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5 Things That Can Kill Your Relationship

... and 5 ways you can still save it.

Key points

  • Subtle unkindness — when partners start refusing each other's requests for help or connection — can decrease a relationship's vibrancy.
  • Rewriting the story of one's relationship can indicate trouble.
  • Showing concern and kindness for one's partner without being asked can help breathe life back into a relationship.

“You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, oh that lovin’ feelin’. You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, now it’s gone, gone, gone.”—Phil Spector, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil

NotarYES/Shutterstock
Source: NotarYES/Shutterstock

We all know so many couples that seemed really in love, but after a while, they broke up. At our offices, people too often come in after the death rattle of their relationship has already started. Both individuals tend to say they just don’t know how it happened.

But it’s a good bet one or more of the following killed their love:

  1. Subtle Unkindness
    Couples move from vibrancy to life support when they start saying No to the little things they ask of each other. You could be asking to have the trash taken out, or to talk about what happened at work that day. Whether it’s about doing a chore, or connecting emotionally, saying No usually seems like no-big-deal at the time. But those Nos add up, and the tiny acts of unkindness translate into “You don’t care about me” faster than you think. Eventually, the question becomes, “Why should I love someone who doesn’t care about me?”
  2. Sticky Fights
    We’ve all sat next to the person on the plane who seems to talk and talk, and it gives a feeling of being stuck. Sadly, couples can start to fight like that—the fights get sticky and hard to end. These kinds of fights feel like a trap, until someone slams a door, hangs up a phone, or tunes the other out. The problems don’t get solved, because the fights aren’t about the topic; they’re about hurt feelings and misunderstandings. As sticky fights happen more and more, love begins to disappear.
  3. Loneliness After a Fight
    The brightest day can seem like midnight if you’re lonely and despairing. Big fights that don’t resolve anything lead couples to isolate themselves—they go off to separate corners to lick their wounds. But: That means that the person you thought you could count on to dry your tears has become the one causing those tears, and they don’t come to apologize or try to fix things. Instead, they leave you to feel lonely and take care of yourself. Why be in a relationship that hurts and makes you feel all alone?
  4. Rewriting Your Story
    Couples begin building a story of their love the moment they meet. The story becomes a part of what sustains the love much later. But if a relationship is terminally ill, a change in the story can be seen. You don’t just add a plot twist; you rewrite the story. Memories of how you fell in love become memories of how you thought you fell in love, and you begin to think it was all a lie. You begin to believe you weren’t really in love, weren’t really that happy, or weren’t really that attracted to the partner. Once the story gets rewritten, love can quickly flatline.
  5. Sleeping With a Stranger
    You look over and think, “Who is this person that made me feel so bad last night?” When love starts to look like a weed you shot with Roundup, you usually decide the other person isn’t who you thought they were. Instead, you see them as a stranger—and not a nice one. Your thoughts consist of negative ideas about your partner’s character, and you predict that those character flaws are permanent. You fall out of love because you believe the stranger is a villain who lied from the beginning.

Saving Love

Gottman and Silver (2012), and Dan Wile (1993), offer plenty of ways to revive dying love if it’s not too late. One thing to consider: If the story of us is rewritten and if you’ve started to believe that the other person is that hostile stranger, things aren’t looking good. But if you want to try to breathe life back into the relationship, here are some ways to try:

  1. Say Yes to the Asks
    When you hear your partner asking you to take out the trash or talk to you about their day, shift your attention. Look at them, hear them, and say Yes. Every moment of accepting the other person’s effort is a step back to love.
  2. Turn Defense to Softness
    When you hear yourself defending what you said or did, turn it around: Take responsibility for something—anything (not blame, responsibility). Try, “Sorry, I didn’t get what you were saying before.” Remember, by accepting your side of the problem, you become a bit more lovable.
  3. Unpack It
    Fights can be great for a relationship if you know how to unpack the dirty laundry. By asking questions about what’s really in there, how things might have been misunderstood, and what the deeper meaning of the issue is, you get to know your partner better—and they feel better known and cared about. Love grows when you fertilize it with understanding and listening.
  4. Be Vulnerable
    Don’t give in, but turn toward your partner. If they make a demand you don’t like, explain how it makes you feel. Give them a chance to learn about your inner self in those moments. Open up; love can flow a little better when you are vulnerable.
  5. Unexpected Kindness
    When you know more about your partner, you can use that to show concern and kindness without being asked. The key is to have the other person’s back, even in little ways: You see the other person’s dishes in the sink, and you clean them up before he or she gets there. You leave a string of floss on the mirror before they get up. These little acts of kindness get noticed because they aren’t expected—and they say, "I love you” through actions, not words.

Want to Read More?

I always advise people to consult the writings of John Gottman and Dan Wile. Here are some links:

References

Gottman, J.M. & Silver, N. (2012). What Makes Love Last. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Wile, D.B. (1993). After the Fight: Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship. Guilford: New York.

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