Why do relationships fail? And how to improve things?

Maybe those sound like trivial questions, but in part fueled by very recent conversations with both my divorced parents, I started to wonder what is at the basis of relationship failure.¬†At this time, I don’t feel very qualified to give a truly comprehensive answer, but I would like to share some of my initial thoughts and encourage you to comment so as to possibly come to a better understanding.

Overall, I see three main categories of reasons: first, a relationship could simply become dysfunctional due to practical reasons. For instance, if two people live close by and a considerable part of the relationship quality is defined by the fact that they regularly meet, it is possible that by one of the people moving to a far away place the relationship would suffer and, at least unless the two people involved find a way to redefine their interaction and also accept this change, it may not survive. The same is true for things occurring within a relationship that are perceived as too disruptive to be tolerated in the long term, such as harmful behavior.

The second big reason in my mind is inefficient communication, which may manifest itself in various forms: two people could be communicating too little (or too much), or simply there are too many misunderstandings. In short, the needs that both people have in a relationship to experience one another and the union as positive through communication are not met. This could be due to differences in needs, such as one person always wanting to know where the other one is whereas the other person having no such need and also having difficulties to represent this need and acting accordingly.

The last and more or less final stage that I think is often the result of either of the other two is the notion that people begin to wonder about and finally doubt the other person’s intentions. It is simply part of human experience that we cannot truly know what goes on in someone else’s mind. We are forced to interpret behavior and communication and form a mental representation of the other person’s intentions. At the beginning of a relationship, and fueled by neurochemical changes, people seem very much able to overlook negative experiences in favor or interpreting someone’s behavior as benevolent. We may feel temporarily hurt by how we perceive someone’s action, but we feel no need to doubt their intentions. However, this mechanism itself may already be at the root of setting up a relationship failure…

Imagine you start feeling attracted to someone. At some point you find out about a potentially detracting quality, such as a habit you personally dislike. While you are in the stage of “being in love” you will in all likelihood accept this information, but after this phase is over and a more “realistic” appraisal sets in, you may at some point misattribute these qualities as being expressed intentionally.

But even more globally, the reason to have a sense of dissociation (and that of a relationship failing) may eventually be characterized by the subjective processes of assessment, interpretation, and judgment that the other person’s intentions, or least part of them, are either not “supportive” (positive) enough or actually even destructive (negative). In that case, a relationship that has once started out as harmonious and mutually beneficial can actually turn into a war–something often enough described in the literature and unfortunately found also in reality: two people who once loved one another begin to fight and are unable to stop, based on the assumption the other person’s intention is to inflict harm and pain, with the only seemingly reasonable option being to strike.

Naturally, there are relationships that enter this stage without the need to ever having been in love. But the underlying mechanism and reason for the parties involved to keep fighting are the same: the conviction that the respective other actually wants to inflict pain. Importantly, while this assumption is made, it is virtually impossible to reduce the intensity of the conflict. Any information being added, by means of direct communication or indirect negotiation via a mediator, is likely being considered as dubious or even intentionally misleading and fraudulent. I somehow believe it is thus first necessary to at least allow for the possibility that the other person doesn’t have harmful intentions, but is acting out of self preservation interests.

For me, personally, there are now a few things I feel are worth learning as a human being when it comes to relationships and conflict resolution:

On the more passive, receptive, and perception-based side of things, I believe it is important to not let immediate, automatic value and intention judgments stand as absolute. If I observe someone’s behavior and more or less automatically attribute an intention that I consider to be harmful, I think it is important to resist the emotional impulse of reacting, and instead allow myself to consider alternative explanations. For instance, if I reach out to someone and that person ignores me, it may be very natural to interpret and prematurely conclude that this person is doing so out of a lack of care or even aggression. However, as soon as I “lock in” on this notion, all subsequent interactions will be guided by my judgments, and in all likelihood I will treat the other person as someone I believe may harm me, which then works as a self-fulfilling prophecy par excellence.

On the more active, communicative, and behavior oriented side, I think it is important to actually tell other people what I perceive, feel, interpret and then give them the chance to correct any misinterpretation. It may initially be fairly difficult–I’ve made that experience myself–but somehow I think it is worth it, given that by being open about my internal state, the chance of being perceived as harmful seems so much lower.

Obviously, this is all work in progress! And comments are most welcome.