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How One Intimate Partner Can Sabotage Relationship Rehab

Here are eight most common behaviors that identify your unconscious sabotage.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that they will face challenges as they spend more time together. The potential for their relationship to thrive, survive, or end will depend on the depth and frequency of those crises and the level of resilience in both partners.


They come into therapy when they realize they may need outside guidance and support. But that decision is usually initiated by one of the partners and rarely by both. Though the more resistant partner may appear fully involved in the rehabilitation process in the therapeutic environment, he or she may behave very differently at home.


Learning to fully commit again to a relationship that is in emotional shambles is not an easy process for anyone. There are layers of buried resentments and emotional scar tissue to deal with. And though both feel upset and angry when they first come in, the partner who initiated therapy is often more motivated to get things back on track than the partner pulled into the process.


When therapists attempt to get cooperation in letting go of negative behaviors and practicing more successful relationship skills, they are usually able to identify the partner who verbalizes intent to cooperate but unconsciously sabotages the process outside of the therapeutic environment.


That partner, conflicted between making the changes they’ve agreed to and not being able to accomplish them, may become increasingly uncomfortable facing the next session. They have put energy into lessening their negative behaviors and tried hard to practice the new skills. Yet, the relationship doesn’t seem to be getting any better, so it doesn’t seem a good idea to continue.


If you are one of the people I have described, you may be unaware that you are sabotaging the rehab process without even realizing what you are doing. Sincerely wanting the relationship to get better but too internally upset to do what you should be doing, you have become inert, passive, and apathetic.


Here are the eight most common behaviors you will likely be doing that identify your unconscious sabotage of the therapeutic process.


Caveat: You may have always behaved in some of these ways in these relationship behaviors, which could partly be why your relationship has faltered.


1. Erasing

When attempting to revitalize your relationship, you need to make your partner feel welcome after being apart for any period. But instead, when your partner walks into the room and attempts to make a connection with you, and you ignore that offer, you are effectively erasing him or her. Lacking acknowledgment of a person’s presence is a passive way of saying, “I don’t care if you are here or not.” No matter what relationship skills you are simultaneously practicing, that behavior will eradicate their effectiveness.

2. Absence of Compliments

It is, sadly, far more common for established couples to “think compliments” but more often not vocalize them. But when a relationship is in trouble, both partners must commit to consciously expressing what they still love and care about in the other. Have you actually decreased expressing compliments to your partner, holding back any sign of appreciation?


3. Preoccupation

Though this behavior can have the same effect as erasing, it puts the blame more directly on the other partner. When your partner attempts to connect, you are visibly irritated by their “insensitivity” to what you do when “interrupted.” Your partner is supposed to feel that it is their fault for bothering you when you are into something so important to you. They are “throwing you off” or “keeping you from something they’re invested in. “Why can’t you just see that I am busy and wait until I’m through with what I’m doing?” Yes, a thinly veiled dismissal used in an underhanded way to shut the other out.


4. Diminished Tracking

Couples in rehab need to show an increased interest in who their partners are away from them, especially in challenging situations like illness, work problems, or troubles with family members. Have you now stopped showing interest in your partner’s world outside of you? Do you forget about important things like doctor appointments or an ongoing upset with a friend or family member? Are you really silently saying, “You’re on your own when we’re not together.”

5. Primetime Energy When Away

This behavior is pretty indisputable. You’re lying on the couch or watching TV, relatively listless and uninvolved. Then a friend calls with an invitation to do something with you, and you instantly are alive, excited, and ready to reenter the world as a ready participant. Are you increasingly spending more energy and enthusiasm away from your primary relationship and obviously not fully present or interested at home? A blob with your partner and magically transported outside the relationship.


6. “Forgetting” Agreements

Your promises were sacred to both of you in the past. You either kept your word or renegotiated but rarely ever just flaked. But you’re clearly different now. When confronted with forgetting agreements, you now react by blaming your partner and defending your excuses. “You’re just trying to make me look bad. I’m trying so hard, and I’m bound to slip.” You’re not just “forgetting.” You knew you weren’t going to come through but didn’t want to deal with it because you didn’t want to.


7. Flipping Blame

Before you began therapy, there were times when you had to grapple with unequal appetites in many areas and compromise for greater success. Now, amid relationship rehab, you suddenly and consistently tell your partner that he or she is “asking too much” and can’t they see that you are “doing the best they can.” Even if you’ve been much fairer in the past. You’d rather blame your partner for being unreasonable than face the fact that you’re the one who is withholding.


8. Avoidance of Intimate Contact

This is another irrefutable and obvious change in behavior. Compare how spontaneously affectionate you were before therapy, even if it was only occasionally or a prelude to sex. Therapy does make people more vulnerable and open to being wounded. If you feel that you want more closeness but fear it at the same time, you may have put up a wall to intimate connection.


To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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