10 common destructive behaviors that predict long-term damage.
By the time couples come to see me, they are often worn down by their repeated and harmful interpersonal interactions. They seem to have forgotten how much they once cared for each other.
The deeper sadness is that they often don’t know how or when they lost their early promises of love and support. They realized that they were fighting more and healing less, but thought, or hoped, that it was a passing stage and they would rebound.
When I point out the behaviors that were signaling potential damage, they realize that they were probably doing many of them but didn’t see the negative spiral that could eventually doom their partnership.
These slowly erosive behaviors are often so subtle that it was too easy not to pay attention to how bad things were getting between them. If only they could have seen, and stopped, the behaviors that were eating away at the core of their love, they could have changed what they were doing before things got out of control.
Once we identify them together, the partners can replace them with behaviors that bring them back together. That recognition and their new commitment can bring hope for renewal.
Following are the 10 most common relationship-destroying behaviors that predict long-term damage.
1. More Time Fixing Rather Than Preventing
This is an all-too-common pattern for partners in long-term relationships who are allowing their relationship to decline. They let things go they are uncomfortable dealing with until they mushroom into much more complicated situations that can no longer be resolved easily.
The ability for the relationship to return to a positive state is severely diminished and the resources needed to do so more limited. Learning to predict a negative spiral early ultimately requires less energy, creates less damage, and makes healing easier.
2. Focusing on What Isn’t Working
Too often, couples who have been together for a long time forget to remind each other of what they value, respect, and enjoy in the other. Most of their interactions have instead become logistical check-ins, reminders of disappointments, and angrily expressed build-ups of frustration. When partners are newly in love, they focus on what they love about each other, even when the negatives are present.
3. Attacking Important People in the Other Partner’s Orbit
If I could instruct new couples in the two or three most important crucial areas, I would tell them to never find fault or attack anyone who is important to that other partner, even if the criticisms are accurate. That is especially true if the other partner also feels critical of those people and is already struggling with them.
Triangles are always messy, and challenging someone to find fault with someone they feel conflicted about is more likely to push them closer to that other person and away from you.
4. Rehashing Continuously Without Resolution
Often, after just a few sessions with a couple, I have memorized an entire disagreement sequence simply because they have repeated it so often in front of me. When I reflect it back, the partners are in disbelief that it is that obvious.
Yet, those repeated, unsolved interactions are often hallmarks of a relationship going downhill. The underlying, core issues are never addressed, buried under the monotonous babble that goes nowhere, and leave both partners feeling lonely and uncared for. Trauma triggers are often at the basis of these erosive patterns and, if not recognized, will continue to drive them.
5. Prime Time Mostly Elsewhere
This is one of the most crucial aspects of a relationship being unconsciously undermined over time. I often use the phrase, “going from being in the race together to one or both becoming the pit stop where the other’s car changes tires.”
People in successful relationship teams decide together how to distribute the resources of time, energy, finances, love, availability, shared experiences, etc. If they do decide to do interesting things separately, they bring back those experiences into the relationship to enhance it.
6. Invalidation, Mockery, Erasing
When couples are first together, they may tease and challenge one another in playful ways but know the difference between that behavior and serious hurtful comments that are meant to embarrass or humiliate. “Why did you do that?” with the accent on the first syllable, is very different from “Why do you suppose you responded that way?” as a true question of interest and support. This move from genuine curiosity to degradation can be a very slippery slope.
7. Resistance to Change
New couples promise each other to blend dreams, to share resources, and to support each other’s way of thinking, even if it is different from their own. That mutual openness to alternative and transforming ways of thinking makes them more alive with each other than they are apart. When that openness is replaced by rigid beliefs and closed-off thinking, the relationship will lose its openness and capacity for mutual transformation.
8. Flipping Blame
This behavior is metaphorically similar to a rip tide. Successful couples listen deeply to each other and don’t interrupt, overtalk, or need to win. The tide only goes one way at a time.
When couples become defensive and don’t like what they are being accused of, they too often flip the blame. “What about you?” is an example of a comment used to change the direction of the accusation.
Open communication is one of the hallmarks of a successful relationship. It still allows for reasonable privacy, but not for behaviors that the other partner would be distressed by were they to know. “You didn’t call me when you said you would.” “I’m sorry. Just got preoccupied.” “What were you doing?” “You know, I can’t even remember, just stuff.” Not a good prognosis.
10. Abuse of Alcohol to Escape the Relationship
Alcohol shared in celebratory occasions or as a prelude to intimacy can add spice and comfort. But when it is used in excess to avoid intimacy in the relationship, it becomes similar to a love affair because it is chosen as a preferred choice to being with the other partner. In my four-plus decades of working with couples, I have never seen a quality relationship endure when one or both partners have slipped into using excessive alcohol to avoid connection.