The Three Surprising Reasons Why Relationships Fail

why relationships fail

Why do relationships fail? When I ask people, “What’s the biggest issue in your relationship?” they almost always answer, “We don’t communicate.” That’s wrong (yes, I said it). And that wrong answer has you working on the wrong things. You try out all those communication tools to improve your relationship, but they don’t work! And you know why? Because you’re not treating the cancer, you’re treating a symptom, which means you don’t get to the root, so the problems keep coming back and, ultimately, your relationship fails. Today I’ll explain the top three reasons relationships fail and, as always, tips to help you create lasting connection, ease and joy in your relationship.

13-minute read

Introduction

We all start out with those “in love” feelings so where does it all go wrong? Let me say first that relationships are complex and diverse, so saying that there are only three reasons relationships fail is, on its face, a little crazy. There are so many factors that contribute to a relationship eroding, including lack of communication, poor conflict resolution, previous trauma, attachment styles, infidelity, trust issues, not feeling supported by your partner, financial problems, lack of intimacy and the list goes on.

My point today is that yes, these are all reasons relationships fail but they’re actually the “top” reasons. These are the symptoms that pop up when the real problem isn’t being addressed. Infidelity is a symptom in the same way that a fever can be a symptom of cancer. If you only focus on the fever, you’ll never move forward because that fever will keep showing up because you haven’t figured out or addressed the cause of that fever, which may be cancer! Yes, that fever is hard to ignore and might feel life-threatening on its own, but if you only work on lowering the fever, that symptom or issue will keep occurring. In fact, as that cancer grows unchecked, other symptoms will likely pop up!

So, yes, if you have unresolved trauma from your past, of course, it shows up in your adult relationships. I’ve covered this at length in previous episodes. Yes, you need to work on your trauma but these three reasons I’ll discuss with you today have likely been a part of or by-product of your earlier trauma. Resolving trauma encompasses a very large scope and may take years. So, what can you do in the meantime? You can focus on these three issues and put them to rest. This mindset shift will go a long way to resolving your trauma and strengthening all your relationships (especially the one with yourself).

If you’re looking at the real reason relationships fail, you’ve got to look deeper.

Reason #1: Competition/Keeping Score

In my TEDx, I talk about the real reason relationships fail and, as I said earlier, it’s not communication as most people think. No. There’s actually something underneath that. There’s a reason the communication and trust break down, and it’s competition. You compete and keep score in your relationships and that’s the reason you get resentful and feel disconnected.

There are a lot of ways we keep score. We say things like:

  • “It’s your turn to put away the dishes.”
  • “I took kid #1 to baseball practice on Tuesday, so you need to take kid #2 to piano practice on Thursday.”
  • “You go out with your friends on Friday, and then I’ll take time for myself on Saturday.”
  • “You spent money on X, so I get to spend money on Y.”
  • “I made dinner, so you need to do the dishes.”
  • “I make the money, your job is the kids and the house.”

And, of course, you keep that running list in your head (and I know some of you even do this on paper) with all things you’re doing while comparing it to the running list you keep of the things your partner is or isn’t doing (and your list is always longer).

And tell me if this scenario sounds familiar:

You’ve set up the carpools for the kids for the week, you’ve shopped for and started preparing dinner (and this was difficult because of little Jimmy’s recently diagnosed gluten allergy), you’ve emailed back and forth all day about some things you needed to do for a work meeting on Wednesday, you stopped and picked up your partner’s dry cleaning and you scheduled a guy to take down the big tree whose roots have made your driveway look like a skatepark.

Then, your partner gets home a little early and thinks it’s a good idea to sneak in some sex before you all have to go pick up the kids from their respective sports practices. You’re exhausted already and still have a full night of finishing dinner, homework, baths, and more emails and you’ve time managed down to the second to get all this done. You did not factor in sex with your partner.

When you rebuff their advances they complain, “You never want to have sex anymore – you don’t make time for me!” You’re pissed, and you quickly start to tick off your long list of all the things you’ve done today.

Have you ever done this? Your partner tells you something they need, but instead of listening, you get defensive and start ticking off that long list of things you’ve done? Or giving them all the reasons they shouldn’t feel that way?

This is keeping score. You’ve got your scorecard (and it’s full), so you think you’re covered. Well, you’re not and, once again, this competition puts you in the loser’s seat. If it was up to your partner, they’d rather you all ordered in a pizza, the kids went to bed slightly stinky and they had an orgasm (or two) with you. Your list means nothing to them. The things on your list are all about what you deem important and necessary. I’m not saying that the things you want to do aren’t real and worthy, but it doesn’t mean that you’re right and they’re wrong.

It’s amazing that so often our partners tell us what they need, and then we end up telling them they’re wrong. “I want to spend more time with you.” You answer: “We spend tons of time together!” We did this, this, and this, and you end up listing all the ways you’ve spent time.

But you’re not listening, and you’re creating disconnection. It doesn’t matter what you have or haven’t done. It matters how your partner feels. Instead of listing all the things you’ve done or telling them why they’re wrong, ask questions!! Your immediate response whenever you get this kind of feedback should only be one thing: Ask questions and don’t make statements.

  • “Can you tell me more about x?”
  • “Can you give me one or two specifics about when I’ve done x?”
  • “If you knew I prioritized you, what kinds of things would I be saying/doing?”
  • “If I could do one thing right now to let you know I hear you, what would that be?”

I’d like you to listen as if you’re wrong. Your partner is trying to communicate something and you shutting down the conversation ends with everyone feeling frustrated and distant. And I can hear you groan right now, “But what about me? When is it my turn?” That’s the attitude that’s keeping score. The issue is that your partner is picking up on that energy and that’s why they’re not stepping up in the way you want.

 

Watch my TEDx, where I talk about the Real Reason Relationships Fail

There are Only Preferences

Included in keeping score is the idea that you’re right to want what you want, and your partner is wrong if they want something different. There is no right or wrong; there are only preferences.

  • It’s not right to want more sex.
  • It’s not wrong to want less sex.
  • It’s not right to want to save instead of spending (by the way, everyone is a spender)!
  • It’s not right to want to spend instead of saving more.
  • It’s not right to want your kids to go to private school.
  • It’s not right to want your kids raised a certain religion.
  • It’s not wrong to clean the pots and leave a couple of food scraps behind.
  • It’s not right to clean the counters in a certain way.

When we decide something is right or wrong, instead of looking at it as a preference, we get into big trouble. Because really, you’re telling your partner that they’re wrong over and over for not doing things your way. What if you could come away from the right/wrong and, instead, ask questions to try to learn more about your partner’s point of view? What if you saw your differences as diversity and thought about what you’re gaining from these differences?

Reason #2: You Aren’t Self-Aware or Mindful Consistently Enough

According to research by Tasha Eurich, there are two types of people: those who think they’re self-aware and those who actually are. Her research shows that a staggering 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but the real number is closer to 10-15%.

The Difference Between Self-Awareness and Mindfulness

Let’s first talk about the difference between self-awareness and mindfulness. Many people use these words synonymously, but they’re quite different.

Self-awareness is all about being consciously aware of our feelings and agendas and looking to bring those to the surface of our awareness. It’s similar to mindfulness in that you become aware of your motives, thoughts and desires, but it’s really a bigger process of getting to know yourself and figuring out your blind spots. When we’re self-aware, we’re ferreting out what we do and don’t like about ourselves and our interactions so there’s absolutely some judgment involved.

Mindfulness is all about having a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts and feelings, non-judgmentally. When we’re mindful, we accept our thoughts and feelings without judging them. With mindfulness, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts are homed in on what’s happening right now, and there’s no looking back or forward.

The vast majority of the issues you have are because you’re not being mindful even though you might be self-aware!

For example, I’m quite self-aware that I have a tendency towards controlling behavior, especially when I’m feeling fearful (I like to call myself a control enthusiast, instead of a control freak). I’m actually painfully self-aware of this trait! However, even though I’m self-aware, I still catch myself being controlling!

And that’s where mindfulness comes in. When I’m consciously aware of how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking in a moment, I notice the controlling thoughts and feelings arise and then I’m able to take a breath and not act on them. I’m able to redirect my thoughts back to the moment where all is actually OK, no lion is about to eat me and my partner is not, in fact, acting like my mother so I don’t need to be mad at him.

Mindfulness means I deliberately direct my attention and get off autopilot and any negative, judging thoughts. Instead, I allow myself to be present and connected to whatever is happening in the moment. This is where vulnerability lives. This is where deeper connection lives. This is why mindfulness brings us closer in our relationships.

Self-awareness isn’t always mindful, but mindfulness is always self-aware.

A big problem is that we tend to be on autopilot all day long without realizing it! Our minds are somewhere else and not on whatever we’re actually doing, and the research shows that this is what makes us unhappy, not our partners, the traffic or our bosses.

 

Learn how being curious in your relationships will completely transform them!

 

Here are the biggest benefits you’ll get for being mindful:

  • You’ll have fewer arguments. When you’re mindful, there are less miscommunications and misunderstandings which means less arguments! Give your full attention and it’ll help you notice when you’re reacting to something your partner or friend is saying so that you can slow down and give thoughtful responses. It will also help you remember what was being said so you can follow up!
  • Less resentment: When we’re mindful, we’re giving the other person our full attention so our partners feel loved, our coworkers feel understood, and our friends feel seen and heard.
  • Better overall emotional regulation: When we see any interaction as threatening, the fear part of our brain, the amygdala, hijacks the brain into fight, flight or freeze mode. That’s when we go on the defensive, say things we don’t mean or shut down. Regular mindfulness shrinks this response from the amygdala so you’re able to act, not react much more easily. You can see the upsetting emotions or thoughts with more distance and less attachment. You develop the ability to NOT react to every emotion or thought you have.
  • Mindfulness increases cognitive flexibility. This means that, in addition to being less reactive, you’re able to think better, problem-solve and come up with better solutions. The research shows that it “neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way.” That’s a fancy way of saying you’ll be able to come up with new thoughts about things.
  • You’ll be able to keep your boundaries and not get upset: When you’re mindful you’ll notice when your boundaries are being trampled. When you’re mindful you’ll be able to stop yourself from saying “yes” when you want to say “no.” You’ll stop being angry and resentful of others and take responsibility for how you’re feeling and reacting. You’ll also be able to stop the guilt or worry you feel after setting boundaries and be able to hold them with more calm and equanimity.

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re not working on your own issues, if you’re not focusing on keeping your side of the mental health street clean, you’re going to get into trouble. The more you’re focused on what your partner needs to do or change, the more unhappy you’ll be. The more mindful and self-aware you are, the more you’ll be able to manage your emotions, resist the urge to say that awful or mean thing, and act, not react when things aren’t going as you’d wish in the relationship. This adds up to more calm conversations and more connection, ease and joy.

how to be mindful

Reason #3: Different Growth Rates

One of the biggest issues I see in relationships is that emotional growth doesn’t happen at the same rate. I see people who work on themselves and start getting better, so valuing or asking for different things, but their partners aren’t there (or at least not yet). What happens is that you get busy trying to drag your partner to where you are and they resist! The key is to meet your partner where they’re at first. Bond there. Connect there. Remember, you need to connect to correct. Your partner isn’t going to want to be where you are if it doesn’t look loving and attractive.

The issue is that you’ve been working on something for a while, and they’re “behind” where you are. They’re at exit 2, and you’re at exit 20. You’re asking them (in their eyes) to go 100mph to be where you are and, again, they resist. No one likes feeling pushed or told they’re wrong. No one likes being told what to do. What you get is resistance.

If your partner is resisting coming to where you are, they’re telling you something and it’s your job to ask questions and listen like you’re wrong. It’s your job to try to learn something, not prove something. Go to where your partner is, connect, and then walk forward together. But be clear: it might not be a forward path to where you want to be (remember, you’re not right). Be open to where the path might lead.

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