they would rather be part of those dreams and experience grief  when that cannot be. That doesn’t mean that they quit easily or run when things are tough. They are open and authentic with each other from  the beginning and sad endings are not unexpected. Interestingly, those partners who love without control are rarely left behind. When that door is truly open, few partners go through it. They know that they are with someone who is not easy to replace.


There is no perfect relationship

All relationships are more or less dysfunctional in different ways and at different times. No perfect relationships exist. To stay in a committed relationship, we have to adapt: If there is enough good in the relationship to compensate then it proves to be worth it.

However, even positive relationships can fail after too many broken promises or repeatedly unresolved conflicts. If cumulatively dysfunctional interactions occur, the relationship probably won’t survive a major situation. Many couples push relationship distresses under the rug without resolution, and find much later that they are unable to recover from these festering sorrows. Identifying and exploring what typically damages relationships might have helped. Learning some new ways to cope – through understanding what our dysfunctional patterns are –  can help us to overcome them.  Successful couples learn, over time, to do whatever they can to diminish the damaging effects. To stay committed to each other, they focus more on the things they love about each other and try to  minimize troublesome situations.


A Worthwhile New Year’s Resolution

I like the way we say ‘Happy New Year!’ to people we know, and even sometimes to people we don’t too. It feels optimistic, caring, a bit old-school in terms of being part of a community, part of a shared culture. But I wonder if we actually look forward to a happy new year: whether we anticipate pleasure, fun, acceptance of ourselves and others?

New Year’s resolutions tend to focus on improving ourselves in some way: losing weight, getting fit, giving up smoking. All of these cab be worthwhile endeavours that leave us feeling better about ourselves… if we’re successful. And even then, if we slip up we can all too easily and quickly fall into the trap of feeling like failures, mentally beating ourselves up and despairingly going back to our old ways.

How about instead making a resolution to treat yourself with kindness and compassion? To treat yourself the way you would like to be treated by a partner or best friend? Perhaps dig a little deeper into what it motivating your desire for change. For example, are you just buying into our culture’s pressure to look a certain way or messages you received from your parents about your acceptability? I think what we really need to hear is that we are fine the way we are. Any changes we decide to make for ourselves will come all the easier from a place of accepting ourselves in all our imperfection and uniqueness.