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10 Behaviors That Can Destroy a Relationship

Some are so damaging that they destroy any hope for reconciliation.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Relationships require that the participants are willing to invest their resources in an unknown entity. When they are new and hopeful, the risk/benefit ratio seems well worth the plunge. But if, over time, the dividends cease to outweigh the profits, the once-hopeful transaction may no longer be worth the cost.

That is often the reason couples come into therapy. Sadly, by that time, they have typically suffered years of more cost than gain, more pain than fulfillment, and more disillusionment than hope.

Yet, they are willing to give it one last chance. Do they still have enough energy, motivation, commitment, and hope, to be able to re-invest?

Many variables go into that decision, but one is most significant: What is the current ratio of negativity to positive experiences within the relationship’s interactions?

Some negative or challenging differences are to be expected in every relationship and most couples learn to either fix them or live with them. But some are so damaging that they destroy any hope for reconciliation.

There are many “deal breakers” I could use as examples, but the 10 I’m going to describe easily fill the Pandora’s box of relationship demons. The more of them that permeate a relationship, the less hope there will be for rebirth.

Note: I’ve left out physical or emotional abuse because the damage they cause to a relationship is obvious and, most often, irreparable.

1. Public “Outing." No matter what may be going on in a relationship, it is never okay for either partner to pick on the other publicly. Whether it is pointing out flaws, exposing secrets, attacking current behavior, or trying to get someone else on board to help with the emotional flogging, it never bodes well.

People most often do this because they either want to shame their partners in hopes that it will make put more pressure on them to change unwanted behaviors, or they feel safer to do that in front of others and are willing to take the consequences later.

2. Emotional Blackmail. Intimate partners share their histories with each other, especially in the early moments of connection. Secrets from the past, traumas, child-hood heartaches, relationship losses. New lovers are like symbolic parents to each other, eager and willing to be the ones who heal all of those wounds.

Sadly, as relationships mature, these once-sacred “sharings” can be used as emotional ammunition, dredged up by one partner to make the other feel guilty, naked, manipulated, or fearful of exposure if he or she does not comply with what is demanded.

Strategic withholding, stonewalling, pouting, martyrdom, and threats of abandonment or exile are all behaviors that are used to emotionally blackmail.

3. Passive/Aggressive Behavior. It becomes harder and harder to trust a person who earnestly agrees to do something and just seems to never get around to it.

When promises are continually broken, for whatever reason, they eventually become lies.

Most passive/aggressive people intend to keep their agreements when they make them, and feel guilty when they disappoint. Yet, they continue in the same pattern. Eventually, their partners stop expecting them to deliver.

The partners of passive/aggressive people are easy to recognize: They have become unhinged people wondering if reality actually exists.

4. Keeping Score. Love that grows over time is generous. It thrives because both partners balance giving with self-care. They are much more interested in figuring out how to make things better than who did what wrong and why.

Keeping score has only one purpose; to make sure the other partner owes specific behaviors because he or she has “taken more than is deserved,” and now has to pay for that sin.

The behavior most often seen in these relationships is rehashing past arguments. When a dispute is over and either a victor is named or the partners retreat from irresolvable issues, they will for certain come back later and do the whole argument again, rearmed with new energy and the desire to change the prior outcome. Round and round, they restate their positions and do not listen any more deeply than they did the first time around.

5. Intentional Meanness. All couples fight and occasionally say things that are deeply hurtful to the other. When the dust settles though, they are quick to ask for forgiveness and to soothe the pain they have caused.

Intentional meanness is a very different kind of behavior. The goal of that attitude and the actions that accompany it are said and done for the expressed purpose of destroying the other person.

These behaviors are easy to observe and absolutely unacceptable. If they are not stopped, few relationships will survive. Some examples of intentional meanness are hitting below the belt, flipping the argument to put the other partner on the defensive, going for the jugular, contempt, stonewalling, emotional beating up, using vulnerabilities to weaken, mocking, invalidating, or using other people’s opinions to strengthen the argument.

6. The Relationship Triangles of Addictive Behaviors. Having worked for many years with addictive behaviors, I understand how much harm the triangles that always exist when an addictive demon becomes the third member of a threesome. Anyone who has lived with an addict knows that he or she will always be in competition with a more powerful, seductive lover who can take the other partner away at any time.

People who are addicted can be seduced into escape behaviors that exile the other partner from any power to hold them accountable to the relationship.

Think Pinocchio. Say to the cat and the fox, “Just come with me and you won’t have to face your heartbreaks, your loneliness, your failures, your fears, or your lost opportunities. You can do whatever you want with no responsibilities.” Of course, you will eventually turn into a slave, no longer able to function in the real world. But that is in very small print.

Addiction creates narcissistic behavior because there can be no one more important than the pursuit, satisfaction, and eventual hunger to use again. Partners can temporarily win priority, but it will not last.

I have never seen a healthy relationship in which one or both of the partners are addicted.

7. Betrayal. Betrayal can exist across a wide spectrum of behavior. But, basically, it is the conscious choice one partner makes to place his or her priorities more important than the sanctity of the relationship.

Trust is all about believing that a person will do what he or she has agreed to and will not do what would hurt the other partner. It is based on honest and authentic agreements as to what behaviors are acceptable to both and what would deal-breakers if they were known to the other.

Betrayal, the cover-up, and excusing the action by blaming circumstances or the other partner, leave permanent scars in a relationship’s core, often irresolvable.

8. Destroying Sacred Icons. Every human being holds sacred certain beliefs, attitudes, attachments, and relationships. The images and thoughts that are part of those physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual connections represent those icons and are, by association, equally vulnerable.

These sacred icons may simply be meaningful memories from the past, religious teachings, treasures, relationships, material possessions, or transitionary objects that represent someone or something lost. They are not necessarily rational nor do they lend themselves to challenges.

Relationship partners never have the right to invalidate, mock, or destroy the sacred attachments that either have. They can ask about when and how they are important and why they are so much a part of a person’s emotional landscape, but their importance is never minimized.

9. Erasing. Memories create the foundation that allows a relationship to grow beyond its boundaries and resolve its difficulties. If either partner in the relationship wants to erase a past behavior because he or she does not want to own or deal with it, the other can never resolve the issue. Those partners are not willing to accept accountability for who they’ve been and what they’ve done in the past, and are essentially asking their partners to pretend their distresses have never happened.

“I never said it like that to you. Why are you rewriting history? Just to make me feel bad? Where’s your forgiveness??”

“Hey, c’mon. I was just having a bad day. Just let it go and be a good sport.”

“Can’t you just let that go? You live in the past.”

The partner who is continually told that the past doesn’t matter cannot hope to change the future.

10. Hypocrisy. Pretending. Lying. Manipulation. Deception. Fraud. Saying or doing whatever one needs to hold on to what they want at the expense of the other. Talking dirt behind someone’s back. Withholding information that is important to the other partner to purposefully keep them ignorant, or hiding that knowledge in order to get away with something. Hypocrisy in all of its forms speaks for itself.

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