Seven Simple Ways to Wreck a Good RelationshipJed Diamond, PhD, LCSW
Many relationships fail because the partners don’t know how to make them succeed.
Posted August 18, 2010
When we look at the divorce rate, the number of relationships that fall apart before people get married, and people who stay together even though miserable, we might conclude that people go out of their way to wreck their relationships. It can be helpful to look at the ways we often harm each other without even trying.
1. By misunderstanding what makes a relationship good.
When I queried Google with the question, “What makes a good relationship” I got 69,900,000 responses. Things like a good sex life, compatibility, mutual respect, agreement about money matters, and good communication were common. But in the 44 years I have been a marriage and family counselor I have found that the core quality for having a good relationship is simpler and more basic.
I’ve found that having a strong emotional bond is the key to a joyful love life.
Dr. Sue Johnson is an expert in helping couples achieve and maintain a joyful relationship throughout their lives. In her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, she says she learned that “romantic love was all about attachment and emotional bonding. It was all about our wired-in need to have someone to depend on, a loved one who can offer reliable emotional connection and comfort.”
But most of our views of relationship take us in a completely opposite direction. Many believe that emotions are something we should control, not express. They tell us that too much emotion was the basic problem in most marriages.
And many would argue that healthy adults are self-sufficient. Good marriages result when each person in the relationship is able to stand on their own two feet and “grow up.” Only immature or dysfunctional people need to lean on each other. We give names like enmeshed, codependent, merged, or fused, to these kinds of relationships.
According to Dr. Johnson, you must “recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection.” She says that adult attachments may be more reciprocal and less centered on physical contact, but the nature of the emotional bond is the same.
2. By acting like “communication” makes for good relationships
Everyone assumes that good communication is the key for creating good relationships, but my experience tells me, “it ain’t necessarily so.” Imagine this. Your loved one lives in another city and you want to tell them how important they are to you. So you pick up the phone and begin to communicate your love. However, after minutes of getting no response, you realize your error. Although you are communicating your heart out, you never actually dialed the number and made the connection.
Likewise in our relationships, if we aren’t emotionally connected, no amount of good communication is going to bring us the love we want. Further, we can connect with someone, but if we are communicating our anger, blame, judgment, ridicule, etc., it isn’t likely to improve our relationships.
Don’t even think about trying to communicate until you connect. According to Patricia Love and Steven Stosny, authors of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, “It’s not about communication. It’s about connection.” Relationship disconnection is the biggest factor in the soaring divorce rate. Some 80 percent of divorcees say they “grew apart.” Couples don’t become disconnected because they have poor communication. They have poor communication because they are disconnected.
3. By not understanding that the best way to break connection with a woman is through Fear.
Although both men and women can be moved by fear, women are more vulnerable to fear and react more strongly (we’ll see in a moment that men are more vulnerable to shame). Research shows that baby girls, from the day they are born, are more sensitive to isolation and lack of contact.
This sensitivity evolved as an important survival mechanism to protect vulnerable females and keep them in contact with those that could keep them from harm. Think of a female in our evolutionary past who needed the protection of the group in order to keep her alive and well.
A female’s primary need is to be cherished. From the moment of birth until the day she dies she needs to feel that “special someone” will protect and care for her and no other. Whenever, this connection is threatened she feels anxiety and fear. “Over the millennia, females developed a kind of internal GPS that keeps them aware of closeness and distance in all their relationships,” say Love and Stosny. “When a woman feels close she can relax; when she feels distant, she gets anxious.”
4. By not understanding that the best way to break connection with a man is through Shame.
Although the human egg is microscopic, it is large enough to house 250,000 sperm. Eggs weigh 85,000 times as much as sperm. Think how you’d feel if you had to merge with someone who was 85,000 times heavier than you? Now, think of the competition involved in mating. There are fifty million to five hundred million sperm per ejaculation. How would you feel competing against those numbers for the prized egg?
Since it is the female that carries the egg, males are the ones who have to compete with each other in order to be chosen by the female. Sexual competition is a replay of fertilization itself. Numerous males, like small, hyperactive sperm, compete among themselves for access to females.
Males often remember, with a great deal of shame, walking across a room and asking the “cute” girl to dance, only to be turned down and having to walk back to his seat feeling that all eyes are on him and people are saying to themselves, “loser, loser, loser.” This is the essence of male shame. We are always in competition with other males to be chosen by a female who can trigger our feelings of insufficiency and inadequacy with a casual shake of her head. And our shame deepens as others witness our retreat.
Can you imagine how you would feel if you were forced to compete your whole life and had hundreds and hundreds of small and large rejections, many of them crushing? Women, of course, have their own issues to deal with, but see if you can let yourself feel the shame that haunts men.
Men’s basic need is for respect, just as women’s basic need is to be cherished. He needs to feel like a winner, that he can beat the competition and be the chosen one. From the time he is born until the day he dies, he is vulnerable to shame and loss of face.
“Shame,” says author Merle Fossum, “is feeling alone in the pit of unworthiness...Shame is not just a low reading on the thermometer of self esteem. Shame is something like cancer—it grows on its own momentum.” Both shame and guilt are ways in which people experience feeling bad. Yet the two are quite different. Guilt involves feeling bad about what we do or fail to do. Shame is feeling bad about who we are, about our very being. The shame that men experience is a kind of soul murder, undermining the foundations of our masculine selves.
The powerful impact of shame on male irritability, anger, and violence is captured by James Gilligan, M.D. who has spent his professional career working with violent men. “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.” It’s no wonder men become angry, irritable, even violent, when they feel the impact of shame.
5. By ignoring the reality that women’s fear triggers men’s shame and men’s shame triggers women’s fear.
Here’s an experience many people have had which can serve to introduce us to this critically important topic. A man and his wife are in the car together on their way to visit family for the holidays. As he drives around a curve, the wife suddenly puts her hand on the dashboard to brace herself. He gives her a hostile look, clenches his jaw, and turns back to the road. Within minutes they get into a fight about some inconsequential issue that neither can remember. What happened?
Both are a bit on edge as the drive begins since it is holiday time and they are visiting family. When the man drives through the curve the wheels hit the divider bumps briefly, the woman is startled, and she feels a jolt of fear. She braces herself—a reflexive attempt to protect herself. The man does not realize she is afraid. Instead, he interprets her reaction as a judgment on his driving and his ability to protect her from harm. He has a jolt of shame. In an attempt to protect himself from feeling inadequate he gets angry. His anger triggers more fear in his wife, which triggers more shame in him.
Further, he is not only ashamed, but he is ashamed of being ashamed. As a result he blocks the shame from his awareness and focuses instead on something he imagines his wife did or didn’t do. His wife may be more aware of her fear, but may also deny her fear to herself, thinking “He’s really a good driver, I don’t have to worry.” All of this goes on in a matter of seconds and is out of the awareness of both partners. But the result is that both act as though they were engaged in a life or death struggle over something that is so inconsequential they can’t believe it is causing them to “lose it” with each other.
6. By believing that when problems arise in a relationship, the best thing to do is talk it out.
Most everyone, including therapists, believe that talking through a problem is essential for solving an issue and improving a relationship. However, most men resist talking like the plague. For men the 5 most horrible words in the English language are, “Honey, we need to talk.” The words can be said with anger or with love, with disdain or compassion, with despair or with hope. It seems no matter how they are presented, they are met with a resistance bordering on terror by most men. Why should a woman’s desire to talk be met with such resistance?
What most people don’t realize is that men have a strong need to protect and serve and they base a great deal of their sense of self-esteem and pride on their ability to make their partner happy. When a woman wants to talk to a man about things that are bothering her about the relationship, she is seeking to overcome her fears of disconnection. However, he interprets her unhappiness as a judgment of his competence as a male provider and protector.
The man will often think to himself, “Here we go again. She wants to tell me what I’m doing wrong. I feel like a failure. I can’t do anything right and nothing I do can please this woman.” Rarely, does a woman say, “Honey, we need to talk! It’s just been way too long since I told you how wonderful you are. You satisfy me in ways I’ve longed for all my life. You’re the best.”
7. By believing that if a woman can’t talk about what’s wrong, there’s nothing she can do.
Here are 5 practices I recommend women avoid if you want to wreck a good relationship.
1. Lower Your Fear Levels
It may not be evident at the moment, but one of men’s strongest desires is to protect and serve the person he loves. When you’re afraid, he judges himself as a poor protector. His shame levels goes up and he usually gets more irritable and angry. One of the best ways to lower your fear level is remind yourself that It only takes one committed person to save a relationship. Most women are afraid that if they can’t get the man to change, all is lost.
You can also set a “check in” date for you to commit to making things better no matter what he does. I do this with all my clients and just knowing that you have six months, a year, or whatever time you are willing to commit to, allows you to relax a little and decrease your fear. What other ways might you lower your fear level?
2. Quit Demeaning Your Man
Most women have no intention of shaming or demeaning their man, but as I noted earlier it often occurs as women become more anxious, frightened, and insecure. To demean means to lower in dignity, honor, or standing. Just as men are surprised at the things that cause women to be afraid, women are often surprised at the things that increase men’s shame. Here are a few ways that author Pat Love noticed she had shamed the man in her life: excluding him from important decisions, robbing him of the opportunity to help, correcting what he said, questioning his judgment, giving unsolicited advice, overreacting, ignoring his needs, withholding praise, using harsh tones, pushing him to get help, valuing others’ needs over his, condescending, name calling, ignoring him, comparing, dismissing.
I think you get the idea. Again this isn’t meant to blame you or to cause you to become ashamed. You have been doing the best you can. But noticing ways you have been shaming him—and stopping yourself—can go a long way towards healing. What are some of the things you’ve said or done that could cause your man’s shame to increase? Being aware is the first step to making positive change.
3. Focus on the Positive: From Mr. Mean to Mr. Wonderful
When we become locked into the Fear/Shame spiral, we get locked into negative perceptions. “He’s mean, he’s inconsiderate, he’s angry all the time, he’s withdrawn, he doesn’t love me, he’s sick.” Most women I talk with want to help get the “mean” out of their man. They want to “de-mean” him, but end up “demeaning” him. Focus your attention on the ways he has been, or you would like him to be, wonderful.
Most women really don’t want “Mr. Nice.” They want a whole man, not a perfect man. They want a man they can love and who loves them. I’ve learned over the years that what you focus on, increases. If you want Mr. Wonderful, look for all the ways—small ones and large ones—in which your man is wonderful. Keep a journal of all the good stuff and read it when you are feeling afraid.
4. Be the Best You Can Be When He’s Being the Worst
It’s relatively easy to be your best when you are getting the best from your partner. It’s a lot more difficult when you are getting a lot of irritability, anger, judgment, silence. Here’s an exercise that can help. Write down the things that are best about you as a person. Then write what’s best about you as a partner. Most women wouldn’t write that they are at their best when they are fearful, angry, nagging, blaming, shaming, etc. They are at their best when they are honest, compassionate, courageous, accepting, and optimistic. When times are tough and you’re tempted to respond with fear or shame, read what’s best about you as a person and a partner and let that deeper truth guide your response.
5. Instead of Having a Talk, Write a Love Letter.
For years my wife and I have used a “love letter” process that we learned from John Gray. When you’re feeling a lot of negative emotions in your life, write a letter to the person who seems to be triggering them. You’re not going to give it to the person so use whatever language best conveys your feelings. “Dear_________”. Then write down any hurt and pain you are feeling. Next, write down any anger or irritation you feel. Go on to write things that trigger your anxiety and fear. Continue with the things that cause you to feel guilt and shame. Finally, write about your love and understanding.
Most of us either deny our feelings or we get stuck on one level or another. We get locked up in our hurts or our anger. This allows you to express the whole range of your emotions in a safe way. People tell me they always feel better after writing one.
Let me close by saying that I’m not suggesting that talking with your partner will always trigger shame or that you should never talk. I am saying that there are a lot of ways we can heal, even when our partner does not want to “talk about it.” You’ll find as you act on these practices more and talk less, the emotional climate will thaw out and you’ll be able to talk without triggering more fear and shame.
Jed Diamond is director of MenAlive, a program dedicated to healing men and the women who love them. He is the author of 7 books including Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome. For more information, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit MenAlive.com.