How to Destroy Your Relationship


A recent (when I wrote this in Aug 2022) article in The Australian described “How Good Men Make Bad Husbands”. While the article did not suggest that only men made bad spouses, many commenters took issue with the article for picking on men, for ignoring that women are also good at eroding relationships and raised other “but what about-isms”. This article will provide a toolkit a partner in any relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual, monogamous or polygamous, can use to erode, corrode, abrade and generally destroy their relationship. This may seem flippant but, in my experience, positive prescriptions for good and effective relating are often received as platitudinous and, perhaps, woke-ish. So let’s come in from the other direction: destroying your relationship is easy and seems to come quite naturally to us.

We All Do It

The sad and simple fact is that good people of all varieties are prone to being “bad” partners in long-term, intimate relationships. We do this through quite simple behaviours which feel like natural, emotionally relevant responses. I’ll describe some of these behaviours in this article. The ideas herein are derived from research done by John and Julie Gottman over the last 50 years and from my own experiences in the relationship therapy practice I share with my wife.

Umm… And as a practitioner of bad relationship habits in previous relationships. Sigh.

Several comments on the Australian article took the position that in the past it wasn’t, and really shouldn’t be, that hard to make relationships work. After all, isn’t it natural to be part of an intimate family relationship? We also hear this in our sessions with couples. My answer to that is:

“Yes, it is natural to be in an intimate family relationship … but as part of a larger, almost as intimate, extended family within a village, clan or tribe. What is not natural is for us humans to live as isolated units: couples in effective isolation with our kids.

This isolation means that all the emotional support that used to be part and parcel of our extended family and village life is now either missing or sought by/from our partner. Interactions among the village’s women and among the village’s men, and among cohorts of children all diffused and defused the inevitable emotional tensions that arise between partners making a home and a living and raising children.”

Where We’ve Come From

While the extended family has long been atrophying in the west, the comradeship of men with men and women with women in what used to be the well-defined roles of provider/hunter/warrior and family/home manager persisted until well into the later 20th century.  Classic and amusing takes on this are provided by the British TV series Minder with George and Terry and their mates giving George an audience as he complained about “her indoors” and by Rumpole and “she who must be obeyed”.  And we know, of course, that “her indoors” and “she who …” had their comrades with whom they could complain about the inexplicable contrariness, bossiness and infuriating impracticality of George and Rumpole when they were, unfortunately, at home.

“Things are different today, I hear every mother say…” (Rolling Stones)

… because she today is most likely to also work outside the home and, more quickly than he,has grown into quite appropriate dissatisfaction with the constraints of the traditional homemaker/mother role and the subordinate-ish position to him which that entailed. Making matters more difficult, couples are now thrown much more tightly together and have fewer trusted outside relationships in which to diffuse tensions from the relationship. The lack of skill in handling those tensions results in the erosion of the love and joy that brought them together.

The Toolkit

So, on to the toolkit: How can we manifest these tensions in destructive ways? As we’re looking at everyday, normal relationships, let’s leave aside these most egregious behaviours:

  1. Active spousal/familial Abuse
    1. Psycho/Emotional
    2. Physical
    3. Financial
  2. Infidelity
  3. Substance Abuse
  4. Gambling
  5. Refusing psycho/emotional help when challenged by spouse, children and others for unacceptable behaviour.

Four Ways of Eroding Affection

We can discern four varieties of “normal” communicative behaviours that are lethal to long-term relationships[1]. If you find yourself doing any of these, you may be a good person who is not so good at your relationship – a good person who could improve their relationship skills. None of these behaviours are gender specific, though some seem to be more often employed by one sex or another. All, however, can be and are commonly and “naturally” used by all genders. Sadly, at least one particular way of expressing or showing contempt is very fashionable: the eye-roll.

The four varieties are enacting disrespect, defensiveness, stonewalling and avoiding communication

Examples of enacted disrespect include showing or expressing contempt verbally or behaviourally: “You’re worthless/hopeless/incompetent/ditsy…” “That’s STUPID/CRAZY!” are all effective verbal conveyors of your contempt for your partner. Behaviourally, the eye-roll, particularly with physical turning-away is a bit more subtle but equally effective.

Another way of showing contempt is to criticise the person instead of the behaviour that’s displeasing you: “You are messy” or “You always/never do X” are hurtful whereas “I hate the mess that you left in the kitchen” opens the way to honest, peer-to-peer communication.

Finally, in disrespect, there is neglect: behaving as though your partner wasn’t there and/or making no space for their preferences, probably because they don’t make sense to you.

Defensiveness is a very effective way of diverting any complaint about you: explaining away the other’s complaints about one’s behaviour in order to portray the event as irrelevant or exceptional. For example, “I only did it because…”, or “I was going to but …”. This very effectively portrays your behaviour as reasonable and your partner’s complaint as picky.

Stonewalling is an effective way of infuriating and frustrating your partner by not reacting to their displeasure and refusing or withdrawing from interaction. The varieties are putting on the “stone face” and/or walking away from conflict without saying anything. Adding a door slam or other noisy punctuation increases the infuriating and alienating effect.

An Option for Conflict Avoiders

Those three behaviours all require (more or less) active engagement on your part. The final category is for those of you who prefer to avoid overt conflict with its discomforts. It simply means religiously avoiding communication about your disquiets, dissatisfactions, hurts, problems, etc. and rigorously avoiding expressions of love, appreciation and gratitude to your partner. Perhaps just for being themselves and being with you. You might tell yourself any or all of:

  • “I’m just going to get on with it”,
  • “It’s not that important, it’s just a little thing”,
  • “I don’t want to upset him/her”,
  • “I’m afraid to ask him/her what’s wrong”
  • “He/she knows (or should know) I love them. I married (or whatever) them didn’t I?”
  • “That mushy stuff isn’t necessary/doesn’t come naturally to me.”

Still Doing What Comes Naturally

Again, I’ll emphasise that these are all natural features of human communication available to all of us. Unfortunately, for those of us not wanting to destroy our relationships, they come with a cost in long-term relationships. Why? Well, almost everyone is at least a bit hurt when these are directed at them. A few occurrences here and there aren’t seriously abrasive, but when they are a daily or almost daily occurrence, the person using them is making themselves a source of hurt to their partner. Particularly if you are not often letting them know you appreciate and love them, you become a negative association for them to the extent that you are a source of these hurtful behaviours.

And it’s Almost 100% Effective

So, if you are determined to destroy your relationship, whether at home, at work, in sports, or with your kids, you now have a toolset that research shows has a 95% chance of accomplishing it. It won’t happen immediately, but over a few months or years of steady negativity, the outcome is almost inevitable.

Oh! You’d Rather Build Your Relationship?

What can one do instead? Well, it takes a bit of courage, a bit of grit and a bit of skill. First of all, avoid avoiding communication. Talk together about your relationship and how you each are feeling about it. It may feel weird and awkward at first, and like riding a bicycle, you may wobble and maybe fall off a couple of times, but perseverance (courage, grit) and practice (skill) will make it a rewarding experience in which you really get to know each other.

When talking about your relationships and what you like and don’t like about its daily ins and outs:

        • Remember the love that you have (or want to have (again)) for your partner.
        • Get outside of your self-justifications and self-indulgences enough to spot your behaviour (that’s one bit that takes courage).
        • Acknowledge the emotional reaction that is motivating your behaviour: another bit requiring courage.
          • What triggered you? Did your partner do something or is this your default reaction when challenged, for example?
        • Explain to clearly and as calmly as possible to your partner
          • what you actually saw or heard that an independent witness would also have seen/heard.
          • what you felt about it (courage again?):
            • emotions like hurt, anger, sadness, betrayal, …
            • NOT things like “I felt you were/it was/we were …”. Those are thoughts, not feelings and belong in (c.) below.
          • what your internal story or thoughts were about their motivation or about the meaning you made of what happened.
          • what you would prefer them to do instead

      There isn’t space to get into the complementary skill of “listening to understand” instead of “listening to contradict” but it’s researchable, essential, and takes courage.

      It’s Your Choice

      You now have a choice about which of these ends you’re going to put effort into accomplishing. Whom are you wanting to be in your relationship, the relationship destroyer or the relationship reviver? The first four-part toolkit will allow you to mangle your relationship effectively. The second will allow you to revive and deepen it and find again the love that brought you together.


      [1] These are reworkings and expansions of the Gottmans’ Four Horsemen. These behaviours are also destructive to work relationships in both directions of authority.





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