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5 Ways Relationships Can Go Wrong (and 3 Ways to Fix Them)

When things start to go wrong, can you avoid a negative loop?

Source: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Safety and trust in relationships go hand-in-hand: Safety lays the foundation for trust, and trust over time morphs into safety. Have safety and trust and you relax and lean into a relationship. You’re not afraid to say what is on your mind, or to talk about what bothers you. This is intimacy in action. Without safety and trust, you pull back, shut down, walk on eggshells, get angry.

But even in good relationships trust and safety can be fragile things that can easily get derailed—sometimes by unexplained or unexpected behavior. Affairs come to mind. Trust is suddenly shattered, and though the hurtful conversations that follow often center on the details of sex outside the relationship, the real problem is understanding how your partner did what you always thought she or he would never do.

At other times, safety is shaken by sudden changes in emotions—an out-of-the-blue explosive alcohol-induced rant that shakes you to your bones, or flares of real mental-health issues, such as mania, when your partner is no longer himself or herself and goes on and on about seeing God.

Incidents like these can be devastating but for most of us, fortunately, not very common. In everyday life, the derailing of safety is usually much more subtle. Here are the usual culprits:

1. Criticism

You should have called your brother sooner. You shouldn’t leave your clothes on the floor. You put too much salt in the stew. It’s about shoulds and rules and doing something wrong even if you felt that your effort was good and your intent noble. It's like a scolding mother or father wagging their finger, seeing the negative rather than anything positive. Under such conditions, you begin to feel like a 10-year-old—and react like a 10-year-old by walking on eggshells, withdrawing, or getting angry.

Safety goes away because you can’t trust that your partner is in your corner, and you feel that whatever you do isn't good enough.

2. Anger

Criticism ramped up—the raw emotion and feelings of being literally scolded and emotionally abused (and in more extreme cases, physically abused).

Safety? There is none. The relationship has become all about survival, ducking and weaving, and trying to stay out of trouble.

3. Micromanagement

This feels like criticism at times when there is an angry edge, but more often micromanaging is about hovering and suffocation: Here’s what I would suggest. Why don’t you try this? What I would say is this. It's advice not asked for, suggestions not sought. You feel controlled, and maybe, again, like a 10-year-old. (Men, in particular, have a difficult time with this.)

Safety goes away because you feel like you are not seen as a capable adult, that you are not heard, that anything you say only sets off another round of advice.

4. Lack of appreciation

This is a close cousin to criticism, but the hard edge is replaced by absence. The fancy dinner you slaved over isn’t criticized so much as ignored. Your efforts go unnoticed or the quick feedback is limited to "not bad." You do a lot but not much comes back to you in terms of compliments or gratitude.

Safety goes away because you begin to feel invisible, or that what you do doesn’t matter—and over time, maybe you don’t matter. This is less about feeling afraid and more about a lack of a meaningfulness; there is nothing to motivate you to give your best to the relationship.

5. Neglect

Another cousin to the others: It's not only that your partner doesn’t notice, but he or she definitively pulls back. There is not a strong wall of anger or disapproval, but there is a wall nonetheless, and your partner doesn't care. The huff, the days of silence, the isolation and loneliness. (Just as men can be sensitive to micromanagement, many women are sensitive to neglect.)

Safety goes away because there is no connection to sustain you—the relationship just isn't important. You fear that speaking up will only create more isolation and neglect.

Where You Stand

All of these, of course, are in the eyes of the beholder and are often tied to childhood wounds. If one does speak up it's easy for the conversation to turn to defensiveness or into an argument about whose reality is right:

I’m not critical, I’m only trying to be helpful. I’m not micromanaging but making suggestions that might be helpful because I worry or care. I’m not angry, I'm just passionate. If I talk above a whisper you hear it as anger. I’m not unappreciative, you never hear my compliments. You’re too needy. I’m not neglecting you, I’m preoccupied with important things. You are too dependent and too sensitive.

These go nowhere. If you care about your partner you don’t defend yourself or argue over whose reality is right, but instead try to fix the problem together. You would want him or her to do the same for you.

6. Negative Loops

We’re not done yet: The derailing process often gets worse because any of the above safety-saboteurs set off the infamous negative loop. The sensitivity of one partner sets off the other's. The classic scenario is when one partner feels neglected and gets angry, which sets the other partner off withdrawing, which increases the other's feeling more neglected and getting more angry—ad infinitum. Or one partner feels unappreciated and withdraws, and the other interprets it as criticism and gets angry, in turn stirring the other’s feeling of not being appreciated. There are a variety of permutations, but you get the idea. The outcome is a circular loop of ever-increasing hurt.

The Way Out

How can you get back to safety? Obviously not by doing more of the same or hoping that things will magically get better. Some guidelines:

1. Know your sensitivities.

Which one or two items on the list above are you most sensitive to? Realizing when your sensitivities are being triggered—and possibly leading to an overreaction—is valuable. If you can catch it, you have the opportunity to step back, slow down, and try to put in the situation in a better perspective. The starting point is not what the other person does, but about you dealing with old wounds in a different way.

2. Be assertive rather than withdrawing, walking on eggshells, or getting angry.

Once you can slow down and stop running on those little-kid feelings, you have the opportunity to handle this as an adult in a more rational and, well, adult way. Rather than pulling back, trying harder or blowing up, speak up, with assertiveness and emotional calm, using your emotions as information about what you need, rather than things to ruminate about or discharge. Pretend you’re at work expressing a grievance diplomatically to your boss or coworker.

3. Realize it’s not about all about you, but the other partner coping.

Criticism and micromanaging are usually about anxiety:

I get anxious when things aren’t going the way I need them to be and I get rattled and get annoyed. I control as a way of coping with my usually ongoing anxiety and knowing what to expect helps me feel less upset. I get angry when frightened or feel out of control. I become unappreciative or withdraw when I'm mentally absorbed, depressed, or out of sorts.

Putting yourself in the other person's shoes can help change the old story that you've undoubtedly been telling yourself. It allows you to move toward compassion rather than staying stuck in victimization or resentment.

That said, changing your perspective doesn't mean that you should learn to accept mistreatment. At some level, abuse is abuse, and neglect is neglect, regardless of the underlying sources—and you don’t want to rationalize tolerating it. To do that is to again slip into the little-kid mind rather than adopting an adult mind. As an adult, you want to step back and realize what is the best you can do—and the best you can do is to try to be understanding about what may be under the surface without sacrificing yourself, and then to take clear action to help your partner understand what you need, break the negative loop (with or without professional help and support), and if necessary, get out.

So, the big questions: How safe do you feel? And, what can make it better?