Couples Relationships: Why Do They Fail?

People have an innate need to seek satisfaction in life together through intimacy – love, romance and sexual relationships. To give and receive support and encouragement reinforces a sense of belonging, so to care and be cared for we seek a reciprocal relationship that nourishes and nurtures us in countless ways.

Our impulse towards interdependence involves mutual influence, sharing thoughts and feelings and engaging in activities together. A couple’s relationship involves ongoing commitment, consistent interactions, emotional connection and mutual fulfillment of needs and desires, cooperation and consideration.

Given this complexity is it any wonder that couples fail when they are confronted by the enormous challenges of relationship? According to one recent survey almost a half of marriages end in divorce and according to another a third of intimate relationships break up before the age of 25.

In my work with couples in relationship I became curious about the nature of couple relationships and particularly the question: How is it that relationships do not succeed?

While relationships can be touching and precious and full of reciprocal feeling, empathy and closeness, they can also be toxic, loveless hate fields.

I have engaged in some private research to increase our knowledge of how relationships fail. I would like to summarize it very briefly here. I want to distinguish exactly how a relationship can be sabotaged by the two partners involved.

An intimate relationship can be sabotaged in six principle ways. They are:

1) Merging

2) Leaning

3) Dominance

4) Twin Frustration

5) Freeze Out

6) The Bridge or the Swiss Weather House

Let’s look at each of these in a little detail.

1) Merging

When people have no sense of an individual self, they have no sense of the other. This results in a merging of identity and individuality in relationship. It mirrors a return to the mother-baby relationship and the deep reason is the issue of nourishment and the inability to receive. The irony of the merged relationship is that neither partner gets what they want from the other, since neither is an identifiable giver or receiver; rather they are a merged (and often extremely frustrated) unit.

2) Leaning

This kind of relationship is based on dependency and the source of this kind of relationship dynamic is infantile. It reflects the oral stage of early development when we looked to the outside world and the people in it to meet our needs. The fear is that if the other leaves us we will not survive and this idea usually alternates with the opposite idea which can be summarized as: “I don’t need you because I can stand alone.” Either way the relationship centers on need, with the tragic payoff that neither may be able to give the other what he or she wants, since each partner needs it so badly themselves.

3) Dominance

In this kind of often narcissistic relationship power is substituted for love. The partners may idolize, idealize, worship or denigrate, abuse or even hate each other intensely. But real feelings do not enter into the relationship. Consequently, there can be no real meeting and each partner occupies a lonely isolated existence of heartlessness and emotional emptiness. This relationship can only be expressed through control, withholding, withdrawal and all forms of power and domination.

4) Twin Frustration

This is the kind of relationship that is based on the idea that neither of the two people involved can ever be free. They disown their inner devils in projection and transference onto each other. The relationship becomes an arena for argument, conflict and acting out antagonism. Stubbornness and negative passion preside in what is essentially a masochistic form of attachment. The two partners carry the relationship as a burden and endure their interactions through negative unconscious reactivity, rather than any expression of tenderness, empathy or true togetherness.

5) Freeze Out

When a relationship is characterized by activity in the form of achievement and competition, feelings and emotions take second place. The result is coldness, disengagement and distance. Each partner is invested in putting down the other through criticism, judgment and humiliation. The keynote is rejection and neither allows him/herself permission to want or feel. The emotional attitude is rigid and unemotional, as each partner tries to dislike and even hate the other in denial and release of their own self-hatred.

6) The Bridge or the Swiss Weather House

This relationship can be summarized as: “The more I come towards to you, the more you back away from me”.

Picture this: the two partners stand apart, separately on either side of a bridge. The bridge is between them and it symbolizes the point of meeting, or the relationship. One moves towards the center of the bridge exhibiting a desire to relate (share, meet, or be intimate). But as the other partner moves forward to meet them, the first partner withdraws to the bank where they originally stood. Prompting the other partner who is now on the bridge to ask, “Where are you?” As he/she backs away so the first partner crosses back to the center of the bridge again, only to answer (when the other is at a safe distance), “I am here, where are you?” And so it goes on in a charade of meeting and willingness, unwillingness and rejection, invitation and abandonment – all undermining the urge for intimacy. Each blames the other for not meeting and relating, oblivious to the unconscious withdrawal and refusal they themselves are practicing.

The Swiss Weather House, like the bridge, is an analogy is based on the idea that only one side of the relationship can be out at any time. When one side goes in, the other comes out.

A Healthy Model of Relationship

Relationships are enabled through separation and boundaries. There are three elements in a true intimate relationship: oneself, the other and the relationship. Each of these elements must be distinguishable, respected and honored. When they are, both individuals can stand on their own. The individuality may be sacrificed to the relationship in consideration, compromise or selflessness. But each chooses to meet, be together and relate, rather than compelled or unconsciously driven out of need or fear.

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