Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

How Intimate Relationships Fail

How to identify those warning signs and put your relationship back on track

There are three clear cut ways to measure if your relationship is thriving or headed for trouble. Independently or simultaneously, they pose significant threats to a relationship’s survival. The sooner intimate partners recognize them and change their patterns, the more likely they can get their relationship back on track and recreate the love they once knew.  

Threat Number One – When bad interactions begin to outnumber good ones

Most intimate love relationships begin with many more positive, intriguing, and loving interactions than painful ones. In time, though, every relationship will face unexpected hurdles that create negative interactions. If the partners do not resolve the resulting emotional damage at the time, they will silently suffer from those buried, unresolved issues and begin the process of withdrawing energy and hope from the relationship.  

When your relationship began, you most likely remember how treasured you felt by your partner, praised for your assets and readily forgiven for your faults. Some “not-so-compatible” areas may have existed, but consciously or unconsciously, you chose to give them less attention.  

Over time, those non-attended-to negative interactions may have changed the percentages of good connections to bad ones. Now you are having more difficulty both erasing them and also holding on to the positives you once took for granted. The good parts of your relationship may still be there, but the damage is taking its toll and you can feel each other’s lowered frustration tolerance and increased quickness to anger. Emotional scars are building and your relationship’s ability to create new options is diminishing.

If you cannot transform your negative patterns and grow beyond your current limitations, your lack of action will keep feeding energy into the bad interactions and starve out the good ones. Your relationship will begin to show signs of decay: loss of hope, more conflict, and decreased intimacy. Stuck in old patterns and destructive rituals, you may no longer be able to access the resilience you once had.

Solution

The imbalance of bad interactions to good can be reversed if both partners do the following:

  1. Recognize the direction the relationship is going without blaming each other for what has happened. This is a crucial time to not judge, but simply to share your observations with each other without becoming defensive.
  2. Identify and stop whatever interactions that may be causing either of you to feel scarred. You must stop your destructive behaviors destruction before you can move forward.
  3. Begin focusing on behaviors that still feel positive between you, and share those observations. Agree to continue to remind each other of feel-good interactions every day until your love feels stronger again.
  4. Look for new ways to go beyond your current relationship’s limitations by creating better communication skills, more joyful times together, re-prioritizing your obligations and commitments, and cutting down on any stressors that have weighed your both down.

Threat Number Two – Letting attachments suppress authenticity

Every partner in an intimate relationship has attachments to his or her significant other. An attachment is anything that you may be afraid to lose or something you want from your partner. As the relationship matured, you may both have increased or added attachments to certain behaviors, and found others to be less important.  

As you deepened your commitment to each other, your attachments likely increased as well. To keep them secure, you had to sacrifice some of your own needs at times in order to give your partner what he or she wanted from you. You may have felt a little martyred some of the time, or even gave up some of your own self-respect, but in the moment, it seemed the right thing to do. You felt that your partner not only recognized your willing sacrifice, but would readily have done the same for you.

Somehow, over time, you began to feel that you were giving more than you were getting back. Your sacrifices now appear to be more expected and your paybacks are not adequately compensating you for your efforts. Your partner not only doesn’t give you more of what you want, he or she doesn’t even recognize that you’ve been silently bargaining.

If you allow this imbalance to continue, you will eventually feel like you’re being taken for granted and lose trust in your partner’s willingness to reciprocate. Shutting down your own needs to keep your attachments from being threatened, you are now self-blackmailing just to keep things in place. Worse, you may be blaming your partner for breaking a contract that he or she never signed.

Status quo attachments are hard to give up. You started out readily sacrificing and expecting reciprocity, as your partner may have as well. Over time, you may have also have created many other legitimate tethers: children, possessions, families, friends, business partnerships, spiritual communities, values, and commitments. You would understandably want to hold on to those attachments, not knowing how to resolve with the imbalance that is now expected.

Solution

  1. Make a list of the behaviors or things you are attached to in your relationship. Put a number from one to ten after each to let your partner know how important they are to you. Asking yourself what you would be afraid to lose can help guide you in creating your list.
  2. Tell your partner which of the things on the list he or she already provides for you, and which you feel you are not getting.
  3. Let your partner know those things or behaviors you have been willingly sacrificing, and those you martyred yourself in giving.
  4. Ask your partner if there is anything you can do to get your needs met.
  5. Ask your partner which things you are presently sacrificing that may no longer be important to him or her.

Threat Number Three – Trust-breaking incidents

Most new couples do not address their non-negotiable bottom lines up front. They either trust that their lovers have the same values and ethics, or believe that they would never hurt them by doing something they have agreed would be unacceptable.

You probably began the same way. Then, as your relationship matured, you discovered new things about each other that altered your initial perceptions. Some of those revelations were delightful surprises that deepened your trust and love. Others may have caused concern, like past behaviors that your current relationship could not survive. You’ve probably talked to each other about what each of you holds sacred, and trusted that your commitment would keep any potential trust-breaking at bay.

As you grew to know what your partner could or could not tolerate, you may have begun withholding some potentially relationship-destroying thoughts, telling yourself that you would never act upon them. Perhaps you feared a loss of your intimacy or painful criticism if you did share what you were thinking. Whatever the apprehension, you chose to keep them in an internal, emotionally secret compartment to keep the love between you intact.  

If you were aware of the slippery slope you were creating by rationalizing the situation, you may have decided to risk sharing your internal desires with your partner to restore your relationship’s authenticity. Hopefully, your partner was grateful that you were honest and was willing to work with you. If, instead, he or she communicated anger, resentment, or fear, you may have regretted your decision to be honest, offered superficial reassurance to ameliorate the situation, and gone underground again. That choice will have left you vulnerable to act out your hidden desires at some future time.

Couples who cannot share their secret thoughts or behaviors risk the loss of their intimacy. Their bond weakens, and they are more likely to act without considering the outcome. For instance, one partner may have started a non-flirtatious relationship with a co-worker, then found it slowly becoming more intimate over time. Were the other partner to know, he or she would feel exposed, threatened, or embarrassed. The initially innocent partner now cannot share how far it has gone without fearing incrimination or loss.

If you have been the unfortunate one who discovers your partner’s secret, threatening behavior, your trust may be irrevocably shattered. You must now decide whether you to stay in the relationship, and, if so, what it would take to rebuild. A significant break in trust is agonizingly difficult to repair, and you both must decide if you have what it takes to stay together.

Solution

  1. If you have any thoughts or desires that your partner could not live with, reevaluate whether to stay together, and talk to your partner about your discontent before you do anything that might make it worse.
  2. If you have already begun acting in a way that might threaten your partner, stop that process until you talk to him or her, and decide together what to do.
  3. Reconfirm what your mutual deal breakers are, and whether or not you both are willing to accept those restrictions.
  4. Reevaluate together whether you can fulfill each other’s current needs.
  5. Recommit to future transparency before more secret compartments emerge.
  6. If either of you have already broken the trust between you, you may be unable to heal your relationship on your own. If you still love each other and don’t want to part, please let a competent professional help.

Cumulative Threats – An Example

Maria and Al met in college. They were both pre-med students, fascinated by their chosen careers and equally dedicated. Deeply in love, they were accepted into the same medical school and residencies, and set up their family medical practice together shortly after they were married.

Their relationship seemed blessed in every way. They loved the same friends, shared the same spiritual and political community, and agreed on how to distribute resources. Their sex life was a little too sparse, but that seemed normal given their busy schedules. They also worked too hard and didn’t spend enough personal time together. Yet, if they had to look at the proportion of good to bad in their relationship, the good was still the easy winner.

After ten years of marriage, Al decided he was working too hard, and needed to spend more time pursuing a prior dream. Serious about competing in races, he joined a cycling club and began working out several hours every week.

Maria was initially in total agreement. He was excited about life again, getting in shape, and much less stressed. She loved her work, and didn’t mind holding up his end of the practice for a while.

As Al stayed away more, Maria felt abandoned and exploited. She tried to talk to him about it, and he promised to stay home more often, but he didn’t change his schedule. She knew how important his commitment was and feared his resentment if she was more insistent. Instead, she continued to devalue her own needs, even though she knew it wasn’t right. Perhaps he would eventually see how imbalanced things had become, and turn them around on his own. In the meantime, she began to withdraw.

As Maria pulled away, Al started spending time with Kirsten, one of his cycling team members. Newly in town, she was lonely and glad to have his company. She was single, fit, and privately hoped that Al might eventually be available.

Al knew at some level that Maria would not approve, but he rationalized that it was just a temporary, innocent friendship. He loved hearing about Kristen’s life and feeling the quickened energy that a new relationship inspires.

Soon they were sharing ever-more intimate feelings. Knowing that he had crossed the line, Al now wished he had talked to Maria about Kirsten before. Now he knew it was clearly wrong. Though he and Kirsten were not lovers, he was more involved than he had ever intended, and there was no way to explain or justify. Kirsten was also clearly unwilling to go away, reluctant to give up her investment.  

Maria and Al’s relationship was falling apart because they had not recognized the three threats it was facing.

Threat Number One – When bad interactions outnumber good ones

Maria and Al were spending much less quality time with each other. Their rejuvenating connections were all but gone, and they were only communicating about logistics. Their frequent disagreements and diminishing loving contacts were emotionally scarring their relationship, and they weren’t resolving their issues. The relationship was fast losing its good to bad proportions, and neither was courageous enough to talk about the negative direction it was going.

Threat Number Two – Letting attachments suppress authenticity

Maria was compromising her integrity. She started the marriage as an equal with Al, sharing every responsibility and triumph. Now she was withdrawing, sharing less, and hoping he would right the situation on his own.

Threat Number Three – Trust-breaking incidents

Al turned his initially innocent friendship into one of betrayal. Rationalizing that it would never become a threat to Maria, he was now hopelessly entangled. If he told her now, she might leave him, and everything they worked so hard for could be lost forever.

As so often happens, Maria found Al’s texts to Kirsten. All three threats to their relationship simultaneously occurred. The loss of quality connection between them, her now-futile sacrifices, and the betrayal of his emotional affair sent her into despair. Despite the goodness she and Al still shared, she didn’t know if she could ever trust him again. She asked him to give her some time.

She was plagued with her own questions: if they had been as close as she believed they once were, would he have told her about Kirsten? Had she fought harder to regain their mutual respect, would he have valued her more? Had he come to her for more connection instead of going elsewhere, could they have recommitted to the love they once shared? She didn’t want to see the man she had trusted so deeply as all bad.

Al was equally troubled: Did he just not recognize that he was becoming too intimate with Kirsten? Was he resentful that Maria chose to withdraw instead of challenging his self-indulgence? Could he ever come to terms with his own lack of integrity? How had he allowed a secret life to build without telling Maria? Did he still deserve her? What part had Kirsten played in his betraying his wife?

Maria wanted to try to heal the rift between them. Al was grateful and willing to do whatever necessary to recreate the love they once shared. He knew he’d been selfish and foolish. Maria realized that she had allowed their intimate connections to deteriorate, and was now willing to look at how she allowed repeated smaller offenses to get by, hoping they would resolve themselves.

With the help of successful couple’s counseling, they created a plan to restore their broken trust and rebuild a relationship they both felt committed to protect.

Is Your Relationship in Trouble?

Take the following test with your partner, and both answer as honestly as you can. If you feel comfortable enough, share those answers with each other. Do not use the information to threaten or challenge each other, but only to begin the process of getting back on track.

Score the following questions based on these numbers:

Never = 1

Rarely = 2

Sometimes = 3

Often = 4

Regularly = 5

  1. Do you and your partner make sure you have time for special, uninterrupted, intimate connections? ____
  2. Do you regularly check in with each other to assure that your percentage of good and bad is where it should be? ____
  3. Do you tell your partner when you are sacrificing your own needs and what you want in return? ____
  4. Can you say what your needs are even if doing so challenges your partner? ____
  5. Do you believe that your partner is open about his/her feelings? ____
  6. Does your partner share his/her internal conflicts with you even if they might make you uncomfortable? ____
  7. Do you trust your partner? ____
  8. Does your partner recognize when you are holding things back, and ask you to share? ____
  9. Are you able to avoid blaming your partner for your own willing sacrifices? ____
  10. Can you and your partner tell each other if either of you think the relationship is losing ground? ____
  11. If you’re upset, can you trust your partner to listen and help? ____

Add up your scores. A score of 40 to 55 means your relationship is on track. A score of 30 to 40 means you are beginning to slip and need to regain each other’s trust. A score of 20 to 30 means your relationship is in danger and needs immediate damage control. Fewer than twenty means that you may already be in severe trouble and might need outside help to recover.

Many intimate partners stay together despite signs that the relationship is deteriorating. Not looking at the decay, they continue as if all is well. Then, after a series of disappointments, or one painful, trust-breaking event, they cannot find their way home.

So many couples who have lost each other regret their parting for many years, particularly when they might have been able to stay together. They struggle with what they could have done differently had they known they were in serious trouble. By the time they realized they were on a collision course, they could not stop the negative spiral.

Most all relationships that begin with common dreams and abundant love end with those positives still intact, but buried under layers of unresolved heartbreaks. Had those disconnects been seen and understood earlier, the once-cherishing partners within them could often have turned things around. Learning the three most common ways relationships can fail can help devoted partners keep their relationship alive.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

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