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How Relationships Die: Conflict, Communication and Motivations

(3 minute read)

Recently, my wife got a cold, and just as she started to get better, I came down with the same thing. As I started to feel more and more ill, my wife began questioning me about my symptoms, and then minimizing them. My cough wasn’t as bad as hers, she said. My fever was barely above normal, my nose wasn’t very stuffed up, I wasn’t suffering the way she had, and so on. I found myself getting irritated: I was already feeling poorly and to have her tell me it wasn’t a big deal was adding insult to injury.

But my wife is a very caring person, so I knew there must be an explanation for what seemed to be uncaring behavior. And there was: she felt guilty that she’d passed her illness to me, and minimizing symptoms was her (unconscious) way of reducing her guilt. If I wasn’t very sick, she didn’t have to feel so bad about giving me the virus. So without being aware of what she was doing, she set out to prove to herself that my illness was minor.

Had we not figured out what was going on, this could have easily become a nasty fight with me accusing her of being uncaring, and her likely telling me I was malingering. Our motives and intentions might have been positive or at worst neutral, but the outcome a very negative one. And that is how many relationships end up: with both sides sniping at each other, feeling misunderstood, not cared for, not heard and generally treated badly. How do things get into such a state?

When we first get into a relationship, things are great — that’s a period psychologists call ‘limerence’. We’re infatuated, thrilled, excited, and want to be around our lover every moment of the day. And during that time our partner is kind, thoughtful, caring and considerate (for the most part). But then things begin to change, and we see characteristics that weren’t there before: selfishness, aggression, spitefulness, a lack of caring for us, and lots of other unpleasant things. We’re left wondering what happened — we thought we married Dr. Jekyll and ended up living with Mr. (or Ms.) Hyde.

The truth is that our partner usually hasn’t changed. What has changed is that the relationship has become burdened with years of miscommunication, and that miscommunication has caused us to see our partners in a negative light. And for both sides to behave in negative ways. Here are two examples:

Jon and Sylvia

Jon had an excitable, volatile personality. Quick to anger, and equally quick to forgive and forget, he was immediately attractive to Sylvia who controlled her own feelings but loved his passion and spontaneity. He in turn admired her ability to stay rational and calm. After a few years, however, their personalities led to misunderstandings. When they disagreed, Jon tended to become passionate: he became louder, talked faster and gesticulated more. Sylvia’s reaction to this emotion was to retreat, hoping to disengage until Jon became more calm. The more he spoke, the less she did. She averted her eyes, busied herself with other things and sometimes even left the room. As she disengaged, Jon felt ignored, and to gain her attention, raised his voice further and talked even more. As Jon became more engaged, Sylvia felt berated and bullied, causing her to back off further. Over time, Jon became convinced that Sylvia was ignoring him, not listening and not caring. Sylvia also felt uncared for, steamrolled and pushed around.

Edward and Andrew

Edward was very rational and solution oriented. When Andrew complained to him about his day at work, Edward felt pulled into helping his partner. It was uncomfortable for him to listen to tales of Andrew’s sufferings at the hands of an autocratic boss, and his anger at that boss made it difficult for him to simply sit and listen. He offered solution after solution. Andrew, however, had a complicated relationship with his boss who reminded him of his own father, and Edward’s solutions just made him feel that his partner didn’t understand him or care for him. This made him feel distant from Edward, and he reacted by sharing less of his daily life. Edward saw that his solutions were not being accepted, and sensed that Andrew was telling him less, both of which made him feel rejected and angry.

Each of the four people above felt their partner was doing something TO them. They felt bullied, ignored, not cared for or rejected. And yet none of the four felt that they were bullying, ignoring, rejecting or not caring for their partner. Rather, each individual was reacting to internal motivations: Jon’s passion, Sylvia’s avoidance of strong emotions, Edward’s need to help and Andrew’s difficult relationship with his boss.

And this is one of the biggest things some of my clients get out of counselling: the recognition that other people — whether partners, friends or family — are often reacting to their own issues rather than to my clients. And they learn not to take things personally, and not to assume negative motives on the part of others. Instead of responding emotionally, they assume the other person has a good reason for acting the way they’re acting, and try to understand what that reason is.


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