Why Our Relationships Grow Sour

Of the thousands of letters or emails I have received from readers of this column through the years, there have been certain themes or questions that have repeated themselves over and over again. Some people write of feeling unloved, unwanted or discarded in a relationship. Another group of readers write of feeling misused or poorly appreciated by significant others. Other readers describe confusing behaviors that leave them unsure of what someone else is saying. Still other people don’t know what they want in a relationship, or don’t know whether they’re in the right relationship, or don’t have the feelings they think they ought to have.

Perhaps it would help to stand back from our intimate relationships for a moment, and look at the central dynamics of what gets so many people in trouble—and how you could, with a bit of foresight, skill and intention, avoid some of the common pitfalls that cause people so much heartache in their intimate relationships. The following is a list of what gets most intimate relationships in trouble:

  1. Poor listening and/or communication skills. Good listening is about letting someone say what they think or feel without you defending, reacting, getting angry, threatening, withdrawing, acting distracted or drowning them out with your words. Defensiveness (feeling attacked when your partner expresses dissatisfaction or makes a request for you to change something, and then defending yourself) is especially sabotaging to a relationship because, over time, it will stop your partner from saying important things to you, and then your relationship will grow more fragile as resentments and grievances pile up. It’s the wise person who listens carefully before responding, and listens for what s/he can to to address the feelings, needs or requests of the other—without needing to be “right” or making the other person “wrong.” Good communication is reciprocal sharing. It’s about knowing the difference between “talking at” and “talking with” someone, and being interested in the other person’s needs, desires and feelings.
  2. Being self-absorbed or self-righteous—that is, focusing on what you feel or what you want—without also giving equal weight to what your intimate partner feels and wants. A relationship is about both of you, not just you. Focus on yourself too much, and your intimate partner will grow to despise you. The same is true if you just don’t spend enough quality time, attention or affection on your partner.
  3. Anger. Anger may help you to get your way, but anger also generates fear, resentment and withdrawal, and it is likely to provoke your partner in getting angry as well. There are far more effective ways for you to address irritations, requests or conflicts. Do it consistently with anger, and your partner will begin to think of you as a child or a bully.
  4. Not treating your partner well, or not treating your partner as a priority, or putting your partner down or attacking his/her self-worth. All are fatal mistakes, and all will lead to distancing or withdrawing from the relationship.
  5. Not acting trustworthy. Infidelity. Lying, misleading statements or behavior, or leaving out information that your partner would want to know. Trust issues poison love relationships. If I can’t trust you, I am more likely to fall out of love with you and want distance from you.
  6. Taking out my frustrations on you. If I take out the frustration I have about other things out on you, how long do you think it will take in order for you to want to get away from my negative energy, hostility, argumentativeness, disrespect, hurt or anger?
  7. Having low self-esteem or self-worth, or feeling unworthy of love. If you don’t feel deep down that you deserve to be loved and spoiled, you are far more likely to choose an intimate partner who can’t or won’t love you—because your self-image tells you you don’t deserve any better. Without a fairly healthy sense of self-worth, it’s hard to accept someone else’s love. Guess where that leaves you?
  8. Not staying connected with each other. To feel connected with your intimate partner is to feel his/her support and to feel calmed by the comfort of your relationship. It’s a feeling of appreciation that your partner is in your life, that the two of you share mutually satisfying touch, fun, common goals and vital activities together. It’s part of the glue that keeps people together and keeps them happy with each other. Don’t ignore this, it’s too important for the day-to-day stability of a relationship.

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