They’re vicious, persistent, and they might be lurking in your relationship right now, ready to threaten or even kill your most important possession – your relationship. These relationship killers start out innocently, but if the two of you don’t recognize them and get rid of them together, they can use the force and intensity of your love against you, and then masquerade as your partner.
Read more to find out about these dangerous killers, how to spot them, and why they have such incredible power over us. If you spot them in time, you might just save your relationship.
Relationship Killer #1: Attack-Attack
Amy: “Why did you take so long to come home tonight? I’m sick of you putting your job before me.”
Bruce: “That’s ridiculous. You’re the one who is always taking work calls when we’re together.”
Sound familiar? If you have ever wrestled with the Find the Bad Guy killer, you know that this exchange goes nowhere but down. Each partner finds something negative to say about the other one, upping the ante with each sentence.
The problem is – there is no end to this game. It is an endless cycle. Who wants to concede that they are the bad guy, after all? One or both of you will just have to stop playing.
Stopping the game doesn’t do anything to heal the damage, though. Each partner is left with the memory of the insults and attacks that their partner hurled at them AND a feeling that their partner is not willing to acknowledge the pain they caused them in the past.
The saddest thing about this game is that it started with a request for connection. Amy probably longed for connection and time with Bruce, and was scared that Bruce would drift away. Amy probably felt too vulnerable to express these softer feelings, so opted (unconsciously) for criticism and demands. If Amy would have had the courage (and trust) to express those feelings that way, though, Bruce might have felt important to Amy and able to comfort and reassure her.
This is an example of how our intuition can mislead us. We are so afraid of getting a harsh response from our partner when we are vulnerable that we put our armor on and shoot some arrows to get their attention. It is then LESS likely that our partner will address our concern, and very likely that what we feared will materialize. Surprisingly, it is at these moments that being vulnerable maximizes the chances that our vulnerabilities will be taken care of.
Is Bruce doomed, then, if Amy phrases this request for connection as an attack? No. Bruce is also participating in this game. Bruce likely wants to be appreciated by and in good graces with Amy, and is worried that Amy thinks he is a bad guy. Instead of expressing these softer feelings, Bruce hurls a counterattack, again DECREASING the chance that Amy will connect in the way Bruce wants.
Tragically, the pain both partners experience is proportional to the intensity of their longing for the other person. If Amy did not want more time with Bruce, Amy would not have been upset about Bruce’s lateness. Likewise, Bruce would not have cared much that Amy was unhappy with him if she were not important to him.
Relationship Killer #2: Withdraw-Withdraw
Bruce: “I don’t know what I want anymore. Part of me just feels dead.”
Amy: “Well – if that’s how you feel, what’s the point of even trying?”
The withdraw-withdraw killer freezes its victims. Instead of attacking, both partners pull away from the pain, trying to survive it. It is too painful even to reach out because our partner may be walking the other way. They may be walking the other way for the exact same reasons. Each time we turn around and see our partner walking away, it reinforces the sense that they will not be there if we need them. We have been apart so long, they might not even hear if we call. In fact – we may not even know what we would even call for anymore. We have shut down our needs and shut out our partner’s chances of taking care of them.
Tragically, this pain that is at the heart of the withdraw-withdraw killer’s power indicates that we DO care. In fact, we care so much that the pain of not connecting with our partner simply shuts us down.
But what if our partner called for us? Could we be courageous enough to turn around? To answer? To come closer? To call back?
This might be more difficult than it seems. Facing our partner may mean really confronting some of the painful memories in our relationship. Maybe there is a problem we have not been able to resolve, and we are sick of fighting. In fact, many victims of the withdraw-withdraw killer have struggled with the other two killers through much of their relationship, and are now willing to lay down and die.
Many believe that they just fell out of love, that their lack of feeling is due to “growing in different directions,” or some inexplicable whim of nature. This cannot be further from the truth. The pain that has worn us down for so long is due to that intensity of longing that we have had for our spouse, and the sadness that comes from not being able to connect with him or her. That is why walking away is so tempting – even when, underneath it all, we want so desperately to be closer to our partner.
Do you have the courage to turn around? How would you feel if you saw your partner turn around?
Relationship Killer #3: Pursue-Withdraw
Bruce: “I can’t believe you left the dishes in the sink again. You just don’t seem to care that there is anyone else in the house.”
Amy: “It’s not that big of a deal, and I already put them in the dishwasher. Why are you always criticizing me?”
Bruce: “I’m not criticizing. You just don’t listen. It seems like the only way I can get through to you is to talk louder.”
The pursue-withdraw killer leads its victims into an endless chase. One partner protests by demanding and criticizing, while the other partner shuts down or defends. In fact, the louder and more attacking the pursuing partner becomes, the more the withdrawing partner shuts down, defends, or goes into problem solving mode, leading to the pursuing partner to amp up even more. As Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love , has described, it is as if one partner is banging on the door and the other partner is on the other side securing the locks.
To the withdrawing partner, the pursuing partner looks dangerous and angry. To see someone they love in so much distress is incredibly painful and even scary. Each attack reinforces that it is dangerous for them to be emotionally present. They hunker down to try to survive the storm, go into problem solving mode, or try to exit through humor or work. Tragically, they cannot see the real motivation behind the pursuit: that the pursuer is protesting the disconnection and lack of emotional presence in the relationship. The relationship is so important that the pursuer is desperately trying to pull their partner back into it. In the process, they end up scaring their partner away.
To the pursuing partner, the withdrawing partner looks like they just don’t care, that their needs just don’t matter, and the person they need most is unwilling to come when they call. So, they call louder and louder to try to get a reaction. Each unmet request is a symbol of how alone they are. Tragically, they cannot see that the reason the withdrawing partner is withdrawing is because the relationship and their partner are so important to them. It is not apathy they are seeing – it is an attempt at self-preservation in the face of intense pain. In the midst of their attempts to preserve themselves, though, the withdrawing partner has no idea that they are actually provoking increasingly intense attacks.
The pursue-withdraw killer is the most common relationship killer. It uses the love in the relationship to fuel the downward spiral, confuses its victims into thinking that their partner is either dangerous or apathetic, and that the only way to change it is to continue the downward spiral.
How to Kill the Relationship Killers
1) Recognize the killer. Each one of these killers can sometimes masquerade as your partner. Sometimes the only way you can tell you are in the middle of the cycle is to notice your own stress level. Are you triggered by something? If so, nip it in the bud. Trying to communicate with your partner in this state puts the killer in charge. Try to band together when you encounter it so your relationship has the upper hand.
2) Look to the softer feelings. Look inward – what is it that you really long for from your partner? Are you courageous enough to request it? Look outward – what is it that your partner is longing for? It may go a long way if you can let them know you care about what they are longing for, and maybe even reassure them.
3) Reengage. Try to revisit some of the old battles you have been in, offering apologies for your part of them, translating the old attacks into the vulnerable feelings beneath them. Addressing old hurts can build up trust again. Trust breeds comfortable vulnerability, which breeds connection, which breeds trust. This is a cycle that heals.
4) Ask for help. Sometimes, these relationship killers have done so much damage already, or you have so many other hurdles in your own lives or relationships, that it is almost impossible to battle the killers alone. I encourage you to seek help. A friend, pastor or religious affiliate, or family member who you both trust may help the two of you regain your perspective and join forces against these powerful threats. It is important to know, though, that it’s the process that is wearing you two down – not the content of what you are arguing about. Because this is sometimes hard to see, an experienced, emotionally-focused couples counselor may provide the stability, empathy, and objectivity that can help the two of you connect again. If you are in the Orange County/Los Angeles area, you are welcome to contact me for availability. I would be honored to work with you as you bring your relationship to a safer, more connected level.
Rose Rigole is a couples counselor/therapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Orange County, California, and is currently accepting new clients. She can be reached by telephone at (424) 571-2273, by email at email@example.com, or via her website at http://www.couplescalifornia.com.
Ms. Rigole is registered with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences as a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern #64370 and is supervised by Brenda Giron, LMFT at 2001 S. Barrington Ave., Suite 203, Los Angeles, CA 90025 and by Lisa Maurel, LMFT at 2900 Bristol St., C-208, Costa Mesa, CA 92626.