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The Hidden Enemies of Love

Six signs of potential sabotage.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Most people begin each new relationship hoping that it will be the one that flourishes. Fueled with new love’s combination of passion and mystery, the partners too often push aside any experiences that challenge those desires.

The most common saboteurs of long-term love are easy for most people to recognize. They show up relatively early in the relationship as slowly increasing incompatibilities. Differences in sexual appetites, priorities of others in established social circles, sharing of resources, and the willingness to commit often are foremost amongst the culprits, but there are many others. If these threats to the survival of the relationship are identified early on and cannot be reconciled, it is easier for the partners to move on without too much sorrow.

But there are deeper and more profound enemies of successful relationships that are more subtle and not as easily recognizable early on. As a result, they may not be obvious until the partners have invested a significant amount of time and energy into each other. If that happens, and the relationship falters, the once-committed partners will likely undergo much more disappointment and grief when they lose the dream they once believed could come true.

Though there are many of these more-slowly emerging enemies of long-term love, here are six of the most common. If they are not recognized, acknowledged, and resolved by both partners, they are highly likely to result in irreparable damage to the relationship.

One — Cynicism

There is no way any one of us can understand what causes another person to become cynical about love’s promise. But, cynical, pessimistic, or negative beliefs about whether any love relationship can ever work, will pre-doom any chance of success. The pre-defeat of embedded cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and feeds upon itself.

If all prior relationships have not worked out, it is understandable that someone who suffers those disillusionments and turned them into a foreboding prediction is bound to be doubtful of a different outcome the next time around. Yet, not all those who have been unlucky in love, despite multiple disappointments in the past, let those past losses predict all future ones. They are more interested in what went wrong in the past and willing to keep searching. They come into therapy willing to ask themselves the hard questions:

  • What did I learn from my mistakes?

  • Am I playing the blame game of score-keeping, self-castigation, or martyrdom?

  • Can I enter a new relationship without expecting it to heal me from the last one?

  • Are my faith in myself and my ability to do better the next time still intact?

  • Have I maintained the faith that long-lasting love is possible?

  • What do I need to do differently the next time around?

When ready-to-love again people are willing to work through these questions and recreate themselves as more successful relationship partners, they are more likely to recognize the signs of a failing partnership early enough to have the courage to move on. That courage keeps them from staying too long in a relationship that won’t work and preserves their chances of staying optimistic.

Two – Trauma Triggers

Most everyone has experienced relationship trauma at some point in his or her life. Some, of course, in terrible and deeply scarring ways. Others, less so. Some have had the opportunities to heal. Others have not.

Traumas negatively affect a person’s ability to trust. They are holes in the psyche ever-ready to reemerge, especially in an intimate relationship. In the glow of new love, those reactions are often temporarily muted. Yet, those underlying traumas, particularly those that are unresolved, will eventually emerge. A word, a phrase, an expression, a movement, a fractured loyalty, a moment of suspicion, an expectation unrealized, all can trigger pain or fear from the past. When that happens, the traumatized partner too often projects that past experience onto an uneducated partner and unsuspecting partner.

If trauma triggers are not shared early in a relationship, the partner experiencing these confusing and intense reactions often feels unfairly blamed and may respond in ways that deepen the original wound.

Three — Personality Disorders

All of us have some personality traits that are counterproductive to the creation of quality relationships. We do our best to keep them in check and hope our good qualities will overshine them. Interestingly enough, many of them have both positive and negative aspects, making them at once both attractive and potentially destructive.

Relationship-challenging character traits and behaviors often become love-destructive if they are not openly shared and owned, especially those that are diagnosable personality disorders. When not addressed and healed, they can produce intense fears of abandonment or rejection, insecurity, and terrors of loss, often to an extreme.

When the people who suffer these intense emotional responses are triggered, they can erupt suddenly into a rage, disconnect abruptly, hold intense grudges, rarely see their own accountability, feel suicidal, and may be unable to stop repeating those behaviors.

When love is new, it feels safer, and can temporarily ameliorate the deep insecurities these people experience while people with personality disorders are getting everything they need. Even if they do react to feeling slighted in any way, their positive traits way may outweigh those responses in the beginning of a relationship. Over time, though, as the relationship’s safety becomes less ensured, they may eventually wear their partners out and experience the very fears they were trying so hard to avoid.

Four — Tarnished Histories

Many people do things in their lives that are embarrassing to share with others, even if those actions happened long in the past and have been resolved. Even when a person is the true victim of exploitation, he or she may still be ashamed of what happened.

When new relationships begin, most people want to be on their best behavior, especially as they are asked to share their experiences from the past. They may either want to keep their new partner from ever knowing certain things they’ve done before, or don’t know when or how to share those experiences.

They often ask me questions like:

  • Will this confession make this person unable to continue loving me?

  • Will he or she value me less?

  • Can I trust this person to keep my revelations private, even if we part?

  • Is my partner likely to find these things out eventually, and then no longer trust me?

Not all things should, or need be, shared. If a person has given restitution, feels resolved about the situation, and knows that he or she would never do something like that again, it may be unnecessary and detrimental to open up that Pandora’s box. Yet, humiliating or painful past experiences do affect how a person relates in the present and a loving partner may ultimately sense that withholding.

Five — Fantasies

Most everyone who begins a new relationship has fantasies about what he or she wants out of a relationship and what “should” happen. If these fantasies are not shared and similarly sought by the other partner, they are likely to invite disappointment and disillusionment.

Similar and mutual fantasies do predict the compatibility of future dreams. But if they are not in parallel, one or both partners will likely fall short, especially if those expectations remain unresponsive to alteration.

It is always best if new partners openly share what their hopes, dreams, and expectations are about relationships in general and are open to partial satisfaction of them in the wake of what is possible. Or if their current partnership is just not capable of providing them, and they can’t change what they want.

Fantasies that are expected to become realities, without knowledge or agreement will become enemies of long-lasting love.

Six — Resilience: The Readiness to Fight or Run

One of the most potent enemies of love is a lack of resilience. Bouncing back from hurt or disappointment, and recommitting to doing things better are hallmarks of the people who make successful relationships in all areas of their lives.

All relationships hit snags and fall into dark places. Whether caused by misunderstandings, stress, disappointments, losses, insecurities, betrayals, fears of loss, unresolved conflicts, or a lack of mutual satisfaction, those bumps in the road are not as important as the way a person weathers them.

If couples learn to listen without judgment, lean into critique, keep things in perspective, remember to tell each other how much they matter, keep up their share of commitment, follow through with their promises, and never threaten something they don’t mean, they can grow from every potential threat to the relationship and strengthen their bond as they do.

Ideally, these six potential enemies of love would be shared openly in the early moments of every new relationship. But, sometimes, they are hidden even from the person who may eventually be unable to keep them at bay. However, when most couples look back, the signs were there. They just didn’t want to see them or feared they would sabotage potential long-lasting connection.

Sadly, these underlying relationship attitudes and subsequent behaviors will ultimately surface. New relationships have the best potential to heal them if the partners have the courage to address them while love is bountiful and resources are highly accessible.

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