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Healing the Cycles that Tear Couples Apart

Learn how to identify, understand, and heal negative relationship patterns.

Respect and intimacy are the foundation on which loving relationships are built. Without such safety and connection, there can be no trust; without trust, we lose the ability to be playful, spontaneous, and joyful.

The following are common issues in relationships that, if unaddressed, can kill love and happiness. For each relationship-ruining issue below, I explain what it is, why it is a problem, why we do it, and what we can do instead to heal and repair this issue. When people have the courage to look at these patterns, admit their own contribution, and are willing to change and put their relationships first, even the most difficult relationship problems can be healed.

1. Lack of Trust

Inability to trust our partners may take many forms, including feeling that they are being dishonest or hiding something from us; not trusting them to be reliable, consistent, and available when we need them; fearing they may take advantage of us; not trusting their values as human beings; or not feeling safe to express who we really are in our relationships.

Why We Do It

People may get married because they see something desirable in their partner that they don’t have in themselves, rather than because of common values. Over time, one or both partners may grow in confidence, or their needs may change, making them less willing to put up with the difference in values. Charm wears thin when our partners never help with the dishes!

Jealousy has its basis in personal insecurity and fear of abandonment. We try to control our partners so they won’t find someone better and leave us. People who have been abused as children or hurt in previous relationships may find it particularly difficult to trust and let themselves be open to a partner’s love. Negative communication cycles can erode feelings of trust and safety.

Why It Is a Problem

According to marital intimacy researcher Arthur Aron, Ph.D., from Stony Brook University in New York, the most loving relationships help people to expand themselves. They do this by providing support for exploration, learning, and growth; bringing in passions and interests that broaden both partners' worlds; and encouraging spontaneity and reasonable risk-taking.

However, lack of trust does the opposite—it makes our worlds smaller as we try to control our partners or subjugate our needs to theirs. When people don’t share the same fundamental values, or when we can’t trust our partners to be stable sources of attachment, insecurity and fear begin to dominate the relationship.


Lack of trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading us behave in ways that alienate and anger others. When we inadvertently push away other people, we are not able to receive the genuine love they may have to give us.

What To Do Instead

Determine if you think the lack of trust is due to the way your partner has acted in the past or your own issues, or both. How much are you able to trust yourself? If you can’t trust yourself, what gets in the way—insecurity, an unhealed wound, an addiction problem, depression, or something else?

If there are specific things your partner has done to erode your trust, it is important to begin talking about these in a non-blaming way. If necessary, decide what behaviors are unacceptable to you and set reasonable limits with your partner. If you are suppressing important parts of yourself to accommodate your partner, it is important to acknowledge your unmet needs and work with your partner to find a solution that allows them in. Therapy is often necessary to help repair injuries due to affairs, addictions, or other forms of unavailability, instability, and control.

2. Blaming and Fixing

When we blame, we're attributing responsibility for some bad outcome to our partners. This behavior pattern may also include thinking we have a better way of doing things or that we know how they need to change, and trying to “fix” them.

Why We Do It

When something goes wrong, our brains automatically look for the cause and try to correct it. This probably gave us an evolutionary advantage in enhancing our ancestor’s chances of surviving with threats of hunger and predators. Lack of control also makes many people feel unsafe. Blaming and trying to fix our partners are ways of trying to have more control over important outcomes in our lives.

Why It Is a Problem

Most problems are multifaceted, and don’t have one linear cause. For example, a person may not find a high-paying job, despite his/her best efforts, because of geographic location, age, or economic conditions. Our partners may not actually be doing anything wrong.

In addition, some characteristics of a person, such as introversion, intelligence, emotional sensitivity, or energy level are relatively stable, biologically built-in, and unchangeable. We may be viewing the issue through the lens of our own distortions, and our partner may have a different perspective. Blaming people often leads them to respond by defending their actions, counterattacking, or withdrawing. This creates a negative cycle of miscommunication, anger, and hurt.


Blaming interactions can lead to what couples researcher Sue Johnson calls “Demon Dialogues”: negative communication cycles in which people get stuck trying to be “right” and in which the real underlying needs for connection, safety, or influence don’t get addressed. For example, in “Find the Bad Guy,” the couple gets stuck trying to prove that the other partner acted badly.

What To Do Instead

Take a good hard look at your own actions and assumptions, and how they may have, intentionally or unwittingly, contributed to the problem. Take full responsibility for your own contributions—be they miscommunication, unrealistic expectations, letting anger leak out, or being unsupportive.

If you feel your partner’s actions hurt you in some way, communicate this gently, using “I” statements and speaking about your own feelings and needs that were not met, rather than what your partner “should” have done. Make requests, not demands.

3. Criticism and Putdowns

Sometimes, partners begin making negative comments about their partner’s looks, desirability, character, or competence, commence name-calling, or engage in other disrespectful ways of talking to their partner.

Why We Do It

There are many potential reasons that people criticize their partners. They may have learned this way of relating to others from their families and simply not realize the effect they are having.

At a deeper level, personality may be at play—people who are narcissistic, for instance, tend to fear intimacy and therefore are vigilant for faults in their partner that may reflect badly on them, or indicate they made the wrong choice. Other times, people may hold onto unspoken anger, which then leaks out in the form of barbed comments. Those who are untrusting or who fear abandonment may use criticism and putdowns to control their partners, so they (the partners) are less likely to assert themselves or leave.

Why It Is a Problem

Putdowns and criticism erode self-esteem and trust. Everybody has weaknesses. Loving somebody means understanding why a person is the way they are, and supporting their self-esteem and personal growth. Love also means seeing and appreciating strengths, rather than a constant focus on faults.


Researcher John Gottman describes “criticism” and “character assassination' as two of the four “Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” that, if not healed, predict the doom of a relationship. In some of his research with early-married couples, the frequency of these types of interactions in a videotaped discussion predicted marital breakup 10 years later!

What To Do Instead

Practice compassion and tolerance. Learn mindfulness or seek psychotherapy to help you begin to let go of what you can’t control. If there are things we don’t like about our partners, we can think about what happened in the person’s life to make them act that way, and the hurt child that often lies underneath our partner's anger. It helps to refocus on fixing ourselves and meeting our own needs, so we are less reactive to these aspects of our partner or can provide compassionate support for growth,

4. Emotional Distance

Couples don’t always communicate about the feelings and needs that are most important to them. Alternatively, they substitute "secondary” emotions, such as anger, for the real, vulnerable emotions underneath. They may also respond to the partner’s attempts to ask for change by shutting down, acting passive-aggressively, or side-tracking the conversation to get away from feelings.

Why We Do It

Nobody likes to be vulnerable, especially if we feel that our deepest feelings and needs won’t be heard and respected by our partners. Alternatively, one partner may not know how to respond when his/her partner communicates unhappiness. We may respond by trying to “fix” the problem, rather than listening empathically. People who experienced early loss, abuse, or parental unresponsiveness, may be uncomfortable with their own or other people’s emotions and fearful of intimacy.

Why It Is a Problem (and the Consequences)

Emotional distance can cause each partner to doubt his/her needs can ever be met. Couples begin to feel “like roommates” or start to lead separate lives, with communication focused only on errands and logistics. Sexual intimacy can erode, and feelings of hurt and loneliness emerge. One or other of the couple may try to get their needs met in other ways—such as through over-focusing on parenting, social status, substance abuse, working all the time, or affairs. Eventually, the couple may separate.

What To Do Instead

Rebuilding emotional intimacy begins with a willingness to be authentic with oneself and one’s partner. It also involves a courageous readiness to change; to give up certain habitual patterns we may have relied on for most of our lives. Couples therapy can be especially helpful in diagnosing destructive patterns and teaching new ways of relating. Sometimes, one or both partners need individual therapy to address issues of mistrust, early emotional deprivation, trauma, or feelings of defectiveness. Restoring sexual intimacy involves making it a priority and seeing it as a way of getting both people’s needs met, rather than satisfying one partner at the expense of the other. This involves restoring trust and safe communication, and focusing on different ways of expressing intimacy.

Final Words

These hurtful interactions—in which people tear each other down or shut each other out—build up a reservoir of anger and injury, which, if not healed, will eventually destroy relationships. In my therapy work with couples, one or more of these problems is almost universally present.

The good news, however, is that we now have effective techniques to diagnose and heal negative relationship cycles and the insecure styles of attachment, traumas, or negative patterns of viewing the world that contribute to them.

More from Melanie Greenberg Ph.D.
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