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Nov 20

5 Hidden Relationship Killers


By Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.
We all know about the obvious things that cause relationships to go downhill, such as cheating, lying or domestic violence. However, often these are only the surface things and are easily seen. Below the surface are the problems less visible but at the same time much more crucial to bad relationships. These are the things that later erupt in cheating or other more prominent problems. Here are a few of them.

1 – Disrespect. Disrespect stays beneath the surface because sometimes it is so subtle that the person who is doing the disrespecting and the person disrespected are both unaware of it. One way of doing this is for one member of the couple to harp on the other’s faults in the guise of trying to help the other improve. The Disrespectful member may have grown up in a family that reinforced his or her criticizing nature and made them believe justified in doing so. The criticized member may have grown up in a family that was also critical, so that this member was reinforced to accept criticism as deserved.

People who are being disrespectful are seldom aware of it, and if they are asked if they respect their partner they quickly reply, “Of course I respect you.” However, even though these roles seem natural, unconscious guilt by one and resentment by the other will build up and may lead to acting out such as cheating, lying or other abusive behavior.

2 – Lack of Empathy. In order for a relationship to truly work, both partners must have empathy for each other. Both must be able to put themselves in the other’s shoes, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Oftentimes couples mistake pity for empathy. They feel sorry that their other half has problems, but they secretly feel that are above such problems. Hence their pity is linked with condescension.

Mother Teresa in India, who spent her life ministering to the needs of all who came to her–banker, beggar or thief—exuded empathy. Most of us can only empathize to a degree. If, for example, one partner doesn’t want to have sex, the other partner can either be mad or be empathic. Empathic understanding about why the partner refuses sex, what they are feeling, and what you may have contributed to the situation will go a long way.

3 – Disinterest. Sometimes couples can gradually become disinterested in each other. This may be due to various things. For instance, their values may be different. One may value money and status, while the other may be passionate about literature and the arts. Or one person might be obsessed with what he or she is doing and be completely disinterested in what the other is up to, leaving the other to roil in hidden or not so hidden resentment. In such cases they will become an alienated couple that may then go into an appeasing mode.

There is nothing that can kill a relationship faster than disinterest. The resentful party may complain, “You’re only interested in yourself,” and the other partner will deny it, saying, “That’s not true, I’m very interested. How can you say that?” This only compounds the difficulty.

4 – Joking. Joking can sometimes be a positive thing that creates closeness, as when couples enjoy the same kinds of humor. However sometimes one or the other uses joking as a way to deflect or disguise a negative attitude toward the other person. For example, one person might say, “Maybe you need to get a life!” and then add, “I’m just joking.” This is not taken by the other as a joke; such relationships where one is jokingly picking on the other can go on for years.

I’ve had people in group therapy who always have a smile on their faces, even when they are expressing anger, as if to say, “I’m angry but don’t take it seriously.” They are afraid to be honest about expressing their anger, so they are in fact being dishonest about it to themselves and the other. When jokes hide unconscious anger, they can become toxic to a relationship.

5 – Pretending. Sometimes couples have gradually stopped loving one another, and when they do it is almost a natural reflex to pretend that love is still there. This often happens to married couples after some years. They still say they love each other and perform acts designed to show their love, such as giving gifts or cooking special meals. They also convince themselves that they still love each other.

The unconscious nature of this shift from true love to pretended love is gradual and subtle, so sometimes it never gets talked about. Instead the pretense continues and the partners may become bored with one another and seek other interests or pastimes to gratify their needs for love. Hence pretending can lay the foundation for later cheating. The cheating or some other outbreak will abruptly make the couple aware that there is a problem in the relationship that prevents them from loving.

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