Update 3rd January 2023
A lot of people wonder what they need to do to make their relationship last. As a relationship therapist who has offered relationship counselling at Kensington, London, for well nearly a decade now, I believe I may be able to help..
The long term romantic relationship can be the most formative relationship since the one we have with our parents. It can provide an opportunity to grow: to overcome blocks to our development that have taken root in childhood (limiting beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world). The human mind always runs on the hope that a new relationship can provide the space where we work through our past. This means that potentially painful childhood experiences will resurface. Will we manage to take a different path this time? Or repeat the past and be left with a terrible belief that we are hopeless at having fulfilling partnerships? My experience of offering trauma therapy to individuals and couples has taught me a great deal about what can break a relationship.
In this blog, I want to help you notice a series of red flags that indicate urgent attention is needed for your relationship to have a chance at lasting. They can also be warning signs that you are carrying unresolved pain from childhood that needs to be talked and thought about, often in an individual trauma therapy. Both in my individual and relationship & marriage counselling practice I see couples who have waited a long time before addressing their problems and repairing the relationship gets harder as time passes. Still, it is never too late and I have seen couples manage to overcome significant blocks too. So without further ado here are my top 5 relationship killers:
Lack of empathy
When your partner talks about their problems you lose patience, start thinking about something else, start doing something else, telling them they are wrong, or try to fix them. This could be a sign that:
You may be feeling depleted yourself at the time, especially at the end of a long day. It can sometimes be more helpful to draw boundaries (very hard for the people pleasers among us) and suggest your partner can speak to you at another time if you do not feel resourced enough at that moment.
You are struggling with vulnerability. You may be finding it hard to be with someone when they are feeling vulnerable, because you are not at ease with your own vulnerability. This can indicate the presence of a belief that being vulnerable is a sign of weakness, or that you will be abandoned or attacked. This can often be the outcome of childhood neglect or abuse. If you were not adequately responded to when you were little you might have learned to avoid feeling vulnerable or being around others when they are in a bad place. This can often be very unconscious especially in the case of neglect because you do not know what you did not get!
You are feeling resentful and are withholding your empathy. You can notice this if you start to think “(s)he never listens to ME”. This is a sign that you may need to address this openly. I see this very often in my couples therapy practice. Each partner feels that the other must make the first step and eventually no one does. There seems to be a competition of needs.
(It is true that often our partners do not themselves know how to communicate their needs and may indeed talk about their problems in a way that is defensive, or evokes irritation. For example, the partner who rages about their boss and seems to be unable to use any empathy that is shown to them. Receiving empathy can be just as hard or harder than giving empathy for some of us).
Lack of curiosity
This is closely associated with the first point. Loving someone means being interested in how they think and feel, what makes them tick. Unlike a lack of empathy that you may notice in specific incidents, a lack of curiosity is more pervasive. This does not mean that we do not love our partners, but it is something we may need to think about. It may be a sign that:
You are feeling depleted again. In this case you are likely to notice that your lack of engagement extends beyond your relationship and also happens with kids or at work. It can be a sign you need to think about your self-care.
You are chronically angry with your partner. It is hard for us to become interested if we are nursing a grievance towards the other.
You are afraid to allow them to really matter to you. That’s one of the ways you keep your distance. An underlying fear of loss and rejection has many ways it affects our way of being with other.
At the most basic level, curiosity about the other and about ourselves is a sign of what psychologists call secure attachment. This is like the baby who trusts the parent will be there and feels free to explore her surroundings. In the same way we learn to explore minds.
(It is true that often are partners present themselves in a way that works against us feeling curious about them. This may be because they are afraid to show themselves too for fear of rejection or negative judgement. They may not be aware of this as it has become a way of being.)
Lack of generosity
Again intimately linked with the above. We tend to think about generosity in terms of giving gifts or at most giving our time. There is a deeper kind of generosity linked to making space in our minds for the other. The capacity to be concerned about the other, to give them the benefit of doubt, to see their point of view always involves giving something. This may be a sign that:
You are angry with your partner (I keep on going back to anger because it is the one of the hardest emotions to use constructively and can often be expressed in the form of withholding something).
We did not get enough of it as children. This is a capability that we are born with but if we do not get enough of this when are very young, we may always be trying to cover a debt and will certainly struggle to give much to others.
(It is true that our partners may at times stretch our capacity for generosity. We may see them as very needy and demanding. Many people are unable to receive generosity and are left feeling empty most of the time. Like empathy, receiving generosity is very hard if you have been given enough as a child).
You often criticize your partner. This might be about their financial decisions, their parenting skills, not contributing to housework. It may be a sign that:
You are resentful because you feel you are not getting enough from your partner and this a is a very common way of responding that I see in couples counselling. Unfortunately, it is the most effective way of not getting anything as punishing our partners will likely make them retreat or counter-attack.
You are looking for an ideal. This could be an attempt to make up for not had your needs met when you were little. You might be looking for a partner that will never disappoint you. Beneath the criticism might lie grief about your childhood.
(It is true that our partners may evoke our criticism. One reason can be that they feel neglected and getting a bad reaction is better than getting no reaction. Whatever the case and regardless of pressure, how we respond is our responsibility and no one else’s).
This is a one of the most worrying signs and may indicate that some external help like relationship counselling is needed. Research suggests that it is the best predictor of divorce.
Contempt is the opposite of empathy. You treat your partner as inferior. You roll your eyes when they speak. You use a sarcastic tone of voice. You take opportunities to devalue them including in front of other people. You have stopped treating them as someone who deserves respect and love. Your partner may very well be doing the same to you. This is usually a sign that:
Anger and resentment have remained unattended for too long in the relationship and have mutated into cruelty and disdain.
We are actually feeling ashamed and humiliated. We may be trying to get our partners to feel these emotions instead. Shame is the hottest hot potato.
(It is true that being at the receiving end of contempt from our partners is one of the most toxic experiences as it evokes perhaps the most unbearable of feelings, shame. Shame is frequently the cause of anger and violence and can fuel counter attacks).
Empathy is the antidote to shame. It is extremely challenging to be empathetic towards someone who is contemptuous, but if it can be achieved it can indeed change the course of the relationship.
If you have made your utmost to speak to each other and the problems persist it may be sensible to get a consultation with a couple therapist and have some external help to figure things out and get unstuck.
It can also be helpful to consider individual therapy to have an exclusive space to reflect on your difficulties with your partner and explore if you are carrying wounds from childhood that are sabotaging your chances of having a fulfilling relationship.
Get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. 07805945233 if you’re old fashioned.