Roots For Relationship Failure

By: James P. Krehbiel

Within any intimate relationship, there must be a balanced cycle of contact and withdrawal. This means that in relationships, there needs to be a flow between meaningful connectedness and the ability to provide each other with appropriate psychological space. Couples must learn to be self-sufficient and confident enough to move between emotional contact and the need for appropriate distance.

Interpersonal relationships break down when the contact/withdrawal cycle is distorted. For example, one partner in the relationship may be highly possessive, or overfunction in a way that leads one's mate to feel consumed. The consumed partner may break relationship contact, rebel and distance.

One time I worked with a guy who was consistently doing pleasing things for his wife, even though she was indifferent to him. He was afraid of losing her and felt that if he kept pursuing her through gift giving, sending cards and other affectionate gestures, she would respond favorable to him. His spouse, however, found his overfunctioning behavior to be dependent and annoying and as a result she lacked respect for her husband. During their relationship she decided to have an affair, and through that experience my colleague's anxiety increased as he intensified his efforts to "win his wife back."

He continued his kindly gestures and never once during this ordeal did he display any anger, set any boundaries, or establish any ultimatums for his wife. His fear of losing her overshadowed his need to confront her about her behavior. He failed to protect himself from her self-serving behavior by detaching from the relationship.

Relationships are about balance, and had my colleague demonstrated assertiveness, strength, and necessary detachment skills, I believe his wife may have responded favorably to a new interactional pattern. Couples must be psychologically strong enough to stay in a relationship because they want to, not because they are afraid of losing it.

The interactional patterns that people develop can be toxic to their relationship. Here are some troublesome interactional scenarios:

Recognition and awareness are critical to changing interactional patterns in relationships that are unhealthy and unbalanced. Individuals must take responsibility for their own behavior in a relationship, avoiding the urge to try to change their partner. Finding balance, so that both individuals in a relationship feel respected and valued is critical. Partners must resist the urge to overfunction or underfunction in their relationships. Partnership or intimacy is about learning to establish a co-equal relationship where the mantra is "we," not you and me.

James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at (480) 664-6665 or via email at

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