- Relationships are most likely to end when passion and engagement fade.
- This can occur when partners become too comfortable and embrace predictability over a challenge.
- Many relationships can be salvaged if partners recognize the warning signs and make an effort to engage more.
Many people ask me why most of their relationships begin with great promise but fall apart over time, wondering what could cause those sequential failures.
If they’ve chosen partners who have failed similarly in their own past relationships, they want to know why they continue to pick partners with bad track records. But what if many of their partners have been successful relationship partners in their past?
It is not easy for anyone to face the reality that their relationships are not working because of something they are doing which is causing those failures. They come into therapy ready to explore that possibility and sincerely want to change the odds, whatever it takes.
The questions start to mount. Maybe they were better partners at the beginning of each relationship than they turn out to be as time goes by? Maybe they couldn’t continue giving what they offered at the beginning of relationships because they were trying too hard? Could it be that they have never learned the skills to keep relationships alive? Did they ignore cues that would have given them the opportunity to revitalize their relationships before it was too late?
Yet, none of the answers to those questions seem to add up. They do not see themselves as people who are difficult to be with, who routinely drive others away. They don’t see themselves as being selfish, undermining, accusatory, dramatic, insensitive, or demanding. They seem to hold on to friendships with other people.
Their confusion is understandable. If they see themselves as good people with attractive qualities, why don’t their partners fight to hold on to them?
The reality is that many seemingly successful relationships end with all of their positives intact. They are more likely to end when predictability, comfort, and security become more prominent than passion, excitement, and challenge, especially for both partners. The absence of poisonous interactions does not predict continuous interest or alive connections.
All living systems are either expanding or diminishing, and relationships are no exception. Even when they seem easily compatible on the surface, there may be the decaying of motivation and interest underneath, not noticeable enough to alarm until it surfaces.
If those underlying connections are identified early enough, relationship partners can face them together and return the relationship to one of new interest and potential regeneration while there is still time.
Following are some of the most common underlying saboteurs.
Predictable and repeated responses
When relationships are new and mutual exploration of each partner is at a high, it is noticeable how each person responds with enthusiasm and expanded interest in each new dimension of the other. There is obvious interest and motivation in knowing more about each newly discovered puzzle piece, and those discoveries are met with equally different inquiries and responses. Questions are expanded. Stories are dwelt upon. Vulnerabilities are handled with sensitivity and care.
As relationships become more predictable and compatible, a kind of short-hand interaction begins to develop, noticeably obvious by fewer words, less emotional intensity, and too-similar emotions, words, and phrases. The couple may think they understand each other so well that they don’t need to expound or deepen anymore, but both partners seem less excited by the other.
Parallel versus relationship-focused
As a couple spends a lot of time together, they often become a blended presentation to others, each representing the other as part of the team. The diversity that marked their initial relationship, those qualities that made them interestingly different from each other, have all but disappeared when they present to others.
As that seemingly good-team process continues, that couple may stop seeking the differences they once enjoyed in each other and present to others. It is only when they are experiencing a novel or new situation that their individual and diverse responses re-emerge.
When once they may have gone to a movie and then to a restaurant afterward to discuss their different responses and emotions, they now return home and resume the more predictable relationship they’ve created.
The acceptance of broken promises
New lovers make many promises to each other that guarantee the relationship will alter both of them in a positive way. They may agree to engage in healthier lifestyle behaviors, work harder to create a stronger financial foundation, look forward to a family, support each other in whatever dreams emerge, be willing to sacrifice whatever they have to make the other more fulfilled, always make their relationship come first, etc. They sincerely mean to keep those promises when they make them, and each believes the other.
As life draws energy from the relationship, the intense focus they both meant often begins to diminish. Sometimes, one or the other partner will fight to demand that a promise be kept, and, if not, it can become a deal-breaker. But it is more dangerous if they passively let go and allow those broken promises to lose importance, burying them with the passion that once accompanied their presence.
Harmony over discord
“I just want peace.” “Let’s not fight over unimportant things.” “Hey, do whatever you want. I’m alright.” “Do what you want; I’ll make it work.” “It’s not that big a deal. Sorry I brought it up.”
Those are the statements I hear when a couple has essentially become less willing to fight for the things each may want because it’s just too high an emotional cost, and so they are willing to let dispassionate indifference run the show.
Early in relationships, the partners may sacrifice some of their more possibly challenging statements and inquiries to keep the joy of harmony growing, but they do not sacrifice important differences in future dreams, important attachments, or a lack of authenticity.
Not bringing external aliveness back into the relationship
As underlying saboteurs starve a relationship of its vitality, many partners seek novelty and stimulation away from each other to maintain the balance of excitement and security. That behavior, in and of itself, can actually help a relationship stay alive if those external interests are both supported by the other partner and brought back to share. But if they stay in separate compartments, the primary relationship is likely to pale even more over time in comparison.
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