Top relationship destroying dynamics

You walked away because you just didn't want to hear it again. What's the point if you always end up the bad guy or loser? He doesn't listen, so why would you even try to talk to him? You can't say what you really think because she can't handle it. Every conversation leads to an argument lately, so why make things worse and wear yourself out in the process? It's better to be silent and hope things will get better on their own.

Do any of the above resonate with you and/or describe (at least in part) the way you and your spouse relate to and think about one another? If so, the key to addressing your issues lies in identifying the dysfunctional pattern that has developed and been reinforced over time--and learning to relate in a new way, one that gets the healthy result you want and need.

Every couple has their own unique dynamic--it's about the way that they interact, converse, and relate to one another. It is often unconscious and/or only partially recognized or understood by them. Its creation occurs over time and is fueled by assumptions, defenses, misunderstandings, and even past experiences and relationships. It becomes so ingrained that therapists refer to it as their dance, with steps that they fall into without any real thought or awareness.

The following is my top dysfunctional dynamics list. I will offer a brief description of each one along with examples of how to shift into a new and healthier way of relating that can give new life and hope to your relationship.

* Pursuing-distancing

This is when one partner takes a step back and the other responds by taking one or two forward. Take the example of when one person in a relationship becomes unhappy due to feeling emotionally neglected or as though their partner doesn't really appreciate or value them. They ask for a time-out or try to break the relationship off altogether--and suddenly their partner becomes attentive, loving, makes promises and actively pursues them. In this example you can see that when one person stepped back and away, it resulted in their significant other taking several forward--and therefore, reversed their dynamic. There are many other, less extreme examples, but you can see how this works.

When I am working with a couple and I observe one of the individuals actively pursuing a particular agenda and/or relationship issue or goal while the other is pulling back and avoiding, backsliding, or resisting in some way--I recommend to the pursuer that they take a step back. Essentially this gives space to their partner that they can use to initiate, take the lead on an issue, or just become more active in the relationship. It is the creation of this space that leads to a shift because the other person no longer feels crowded, pushed and/or pressured, and therefore on the defensive and locked in battle or retreat. It offers them greater emotional freedom that propels them forward, like in a dance. This shifting rebalances the power in the relationship and often leads to greater harmony, well-being and positive feelings.

* Winner and loser

When a couple is locked into a dynamic where there is always one winner and one loser, the relationship is at great risk. Essentially no one wins unless both people win. A classic scenario is when one partner may ask for or listen to the input of the other but discounts it and goes ahead to make a unilateral decision. Sometimes bullying is involved, where one partner belittles the other and in doing so, makes a point that they don't know what they are talking about or aren't qualified to make a particular decision. Other times, a partner might just try to wear down the other until they give in due to a desire to keep the peace or a belief that the issue isn't worth jeopardizing the relationship over. However this dynamic plays out, it leaves one person making the decision and "winning" and the other being discounted and marginalized.

The solution is to work towards win-win decision making--which essentially involves compromise. Each person needs to know their upper and lower limit, what they can give up and what they feel they need to hold on to, and then create a middle ground on which both can stand comfortably. Just going through a process of seeking compromise helps both people to feel heard, valued and as though their needs and feelings matter to their partner.

* One-upmanship

Essentially this dynamic is characterized by a competition between partners, in which both can become caught up in trying to outdo the other. It pits them on opposite sides and as their conversations and interactions become a contest, teamwork becomes difficult if not impossible. Neither has the other's back and every sparring match creates a greater distance, which over time erodes intimacy and trust.

The way to shift this dynamic begins with reminding yourself that you are both on the same side. Essentially your goals and future path are the same or similar, and by working together you help to ensure that you both get what you want. Daily habits like acknowledging each other's contributions, gifts, and strengths are a great way to help each other stay off the defensive. Asking one another for input, acting on your partner's suggestions, and/or listening deeply to what they have to say demonstrates respect and openness. Without these, you could end up so far apart that you can't remember what you once even saw in one another.

* Acting on assumptions

This classic dynamic can be seen when one partner makes an assumption beforehand about how their significant other will think, feel or behave in a given scenario--then acts on it without giving them any opportunity to refute the assumption. The following are good examples of this dynamic in action. Two partners sit down for a serious discussion and one interrupts, listens half-heartedly, and/or tries to finish the other's sentences--which leads to the other escalating, shutting down or avoiding any discussion at all. A partner may begin to respond to something the other is saying before they have the chance to finish their thought--which leaves them feeling discounted, not heard or respected, and/or not invested in making future attempts to engage in meaningful conversation. Or a partner might go into a discussion with a defensive posture or a negative attitude that can shut down any opportunity for meaningful dialogue before it even has a chance to begin.

Because this dynamic most often comes from an unconscious place, the first move towards a solution is to identify what is happening and consciously monitor any negative feelings you may have and how they influence your attitude and behavior when you interact with your partner. Then it's important to verbalize your concerns and label them as feeling defensive, disrespected, not significant, or whatever the feeling is. Once your partner understands what you are feeling, a meaningful conversation about what is REALLY going on has the chance to begin. From there, couples can establish guidelines and ground rules for interactions that encourage active and reflective listening, focused attention, the showing of respect and support, and creates a safe environment for couples to share intimacy.

* Not saying what you mean or meaning what you say

You know what this one looks like. You anticipate what might happen if you say what you really mean and/or you are fairly sure you know what your partner wants/needs to hear. In order to avoid one and give them what they want in the other, you withhold the truth and/or say something you don't mean.

There is only one way to deal with this dynamic- using honesty. You can dip your toes in it slowly by resisting the urge to speak disingenuously, or you can offer something that is at least partially the truth to start. For instance, don't say, "I?m not looking for anything but a good time either," when you do want more. Instead, say that you would really like to have a meaningful relationship someday, but enjoy dating and plan to take it slow. Even if you really want something soon with this person; letting them know you want more but are not pushing for it will help them to just enjoy and get to know you better. This is what courtship is all about and the best it gets for anyone.

Want to read other articles on this subject?

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Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


Copyright 2008 Antoinette Coleman. All rights reserved.

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